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Thirty years ago Justin McCarthy left Midwestern America for Indian classical dance.  This citizen of the world, who is now a renowned Bharatanatyam performer and choreographer, tells Cara Waterfall how he chased his version of the American dream to India.


The first time classical dancer Justin McCarthy saw a bucket and pitcher in an Indian bathroom, he was bewitched: “I just loved that they bathed like elephants, hosing themselves with water.  I understood I would have to squat to wash my clothes - I felt so at home.” For the last 30 years, Indian rituals have ruled his life from his eating habits to his clothing: he has a fondness for daal (a bean purée) and paneer (fresh cheese curd); he dances in a long loincloth called a dhoti; he even smokes spindly cigarettes known as beedis. But he feels most like a local when he is cutting the queue.

In fact, McCarthy would argue that he is a local: he became an Indian citizen in 1997.  He is also committed to preserving ancient, Indian customs.  His New Delhi home reflects this aesthetic: it is sparsely furnished with traditional prints and floor-level seating.  But he has reserved space for a few prized possessions: his harpsichord; a collection of saris used as dance costumes; a replica of Mahatma Gandhi’s worktable.  A few abstract paintings adorn the walls, because he enjoys how they become “a threshold to an open field of free thoughts”.

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, McCarthy was raised in a family he describes as “whiter-than-white with a streak of Irish melancholy”.  He learned piano and received early dance training at the Berkeley School of Dance in San Francisco.  Dancing aroused “a kind of structured euphoria, but it was the Indian classical dance Bharatanatyam that lured McCarthy to India.  Known as the “Fire Dance”, it celebrates the human body and uses elaborate eye, neck and hand movements.  He saw his first performance at the Golden Gate Park in the mid-1970s and was hooked:  “It was the superficial glitter and oriental exoticism that took me the furthest away from the terrain that was witness to a turbulent and unhappy adolescence and early adulthood.” 


And so McCarthy began a second youth in India where he cultivated new friendships and honed his skills as a Bharatanatyam performer and teacher - and it paid off.  One of his students Shilpa Jain, 24, agrees: “He understands the dance so well that it doesn’t feel as if he is not an Indian.” He also studied Tamil, Carnatic and Hindustani music – and even learned to read Sanskrit.  But McCarthy was not only observing India through the exotic, murky lens of Orientalism - he felt a real kinship with its ancient civilization, its multiplicity of art forms.

McCarthy’s inspirations range from the personal to the abstract: from piano teachers to Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock; from sexual pleasure to Korean classical court music - even Paris makes the cut as a “series of sets for my own fairy tales”. This gamut is essential, because McCarthy is constantly tweaking his creative methods:  “The artistic process is a constant re-evaluation of validity or non-validity of what I am doing.  I use movement principles based on formalist concepts: the cognitive and emotive meanings are both the marrow and the color.”

But artists cannot live on inspiration alone: McCarthy supplements his income by teaching piano and performing in piano recitals.  He has benefited from the kindness of expatriates when he needs to practice on a Grand Piano.  Once, he borrowed a black-tie outfit – complete with cufflinks – for a performance at the French Ambassador’s residence.  But it would be shortsighted to call him a starving artist: his life possesses a richness that eclipses monetary concerns – and he never seems to suffer from an impoverished spirit.

McCarthy draws energy from India itself - the “most cynically real of all places I know as well as the most ceremoniously theatrical - the ritual play of realpolitik.”  It is a country whose mass – in land and people - denotes grand possibilities and immense challenges. Entrepreneurship has exploded since the “License Raj” (that had shackled the economy) was dismantled in 1991, but the dark side of development is the annihilation of communities and a subsequent loss of traditions.  Corruption is a continuing scourge: he particularly deplores the appropriation of North American aspects of working life although he admits “ancient crooked business practices have been in India for thousands of years”. 

Nowhere was this red tape more evident than the immigration office where McCarthy secured his Indian citizenship: he completed mountains of paperwork including “character certificates”, abandoned his American citizenship, and informed the public of his “intent” in two newspapers.  The final hurdle was a bribe request that McCarthy rejected.  Months later, disencumbered from bureaucracy, he emerged as an Indian citizen.  Indeed, the beautiful and ugly can never be reconciled in India, but he says that “it is the edge that one loves here.”


McCarthy is wary of labels: he prefers to see himself as a universal citizen although he admits to “occasionally feeling outside the human race, a feeling which most frequently occurs during international travel in airports”. But there is no question he is contributing to India’s modernization as one of the new faces of India by breaking down barriers. 

He does miss his family and certain aspects of American culture like “curling up in big armchair in front of fireplace in the evening, snowing outside, dog at feet, book in hand”.  But he is comforted by the commonalities between America and India: they are both enormous, diverse societies with chaotic politics. And his American background will always be a part of him: “The spatial aspect of American landscape and the paintings of Jackson Pollock are in my veins: the first through no fault of my own and the second admittedly more consciously cultivated.” 

McCarthy finally made it to the Taj Mahal in September 1999; it had taken him 25 years to get there.  He braved the monsoon with a friend and then huddled under an umbrella exchanging “each other’s entire rainbow life stories to the accompaniment of the Beatles”.  For a day the American-born Indian who had never felt like a tourist became one. 

© Cara Waterfall


All Pictures © Sreenivasan Ramakrishnan

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