Special Feature: Lifetime Award Winner Nilimma Devi

The extraordinary career of Lifetime Achievement winner Nilimma Devi has been one of groundbreaking accomplishments and discoveries, all poignantly documented within the stunning beauty of her artistry.  As Founder and Director of the Silver Spring based Sutradhar Institute Dance and Related Arts, she has transformed the Silver Spring based Institute into a community touchstone of classical art and culture.  Through performances that have graced the stages of the Kennedy Center and Smithsonian Institution, and scholarship that has taken her to Iran, Kenya, and Indonesia, she has helped usher in a renaissance in Indian dance.

Tonight, Nilimma is being honored with the County Executive’s Lifetime Achievement award, in recognition of her work as a cultural preservationist, scholar, and artist who  builds and bridges communities through dance.

To mark the occasion, Nilimma spoke with us about the milestones in her career and the moments she felt helped transform her understanding of art and community.  One such moment was her  travel to India, where she explored the role of creativity in hand gestures of classical Indian Dance under the senior research grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies.  Below, she shares her personal account how her global travels informed her philosophy on creativity and the role of art in our community.


In India they long ago said that art brings your soul and body together. The essence of art is to bring you closer to your core as a human. Creativity was very much part of that process, the evolution.

When I went to India I thought I was going to look at the role of creativity and hand gestures in a very specific way. I discovered that there are no boundaries to knowledge, to creativity, to moving on with your own truth. That was very groundbreaking for me.

In the west, there was a pressing need I think for an artist to be by himself. The aesthetics, it has to be very personal. Whereas in India, the individual is not emphasized.  You cannot say that this is my expression if you cannot carry it to somebody.  So audiences becomes a very integral part as your expression as an artist.

In India, the map is so beautifully laid out for people who are pursuing art.  So many stories are told that begin to open up your eyes to that main thing about art; it’s uplifting you, it’s not just entertainment.  If it does not uplift you then art is just a tool.  Given that map the goal for dance or other arts is to create rasa.

The word is taken from the culinary arts.  Rasa was then equated with spiritual bliss.  Once you get to the spiritual part with the art, all these regional identities can easily be dissolved.

The language is universal; we are all a part of the human race.

I came to Montgomery County 26 years ago, and I believe that Montgomery County is one of the nicest counties in the country. Greatest social work system, public parks, libraries, you name it. It has a visionary thing for its people and for their educational system.  What I would like to see an educational system where arts is not taught as a separate thing but integrated in to the education. [Art] is the education.  Without art, education is not complete.