As we eagerly anticipate the premiere of Beautiful Dark this May, we warmly welcome you to meet the group of artists starring in the production. Last week you met Cambodian Dancer, Choreographer and Creator of Beautiful Dark Charya Burt. This week we introduce you to Niharika Mohanty–Indian Odissi master dancer, teacher and choreographer who performs in partnership with Charya.

Niharika is a master Odissi dancer-a lesser known style of Indian classical dance. Having primarily trained under the legendary Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, prominent and well known disciple, Niharika also learned Odissi dance from other masters-Guru Murali Dhar Majii, Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Smt. Ananda Radha, and Dr. Menaka Thakkar in her early childhood when she first began dancing. Niharika holds an MA in Dance and has been granted several notable awards for her training, performance skills and choreography. She has been honored as a Mosaic Silicon Valley Fellow for her commitment to artistic excellence and preservation of her cultural history through the medium of dance.

As an Odissi dancer, Niharika has performed as a part of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra’s company, ‘Srjan’, Menaka Thakkar Dance Company, and more recently with Guru Shradha, her institution’s company. She has also performed extensively as a soloist since she was very young, and continues to be invited to perform at festivals and programs both locally, throughout North America, and back home in India. Niharika relishes in cross-collaborative projects with other cultural arts outside of her own, allowing it to enrich her abilities as a dancer, deepen her appreciation for cultural preservation, and open her mind to artistic expansion for her future projects. Because Odissi is lesser known, Niharika also organizes tours, festivals and programs that garner exposure for the art form and continues on that work in Guru Shradha.

Growing up Indian and spending time in India, Niharika would always get compared to her sister, who is more fair skinned than her. She observed that darker skin tones had negative connotations in her native language, while fairer complexions were praised. In an effort to more closely align with white beauty standards imposed on her from colorist indoctrination, Niharika would make her own face creams, like turmeric and orange peel-off masks, to lighten her skin as a young woman.

“Kali ladki,” translated as “dark girl,” would be a phrase she would hear often. In Hindi, kali ladki would be used as a remark of inferiority compared to girls and women with lighter skin tones–which, much like in Cambodian culture, are valued as beacons of beauty and success.

For Niharika, this was a stark dichotomy between the discrimination of darker skin tones, and the worship of a dark skinned goddess–by the literal name Kali–in Hindu culture. Kali is known for her role in the creation of all life and the universe itself, as the divine protector and the destroyer of evil–and still is one of the most worshipped goddesses in Hindu culture. Yet in India, women as individuals nowadays would be looked down upon if their complexion is considered dark.

As a dancer and choreographer in the upcoming performance Beautiful Dark, Niharika says, “Beautiful Dark has a deep relevance in today’s world. Being impacted by colorism has led me to want to spend time with people, to get to know their beauty beyond the surface.” (N. Mohanty, personal communication, March 21, 2024).

Niharika feels that “the darker color of skin is often looked down upon by society, which results in many mental health issues for those who are dark, and hence many turn to lightening products thinking that they make them beautiful, successful and confident and thus happy.” (N. Mohanty, personal communication, March 21, 2024).

By infusing the performance of Beautiful Dark with Indian Odissi dance, Niharika marries her culture with Charya’s Cambodian roots to weave the mirrored impacts of colorist beauty standards between their two cultures–to show that their unique struggles are, in fact, universal. Together as classical and cultural dancers, Charya Burt and Niharika Mohanty unify their commonalities in an effort to inform the future.