For over a decade, Dr. Neelam Puri traveled through India with her mother’s theatre company, entertaining villagers, military personnel and elites. Puri’s mother, the stage and movie actress Laj Bedi, was among the first women in Punjab to act in movies, and established a theatre at a time when no other women had done so. Bedi taught her daughter to “work hard, be flexible, respect art and artists, help and mentor junior artists, and to live and breathe passion.”
Being born to an actress and a journalist gave Puri twin passions, both of which the Genesee County resident continues to live and breathe. From her father, she gained a deep curiosity and appreciation for knowledge. From her mother, she grasped the beauty and necessity of the performing arts. Puri studied Indian classical dance and psychology at Panjab University in Chandigarh, where she later earned her master’s degree and Ph.D in philosophy.
Lately, she has returned to the subject: “I am rereading philosophy and find the readings even more fulfilling than when I did my MA and Ph.D in philosophy,” Puri says. “The reason being, my mind has matured. I have lived my life that has been full of ups and downs and philosophy gives me the insights about life and relationships.”
In 1984, Puri moved to Flint, Michigan and began to teach and perform Indian group dances within the community. Life changed completely in a new country, she says, between the birth of her son, her struggle to find a job, the difficulty of working full time, maintaining a household, learning a new culture and ensuring that her children learned their culture. After receiving a master’s in social work from Michigan State University, Puri worked as a social worker for the state of Michigan, retiring early in 2010. Since then, she has devoted most of her time to “dancing and teaching adventures.”
Now a dance instructor with students ages 5 to 70, Puri estimates she has given more than 1,500 performances in India and the US, some of them for audiences of thousands. An audience for a dance ballet once included Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
She manages, though, to stay grounded and focused on serving others. “I am very much a family person, Puri says. “My husband, children, grandkids, are a constant source of my joy and I am happy when I know I have done all I can do to take care of all not as a sense of duty but from the love I feel for them.”
The Indian SCENE spoke to Puri about pursuing her passions as a senior and her advice for young people
The Indian SCENE: Describe your passion and how you find time to do it.
Neelam Puri: My passion is to make others happy either via dance or by being a good, loving listener.
IS: When you hear the word “senior”, what does that mean to you?
NP: The word senior means a new chapter in one’s life. A chapter in which one is done with all the responsibilities of the family and the world and now it is MY time. It is time to follow one’s passion and be a role model for others who are younger to you. It is that stage of life where one starts to give back to community and society and make world a better place.
My view is that there is no general concept of an old person that is applicable to the entire aged population, the same way as there is no one concept of younger people. Even though I am an optimist and believe that keeping a positive attitude helps a lot in how you feel, I am also a realist, who understands that old age brings you frailty, disease and deterioration. To live a fulfilling life during this stage of life, we need to be in tune with our body, mind and soul. So physically, we have to accept our limitations, but keep our minds, hearts, souls young and positive.
IS: What advice would you give to younger people? Or a younger version of yourself?
NP: I would tell the younger generation that even though they believe they can postpone their passions for a later stage of their lives, they need to be realistic about the challenges of the senior stage of life, as our bodies do start to degenerate and one may not be able to dance as they can when younger.
Sometimes I do have this thought, “If only I had this wisdom when I was younger” or “ I wish I was younger and had this wisdom.” However, for me the benefits of being old outweigh the limitations.
IS: What is next for you?
NP: To focus on doing my best no matter what age or what challenges there are; to continue engaging in activities that bring my potential out in the open and to always spend a lot of time with family or friends who encourage and inspire me.
What’s your favorite…
ice cream flavor? Chocolate vanilla bar.
food? Muglai kebob and biryani.
season? Summer and fall.
actor, Hollywood and Bollywood? Hollywood, Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. Bollywood, Shahid Kapoor and Kangana Ranaut