Shyama Iyer is a first generation American whose parents both immigrated from India.
What this means for Iyer, is that she lives in a space where two worlds melt together. Where East meets West. Where she is all-American, but also curious about the land from which her parents came.
The bright, articulate Western Kentucky University junior musical theatre student uses dance and theater to bridge the gaps between what may seem to many like conflicting ideas and cultures.
“I am American, but there’s a lot of fascination in me for where I came from, where I would have lived, and what influenced my parents,” Iyer said. “It is very personal for me, and I am influenced by both. I am Indian by blood, but American by birth. People think Eastern and Western ideas and thoughts are very polarized, but growing up what I was seeing was the similarities.”
Iyer has been on a longtime quest to find where the two cultures meet, then use this as inspiration to explore and create. This journey has been influenced by her mother, and the family stories that have been passed down through generations. As the story goes, Iyer’s astrologist great-grandfather predicted her mom’s child would be involved in the arts.
“A dancer herself, she has always supported me because it was my destiny,” Iyer said. “There are many parents who push their children to do something more stable as a career … but my mom, she pushed me toward the arts.”
Not that Iyer needed much pushing. She grew up watching with awe as her mother created and built the Guru Vandana Arts Academy in Louisville. She still helps her mother to organize the Geneva Heritage Festival there, an annual celebration of the Indian classical arts now in its sixth year. It was in studying the dances of her mother’s culture that Iyer noticed the storytelling techniques of South Indian dance were similar to the western music that was popular with her and her American peers.
“A lot of humanness happens within all culture and styles,” Iyer said. “Whether it’s East or West, there’s so much common ground in people wanting to tell their stories.”
Iyer attended a Louisville high school designed specifically for the arts, and is now pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theater with a minor in dance at WKU. This has afforded her additional opportunities. Through a FUSE grant she studied in India and is in the process of creating a performance that infuses what she learned with the very western beats of hip-hop dance.
She will also be portraying Dionne/Ronnie in WKU’s upcoming performance of “Hair,” The American tribal love-rock musical. The show runs from Nov. 9-18. She will open the show with the song “Aquarius,” whose message evokes ideas of love and harmony. A provocative show for its depictions of sex and drugs—Iyer said she hopes audience walks away seeing the deeper message.
“There are so many beautiful words in the musical that transcend government and politics, and are still relevant today even though this was set in the ’70s,” Iyer said. “It was written at a pivotal time in our history, when such horrible things were happening but also such wonderful things. I hope audiences leave feeling it is hopeful, and that time will press on and we will be on the right side of history.”