A fierce black statue of Kaliya — the serpent who polluted the waters of the Jamuna river and was defeated by Lord Krishna — greeted guests May 22 in the lobby of The Samuel Johnson, Jr. Performing Arts Center in San Bruno, California. The Chitresh Das Institute‘s Annual School Show was happening live for the first time since the Covid pandemic.

With glowing red eyes, the statue of Kaliya was partially made out of garbage bags by Shefali Lolayekar, a mother to one of the dancers. To the right was a video and trash installation highlighting the issue of pollution in rivers. 

Intermediate level students perform Kramalaya Thaat, a series of footwork that builds up with fast and slow movements. (Photo by Sree Sripathy for India Currents)

Choreographic Trilogy

Artistic Director Charlotte Moraga had a clear vision for the school’s show. Jamuna Ke Tat Par was the third and final show in a choreographic trilogy that began pre-pandemic. The first two shows focused on protecting natural resources and the question of who has access by sharing the tale of Aranya Devi and the Maharaja of Rajasthan. That was a story that Pandit Chitresh Das was thinking of doing with the school before he passed.

“That kind of made me want to focus on environmental issues. This decade, it seems it’s just not enough to just dance,” said Moraga. Focusing on the Jamuna was a deliberate choice. Beginning students at the Institute learned a kavit, essentially a poem set to taal or beats, about the Jamuna river.

Anita Pai (left) and Preeti Zalavadia (right) look down at the Yamuna, saddened by the pollution in the river, in the piece Yamuna Devi & Kaliya. (Photo by Sree Sripathy for India Currents)

“We wanted to make the connection and honor these traditions,” said Celine Schein Das, executive director of the Institute, as she stood in the middle of a dressing room where one of the dancers helped pin her black, gold patterned sari. “We feel a responsibility, because as an arts organization we have a platform, and we work with a lot of children.”

Yamuna Of The Imagination

As guests milled about in the lobby, masks on, looking at the program via a QR code, over one hundred dancers were getting ready in dressing rooms. Dressing rooms were named based upon the themes of each piece, like Nature. Dancers in costumes in varying shades from peach to mauve to deep blue, rehearsed steps, applied makeup and fastened their ghungroos, or dance bells. Backstage, the musicians warmed up and the glowing artwork of Alka Raghuram highlighted the stage.

Executive Director Celine Schein Das stands with musicians (left to right), Daibashish Gangopadhyay, Nilan Chaudhuri and Saneyee Purandare Bhattacharjee during the Chitresh Das Institute school portrait. (Photo by Sree Sripathy for India Currents)

“It’s beautiful that we are dancing this Yamuna of the imagination. It’s beautiful, but we also need to bring some reality and awareness of what is happening today,” said Moraga.

Sree Sripathy

Sree Sripathy is a writer, photographer, artist and disability advocate based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work focuses on the seen and unseen and their relationship to isolation, ability/disability,...