‘No one knew about India,” says dancer Jin Won, describing her early years in Seoul, South Korea. “Even I didn’t know anything about it when I went to India for the first time.”
This admission would probably surprise anyone who has seen her perform. Though she was born and raised in Korea, Won plays the Hindustani Tabla drum and specializes in the whirling and percussive dance style that India knows as “Kathak.” Spinning in a flaring skirt and trousers, and stamping her feet to jangle the bells tied round her ankles, she will be the centerpiece of “Pradhanica,” a showcase of North Indian dance and music coming to McCarter Theater in Princeton on Saturday, June 27. The event is part of the annual Princeton Festival; and the “Pradhanica” ensemble, which is based at the Taalim School of Indian Music in Edison, also features the musicians Mike Lukshis, Kaumil Shah, and Vincent Pierce.
Won, who earned critical acclaim last year for her appearance in the Drive East Festival of Indian performing arts in Manhattan, seems born to be a Kathak diva. Yet the artist, now 43, says she did not discover her life’s passion until she was in her 20s, and then only in a roundabout way as she pursued a spiritual quest.
She describes her upbringing in Seoul as typically middle-class, filled with viola lessons and choir practice and enlivened by a fascination with Broadway musicals. As a teenager her musical tastes ranged from Beethoven to “Miss Saigon” and “Guys and Dolls.” Yet these enthusiasms had one thing in common — they focused on European-American musical styles.
Though encouraged by her music teachers, Won was not able to pursue a musical career. Her father, a former naval officer and a businessman, died when she was in sixth grade, and her mother opened a flower shop and then a restaurant. Won says, “If you don’t have money, it’s very hard to do art in Korea.” Instead, after graduating from high school she studied acting and became involved with an independent theater group. There, she says, she became intrigued by the possibilities of non-verbal communication.
In the early 1990s, Won remembers, theater people around the world were talking about the sensational staging of the Indian epic “Mahabharata” that director Peter Brook had produced in France and toured internationally. Won remembered that one of her favorite poets in high school, the Korean monk Han Yong-un, had been influenced by Rabindranath Tagore, India’s first Nobel laureate. And little by little, she says, the idea of traveling to India took hold.
“I was searching for something,” Won says. “I wanted to study Indian philosophy to understand more about myself and to see different art forms.” Her family’s Buddhism gave her another impulse. “In Korea at that time, a lot of people used to go to the West to study. But I thought, ‘I’m from the East. I should understand what we are first, and try to go back to its root.’”
She was only 19 then; and her resolve to leave Korea perplexed her siblings and her friends. None of them could believe she would dare travel to India alone. Yet Won had saved money working part-time in a restaurant, and her widowed mother gave her encouragement.
“When I left, a lot of my friends were getting married. So it was like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ But the last night when I was leaving Korea — the night before my flight — me and my Mom slept together and she told me, ‘Don’t worry about me. Just go and do whatever you think is good for you.’ And I know she really meant it.
“Her generation didn’t have many things,” Won explains. “And as a woman she couldn’t do much; so she was happy that her daughter was strong and trying to find something.” Though no one knew it at the time, Won would remain in India more than 15 years.
At first she settled in Bombay, where she learned to speak English. Yet the bustling metropolis was not what she had in mind when she first dreamed of India, and after two years she gravitated to Ahmedabad, in Gujarat. There she began taking dance classes at the Kadamb Center for Dance and Music, the school founded by the celebrated dancer Kumudini Lakhia. Within months Won joined the school’s dance group and began performing. She also studied privately with teacher Shubha Desai.
Yet Won claims her music studies were even more important. “The biggest influence on my dance is my Tabla guru,” she says, adding that she has studied with this man, Pandit Divyang Vakil, for more than a decade. “It’s a lifelong journey,” she says.
“Many people told me, when I was interested they said, ‘Oh, Tabla is not for women. And then you have to start when you are four or five.’ But I met my Guru-ji, and started learning from him, and here I am.
“I had never heard this kind of music,” she adds. “But it appealed to me. The way they dance is very subtle. And the rhythm, the bells and the dynamics, that all appealed to me. So that’s how I started. I just liked it. I didn’t think that much about why I was doing this.”
In addition to teaching Won technique and the philosophy of Indian music, Vakil offered her the spiritual guidance she had been seeking in India. And eventually he offered her a job. While his Rhythm Riders Music Institute is based in Ahmedabad, Pandit Vakil is a successful entrepreneur with students around the world. He owns the Taalim School, for instance, offering a variety of classes in the tri-state area; and in 2011 he invited Won to move to the United States and teach for him.
Having already transplanted herself once, this second journey did not faze her. “If there is a place for me to do my work, and flourish and get appreciation, then that’s the place where I have to be, right?” the dancer asks rhetorically. She and Vakil’s other teachers occupy a house in Edison, living together in a vibrant artistic environment.
“Every night and morning music is going on, philosophy is going on,” she says. Her chief concern now is reaching outside the Indian community to share her art with new audiences.
Won says that’s one reason she is delighted to perform in the Princeton Festival. She believes this is the first time the festival has showcased the performing arts of Asia; and when she and her associates made an appearance at the festival gala earlier this year, she noted, “there was not a single Indian in the audience. So it was a very good experience for me. They really loved it.”
In “Pradhanica” — the name derives from the Hindi word for “leader” and implies “master of rhythm” — Won says she takes an innovative approach to an ancient art that began evolving into its present form during the 16th century in India’s Mughal courts.
While building steadily toward a musical climax, the program is divided into three parts. In the first part, Won says she aims for musical continuity rather than passing from one short, rhythmic composition, or “tukra,” to the next.
The second part of the program adapts a common theme of Indian dance representing different emotional states, or “rasas.” Yet Won says she will attempt to illustrate joy, sorrow, anger, and peace without employing symbolic gestures or miming a story. “What I learned from Guru-ji is everything is a vibration. So every emotion has its own vibration,” she says, promising to communicate by means of rhythm and body movement alone.
Two of Won’s Kathak dance students will join her in the final portion of the program, which she says is the most traditional, although “presented in a modern way.
“It has new flavor and a lively feel to it,” Won says, describing this finale. Did we mention that in addition to the traditional Indian tabla and sitar, the musicians will play an African djembe drum, and a Latin American cajon?
“I’ve always been doing my own thing,” Won says. Perhaps recalling her own beginnings, she adds, “I’m trying to reach people who don’t know India at all.”
Pradhanica, Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Saturday, June 27, 8 p.m. $30 to $45. 609-258-2787 or mccarter.org.