Circle of Hope
Power to the hoop. We speak to Eshna Kutty, a viral social media star about uplifting India with the simplest of sports
By Rathina Sankari
She moves in a rhythmic, steady flow to the lilting music of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Dire Straits. Oblivious to her surroundings, she glides effortlessly into a fish roll dance move with her hoop still twirling in her toes. This is 25 year-old Eshna Kutty, a flow artist spearheading a growing community of hula hoopers in India.
In recent years the hoop has become a medium of empowerment and self-expression for many in India. In September 2020, Samyuktha Hegde (an actor and Eshna’s hoop student) was heckled for wearing a sports bra while hooping in a park in Bengaluru. The lady who shamed Hegde called the act of hooping “cabaret dancing.” While Hedge was resolute and unwavering, pieces of fan artwork poured onto social media, declaring “power to the hoop!”
Eshna posted an appreciation video on Instagram supporting Hegde. “Calling hula hooping ‘cabaret dancing’ and thinking that’s an insult is misinformation,” she argues in the 3.5 minute video. “A sports bra is the most comfortable thing to work out in. What is wrong if it makes you feel sexy? It is the same amount of skin that you show when you are wearing a saree.” Soon she released a video tagged #sareeflow that saw her hooping in an unconventional combination of a saree and sneakers. With her curly mop, Eshna stomped and whirled her way with the hoop to the beats of famed Academy award-winner and musician AR Rahman’s ‘Genda Phool.’ Her video was an instant hit and went viral.
Flow art is an umbrella term for the intersection of movement-based art forms like dance, juggling, slacklining and fire-spinning. The objects or props include: hoops, swords, levitation wands, poi, clubs, spheres and fans. Flow art draws influences from ancient Maori poi, martial art forms like Tai Chi, modern fire dancing, and hooping. It is a meditative experience that helps you attain the mental state of ‘flow’ or ‘zone’.
In his book, ‘The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World,’ author Michael Pollan describes the flow state as “a kind of transcendence — a mental state of complete and utter absorption well known to artists, athletes, gamblers, musicians, dancers, soldiers in battle, mystics, meditators, and the devout during prayer.” The art form pushes you to let go of the past riddled with regret and worry, if any, and being in the present. “It is a state that depends for its effect on losing oneself in the moment, usually training a powerful, depthless concentration on One Big Thing,” adds Pollan.
Delhi resident Eshna is a self-taught flow artist. “I was never interested in dancing during my childhood,” she declares. “From the way it looks, I thought it was difficult.” A national level badminton player, she learned to play the guitar in her teens. At the same time, she was drawn to the hula hoop videos on YouTube and soon took to it. Back then, hooping was just about another workout for her. The path to discovering it as a dance form of sorts was a personal journey, which also saw her travelling across the length and breadth of India.
At the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College for Women in New Delhi, she enrolled in a bachelor’s degree course in psychology. “I was very keen and interested in the study of the mind,” she elaborates. “This was six to seven years ago when Indian society did not talk about mental health openly. It was unlike other subjects like history or geography. I thought it would make me more aware. I found it intriguing.” She joined the college Dance Society since it provided an active platform for various talents, including hooping. “There was no professional training. We were a bunch of college kids who got together to dance and perform. That became my dance training, and I slowly became open to the idea of dancing.” Despite that, she prefers to call herself a ‘hooper’ and not a dancer.
Eshna did not limit her knowledge of hooping to what she learned through the YouTube videos and her performances at college. She travelled the country to participate in various festivals and events promoting flow art. “Jugglers from across the world would attend these festivals like the Indian Juggling Convention in Goa,” says Eshna. “I got introduced to slackliners, jugglers and acro yogis in these flow art festivals. I would join in, just for the fun of it.” As a self-taught artist, Eshna broadened her skills by learning dance forms like hip hop, dancehall, juggling, slacklining and acro yoga. These continue to complement her hula-hooping experiences.
But Eshna did not stop there. She secured a place at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences for a diploma in Dance Movement Therapy. The course aimed to provide knowledge about the importance of movement for healing, well-being, empowerment and rehabilitation. “I wanted to pursue some form of psychology, and I also loved moving in general, not just dancing,” she says, “at the Institute, it was like two worlds colliding.”
Eshna’s journey of self-discovery took a new turn through her studies in this course. “It has made me a lot more aware and grounded, while I am building my vocabulary in the movement language: why I feel a certain way when I move in a certain way. I saw how the movements were making a difference in other’s lives, and I think it was just a very empowering experience.”
Eshna breaks into a smile when she talks to me about her experience of working with the female inmates at Tihar Jail: Asia’s largest prison complex located in Delhi. For six months, she visited the jail each week to teach women (ranging from 18 to 60 years old) the art of hooping. “Jail is not a happy place to be in, and when you give prisoners a toy that brings joy, I think it is very uplifting,” she says. “I noticed many of them practised day and night, and every time I went back, they would be twice as good as they were before.”
Eshna told me how the art form is very accommodating. “You don’t need prior training, and you don’t need to be at all flexible, which is why it is inclusive of all genders, ages and sizes.” Hooping helps build core strength, boosts cardiovascular fitness, works on the back muscles, and is also believed to reduce anxiety and stress. The hoop brings out the best in you.
“Often, my students’ reaction is utter shock,” Eshna continues, “they say they never knew they could do so much. When a fully grown person is playing with a toy, it brings out the inner child. Today, when people are very career driven and want to be productive, the hoop slows down your pace.” A hoop is a tool of self-care for many. It is about the time you spend on yourself by connecting with the ring. “I find a lot of solace just by feeling the hoop on my body, as an extension of me. Of course, it is my personal experience, but some of my students also feel that way.”
During her travels, Eshna would organise a three or five-day workshop to teach hooping. Initially, these hooping workshops were a side hustle, and Eshna preferred to wear the hat of a dance movement therapy practitioner as her full-time job. But the sudden advent of the pandemic threw a spanner in the works. She resorted to taking virtual hooping classes from April to September 2020.
In December 2020, she launched her e-commerce and EdTech company Hoop Flo. Here she sells collapsible, travel-friendly hula hoops and pre-recorded four-week hooping training programs (offering lifetime access). Her advice to anyone who wants to learn hooping is: “Get yourself a good sized, lightweight hula hoop. All you need is some space, a hoop and a positive attitude – and you’re good to go.” Also a TEDx performer, Eshna wants to pass on the message that it is not difficult to learn the art form. Her saree videos also convey the same idea of how liberating the sport is. “Often, people find it difficult to walk in a saree. The moment you make it fun – not something you only wear at weddings or serious events – you can enjoy it. This surprises people,” she says.
Used to break gender stereotypes, tackle mental health issues and throw light on the need for self-care, Eshna’s hula hoop continues to shatter barriers. “Through Hoop Flow, I would like to host gatherings and teach more people this art form because it really does help,” she insists. And, after our conversation, I need no convincing.