Mumbai's Mahilas: Masako Ono

Pictured Above: Masako Ono; Photo Credit: Manas Das

Ellen Guo (EG): Can you tell me about where you grew up and where you have lived?

Masako Ono (MO): I was born in Tokyo, but I spent several years of my childhood in Yokohama. I spent one year in Nashville, Tennessee when I was in junior high school. I moved back to Tokyo and I lived there until I came to India.

EG: What brought you to India?

MO: It was Taj Mahal which inspired me when I was small.

I was a student at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies majoring in Indo-Pakistan studies. I came to India during my university holidays and the main objective of my visit to India was just to see the Taj Mahal. It was then that I first watched Indian classical dance and eventually Odissi.

EG: What is day-to-day life like for a professional Odissi dancer?

MO: My studio is in Bhubaneswar, Odisha and students come here to take classes. Right before a performance, I rehearse from morning to night. But, if there's no show coming up, I usually give 3 to 5 classes per day and have office work to do in between. Sometimes I research for new choreography concepts. My husband and I have a foundation called Mudra Foundation to share art, and we are working on several projects for which we must have meetings as well. At the moment, we are making a photobook documenting dhokra, the traditional brass-making art of Odisha, so we have to do some correspondence for that, since we are working with a book designer from Japan and a writer from Italy. We also organise the Odisha Biennale arts festival, a biannual event inviting artists from around the globe. For me, artists don't have any holidays, because every day is a holiday-we are living on what we love to do.

EG: Do you feel that India has accepted you, even though you are not of Indian descent?

MO: Yes and no. I am really welcomed by Indian people in general. At the same time, among some Odissi dancers, I'm not welcomed. Maybe I'm not welcomed because Odissi dance originated from India and they feel that Odissi dance belongs to them. Otherwise, India has always welcomed me with open arms. I feel blessed, by the people, by the land. Of course, I still have some Japanese-ness even after so many years of my stay, but still, I cannot thank India enough for how welcoming it has been.

EG: How do you feel that your cultural identity has been affected?

MO: I'm not Indian completely but I'm not Japanese completely either. I might sound a bit confused. I love Japan; I went to my country three times this year already. But now I have started to really love India. Not only the art, but all in one as INDIA. I'm happy. Also, I think India and Indian people welcome me more now that I have stayed here for 20 years.

EG: Can you tell me more about your approach to Odissi?

MO: I fell in love with this Indian art. I have my own aesthetic sense that might be more Japanese. For me, spirituality is not only about classifying your religion, it's more vast. I am quite a spiritual person, but I have my own interpretation of dancing, not only for a particular god or goddess, but for all the gods and goddesses which exist or I would express that I dance for divinity. I have a different approach, maybe, from Indian people doing Indian classical dance. So, I modify my way of presentation, which might offend some people. But, I think people are starting to understand my approach now.

EG: In your career path, have you experienced any gender-related discrimination or obstacles?

MO: No, I think people in dance get more opportunities if they're women.

EG: What are you currently reading?

MO: I recently went to Japan and bought six books about how to read markets and manage projects. I decided to pursue Odissi dance before I ever worked in a company or with projects, so I never had the experience of working with other people. For so many years, I was just dancing, teaching, and essentially only managing myself. These days, I am organising Odisha Biennale and bringing my troupe to performances, and these projects are much bigger than myself and involve so many people. So, I am hoping these books will help me to make these projects successful.

EG: What's your favourite cuisine?

MO: It sounds like a stereotype but I love sushi. I love Japanese food, like matcha, ikura, and miso soup. I think I'm crazy for Japanese food since I am in a foreign country and miss it. I also love homemade Indian food.

EG: What advice do you have for someone who is settling down in a completely new country and culture?

MO: When we go to another country, we will face problems, frustrations, irritations, disappointments, but we have to remember that it's our choice to be there. We have to find a constructive way out. For example, in India its quite common that things aren't on time. If you have no control over the situation, sing a song or stretch, utilise that time. You have to shift your mind set quite quickly otherwise it'll be a complete waste of time. You have to be quick in becoming constructive because you cannot change the situation. Especially if you are a foreigner, nobody will listen to you. People will think, if you don't like the situation, then go back to your own country. There is a similar Japanese saying to "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." But, I'm not saying you need to give up everything and just follow; you can also be creative and innovative. If you are there long enough, maybe your innovation will become part of their country.

Mumbai's Mahilas is an interview series conducted by Ellen Guo, Programme Development Intern, Asia Society India Centre. The series explores the experiences of women of pan-Asian descent who are living and working in India, highlighting the unique narratives of these multicultural women. Interviews delve into professional and cultural experiences, covering their backgrounds, interests, challenges, and advice for other women. Any views or opinions presented in this series are solely those of the individuals and do not represent those of the Asia Society India Centre.