Jataka Tales and More at San Francisco Arts Festival
Jataka Tales and More at San Francisco Arts Festival

The San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF) has consciously decided to attract families rather than just music and arts aficionados to the event this year.  That is the goal that Vishwa Shanthi Performing Arts company has worked towards, its own showcase, Once Upon a Land. The other experience one can expect at the festival this year is that of seeing the new, from the lens of what it was, which will be presented by the Abhinaya Dance Company, in its Sanchaari, meaning elaboration.
Shreelata Suresh, artistic director of Vishwa Shanthi, wanted to bring alive a magical India and engage the audience by enacting epic stories from ancient India when demi-gods and demons competed for supremacy, princesses and heroes charmed the populace, and different folk cultures celebrated festivals with dances. She felt that unlike a purely classical Indian dance performance, this format would bring together more characters, stories, colors, and costumes bringing more appeal to all ages and cultures.
It’s story time, but the making of some of them needed intense thought. Speaking at length about one such process for portraying a Jataka tale describing Buddha’s previous life as a baby quail, Suresh said, “This story is about the power of truth, purity and compassion. It is a very emotional story and I struggled with how to portray it so it could be understood by everyone. Should it be set to music, should it be a group choreography or solo, would the stylistic hand gestures depicting animals and birds be understood or subsumed by the drama of a blazing forest fire…. Eventually I choreographed it as a solo.” Suresh then set it to fusion music by the violin duo, Ganesh and Kumaresh, to a Nepali Buddhist song and English narration. She plans to improvise on the scale of the interpretation based on the vibe she senses from the audience as she is performing.
Suresh will be joined on stage by senior teachers from Vishwa Shanthi and over 20 other senior dancers, performing to both traditional South Indian music and drums as well as some fusion music pieces.
Mythili Kumar, artistic director of perhaps the oldest bharatanatyam school and company in the San Francisco Bay Area, has chosen to compare and contrast the old with the contemporary, in a journey of discovery in her Sanchaari. She explains, “Most Western and non-Indian practitioners view bharatanatyam dance as a traditional or ancient dance form and cannot comprehend the innovation or the contemporary treatment of these traditional pieces by dancers today. The classical dance tradition is a living tradition, constantly evolving and gaining different interpretations often influenced by the communities the dancers are based in.”
For example, a traditional Kavuthuvam (hymn in praise of a God or idea) composed by the 19th centrury masters and performed as a solo, will be followed by Abhinaya’s Surya Kavuthuvam with eight dancers, group choreography, and rhythms composed by Kumar in 2003. Another, a traditional padam Ethanai Sonnalum, depicting a mother admonishing her daughter to be submissive to her husband, is in contrast with the advice that today’s parents might impart to their daughters.
The goal is to show an evolution from how bharatanatyam was presented by the temple-dancers prior to the 20th century. Abhinaya is also hoping to finish choreographing a very relevant piece: It depicts Nandanar the low caste farmhand—from decades ago, shunned by society but elevated to cherished devotee by God—evolving into a contemporary number showing the farmworkers striking under Cesar Chavez.
Abhinaya’s senior dancers will be performing Sanchaari, some of them dancing with the company for the first time.
Sanchaari: Friday May 26, 8 p.m. Once Upon a Land: Saturday May 27, 3:15 p.m. More info and tickets at sfiaf.org.

(Read the companion piece “Hindustani High” which talks about the Indian music to be performed for this same festival on page 42 of our May issue.)