Janani Ramesh is the Co-Founder and Creative Head of CAREspaces, an organization dedicated to creating safe and ethical spaces in the Indian arts. A student of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam, Janani recently traveled to India to teach Indian arts to children in underserved areas under the Performing Arts Grants Scheme (2019-2020) of the Ministry of Culture, India.
You started an unusual organization, and that too at such a young age. Tell us a bit about CAREspaces.
Yes, CAREspaces is a bit unusual indeed. I wanted to focus on empowering children in underserved areas with social and emotional learning (SEL) elements, which I found to be missing in regular schools. I realized that my SEL focus and ethic came from the Indian arts education I received as a child. Using that, I created an SEL-based curriculum that could teach these aspects through the Indian arts right from early childhood through the K-12 stage. I returned to Chennai in 2019 and carried out this project through the Performing Arts Grants Scheme scholarship that I received.
CAREspaces is dedicated to forming safer workplaces for members of the Indian art community through education, transparency, and support. We hope to build a common code of conduct to appropriately address sexual and non-sexual misconduct in such creative workspaces. I am so proud to have co-created the first safe space in the Indian arts for students and community members to learn and experience everything that the Indian arts have offered me while feeling safe, respected, and represented.
Tell us a bit about your volunteering experiences.
For several years, every trip to India would be centered on visiting family and attending one performance after another during the December music season. In 2017, I decided to volunteer during my India visits and approached a volunteer matching firm that connected me to an orphanage in an underserved area. Many children in those communities have never been to school due to various social and economic disadvantages. This orphanage was home to what they called a "bridge school," in which children of all ages who have never had education now have space and time to acquire the foundations of a formal education.
As a young teacher and a student myself, I knew that for students to connect to their teachers and be excited and willing to learn, they often need to feel a sense of representation in their teacher. I knew that although they were very loving and excited to see me, my upper-caste mannerisms and dialect and my NRI origins did not help them find representation in me. I think the one thing that they immediately connected with was my attire: the saree. It was familiar to them and represented them. Moreover, the adults who worked in the orphanage, security guards, and students' parents started treating me like a teacher too. Even though I was much younger than all of them, I felt respected and had a sense of authority when I taught.
The saree seems more than just an attire for you. It almost appears to be part of your persona. What is it about sarees that fascinates you?
I truly believe sarees are the most versatile type of clothing. From being size-inclusive to identity and origin-inclusive, sarees are probably one of the most unifying textiles globally, and they will always be a staple of who I am. As I traverse various platforms in my two areas of art and leadership, the idea that sarees serve as an immediate symbol of inclusivity become increasingly more apparent.
In Bharatanatyam, sarees form a large part of our attire on and off stage. Sarees are used for rehearsals and stage costumes, and I believe they instill an awareness of dress code, style, and discipline into our aesthetic, not just onstage but offstage as well. As I continue to learn and grow in both art forms (Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam), the aspects of discipline, modesty, presentation, and confidence form the basis of my character. These continue to hold me in good stead in my volunteering initiatives over the years, and now in my leadership of CAREspaces.
That’s an impeccable pleat in your saree. A large part of how good a saree looks is how well you wear it also, isn’t it?
Yes, pleating is very important to me. I started learning how to pleat a saree when my teacher at Kalakshetra taught me how to tie a practice saree. She taught me to follow its natural folds and arrange the pleats patiently one by one. I then followed the same technique with my full-length 6-yard sarees. I enjoyed watching my dance classmates count how many pleats they would have in their practice sarees and their 6-yard sarees. The target number was eight, and if you were a pro, then you got nine (laughs). It was almost like you could judge someone's aesthetic just by how good their saree pleats were. My friends and I do that even now. And oh yes, we know other people judge us for our pleats too!
“The other important aspect of wearing a saree is what you call “carrying the saree.” This is not just the external manifestation, in terms of the drape or look or how grand it is. It is very much a reflection of your internal security and confidence. I've found that to be so important, especially in my volunteering experience, when I had to be in relatively "unsafe" spaces. I learned that your attire and the way you come across in it plays a considerable part in the respect and trust you receive. The internal security that I got from wearing sarees came from my foundations in the arts. That's where I learned how to present myself in any situation, to any audience, for any purpose.