Obituary: Medha Yodh, 79, Professor and Expert on Classical Indian Dance

Her documentary film "Garba-Ras: A Glimpse Into Gujarati Culture"--a study of the Garba and Ras communal dances of the western Indian state of Gujarat, as practiced by the immigrant Gujarati community of Los Angeles--was highly regarded in academic circles.


Medha Yodh, an expert on the theory and practice of the Indian Bharata Natyam dance form and a former adjunct faculty member at the UCLA Department of Dance, has died. She was 79 and had been in failing health for several years. A memorial service is being planned for the end of September.

Yodh, who died July 11, was a renowned classical Indian dancer and a progressive force in the dance community she deeply influenced. Born in Ahmedabad, in the Indian state of Gujarat, in 1927, she began to dance before the age of 5 and in later years studied with several dance masters, training in Manipuri under Nabhakumar Singh and in Bharata Natyam under Kumar Jaykar in Mumbai. 

Her formal academic education was in science, and after receiving a bachelor of science degree from the University of Bombay, Yodh came to the U.S., where she earned her master's in chemistry from Stanford University. In America, she continued her dance studies, which included effort-shaped movement analysis with Irmgard Bartenieff and modern and Indonesian dance. 

In 1962, Yodh met and became a disciple of Tanjore Balasaraswati, one of the most revered Indian dancers of her generation. Yodh chose to concentrate on the teaching and performing of one of the best-known forms of classical Indian dance, Bharata Natyam.

"We had to practice for hours adavus, basic dance steps within a square … drawn with a chalk stick on the floor," Yodh remarked of her training with Balasaraswati. "We had to study the music, the meanings of Tamil padams, and work hard. Her discipline was strict. Those who survived received the best they could from such a great dancer."

During the tenure of Allegra Fuller Snyder, UCLA professor emerita of dance ethnology and chair of the College of Fine Arts' first autonomous dance department from 1974 to 1980, UCLA's dance program became a model for programs across the country. Yodh joined the UCLA faculty in 1976 and remained until her retirement in 1994.

"Medha was a significant artist and a teacher," Snyder said. "There is a tradition within dance forms of a master–pupil relationship which goes beyond just the form itself and includes the philosophy. Many students found her to be a master they could learn from. She had great inner sensitivity that came through her performance and relationship with students."

"It takes 10 years to become a competent Bharata Natyam dancer," Yodh once said, echoing the words of Martha Graham, George Balanchine and many other great dancers and teachers of the second half of the 20th century, according to Emma Thomas Lewis, dance historian and UCLA professor emerita.

"In the 1960s [when the department was established as part of the College of Fine Arts], interest in the revival of classical dance flourished," Lewis said. "Colleagues, friends and students of Medha Yodh mourn the loss of an inspired and inspiring teacher. By opening the UCLA curriculum to the study of all classical dance forms from all parts of the globe, her teaching touched the lives of hundreds of students, whom she continued to mentor after they left the university." 

Yodh worked with numerous dance companies and dance organizations in Los Angeles during her career. 

"Medha was a supreme artist and performer," said Gary Bates, who received his master's from UCLA and was a former soloist with the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company and founder of Eyes Wide Open, an important Los Angeles-based avant-garde dance company in the 1970s.  "Through her work at Pacific Motion Dance Studios, Medha's artistry and ideas about movement influenced many dancers and choreographers who moved from New York and elsewhere to relocate in Los Angeles."

"Medha brought the Indian community into the larger Los Angeles dance community," Bates recalled. "She articulated the Indian dance scene to people who were not familiar with it.  Medha had a wonderful eye and was very helpful in bringing new talent to the awareness of the dance community."

Yodh's many lecture-demonstrations included appearances at the universities of Iowa, Pennsylvania and California; at the Kerkala Kala Mandalam in Kerkala, India; and at the Asia Society in New York. She made presentations at public programs and academic conferences, including lecture-demonstrations at various public libraries in the Los Angeles area. In conjunction with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's traveling "Siva" exhibit, she delivered a joint paper, "Garba and the Gujaratis of Southern California," at the Symposium on Asian Music in North America held at UCLA in October 1984, immediately preceding the conference of the Society of Ethnomusicology. She presented the paper "Teaching of Bharata Natyam" at the "Dance of India: Culture, Philosophy and Performance" conference held at the University of Toronto in April 1985.

Her documentary film "Garba-Ras: A Glimpse Into Gujarati Culture" (1987) was funded by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department as part of its folk arts program and was highly regarded in academic circles. A study of the Garba and Ras communal dances of the western Indian state of Gujarat, as practiced by the immigrant Gujarati community of Los Angeles, the film shows the dances being performed at Los Angeles' Hindu Sanatana Temple during the 1986 Navaratri (Nine Nights) festival, an autumnal celebration of the mother goddesses of Gujarat.

Following her retirement from teaching at UCLA, Yodh continued to guide and influence dancers and choreographers, advise arts organizations and dance at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica and at the Los Angeles Dance Kaleidoscope showcase series, among many others.

Yodh is survived by her two daughters, Kamal Mullenburg and Neila von Essen, and two granddaughters. Her son, Eric von Essen, a well-known jazz musician, died in 1997.


Published: Monday, July 30, 2007