The World Festival of Sacred Music is not your average festival. Instead of just stimulating the viewer’s visual and auditory senses like a simple concert, the event curators want people to be taken out of their element, to go to different places, experience the music, the people, the architecture. “It’s not just another arts festival. It’s the commitment to the diversity and the environment of the Los Angeles area,” says Anu Radha Kishore Ganpati, one of the festival organizers.
Presented by Foundation for World Arts, EarthWays Foundation, and the UCLA Center for Intercultural Performance, the festival will be staging an eclectic array of productions from hip hop mysticism to performances for peace in Darfur to experimental Japanese theater. “I want people to take the brochure, open to a random page, point their finger and say, ‘I’m going to that one!’ ” she says.
Though its name invokes religious connotation, Ganpati is quick to point out that the World Festival of Sacred Music is not particularly about religion. “Sacred” here only refers to a “community’s most profound aspirations” and Ganpati says the festival was built upon the philosophy that sacred music “has the ability to bring forth and share human values of understanding, peace, and respect.”
The event will be held across the Los Angeles area spanning 16 days and 41 venues, each housing a special presentation from the 1,000 artists performing at the festival. Among the acts are several South Asian performers, including: Rupayan, an eight-member ensemble from Rajasthan performing qawwali; and Mythili Prakash and the Shakti Dance Company who will give two bharatanatyam performances, the first with Ali Jihad Racy and the Mystical Legacies Ensemble playing Middle Eastern music, and the second performing with Hawaiian hula ensemble Halau Keal’i’ O Nalani.
Prakash, who was honored with a Best Dancer award at the 2008 Mumbai Festival, was trained in bharatanatyam by her mother, Viji Prakash, and is a leading artist in Southern California.
Another Indian performer at the festival, Sohini Ray, will perform Manipuri dance in a show called Adoration: Dance of Divine Love in India and Spain. The Indian and Spanish numbers will be performed separately. Ray’s dance drama is a performance close to her heart—her guru, Bipin Singh, choreographed it for his 60th birthday. Thirty years later, Ray will honor the late guru with the same dance, though slightly altered to better accommodate the Western audience.
Ray’s extensive connection to the dance style led her to open Manipuri Dance Visions in Los Angeles, one of only two Manipuri dance schools in the nation. The artistic director is proud to bring her wealth of knowledge to a completely different population.
The dance is rarely seen in the West, and, according to Ray, it may not be well know even in the Indian community. “For older Indian immigrants who left India in the 1960s and ’70s, this is a form of dance that is almost unknown because they left India before the days of television. People from northeast India feel themselves to be a minority, within the larger Indian frame,” says Ray, alluding to the geographically and politically isolated Manipur state.
All of these factors add up to make the this style noticeably different from most other Indian performances. Dancers, for example, don’t wear bells. “Manipuri dancers aren’t supposed to make too much noise with their feet,” says Ray. This makes the performance look lighter than other Indian dance forms and suggests a possible East Asian influence on the state bordering Myanmar. Another difference is the costumes, especially those of the dancers playing Radha and the gopis who wear heavily embroidered cylindrical skirts.
The performance is based on the Gita Govinda, which tells of the story of Krishna and Radha. “It’s difficult to present Gita Govinda for the Western audience, so I’m trying my best to keep the choreography intact. The dances and the music I’ve kept intact, but I’ve given a few dramatic interludes for the audience to understand the story better,” explains Ray. She will also use narration to tell the story.
The thought of taking a 30-year-old Manipuri number choreographed by her guru and performing it for a completely different audience in a country thousands of miles away thrills Ray. “It’s a great feeling; at the same time, it is a little bit scary,” she says.
Sulymon Siddiq is a junior at UC Riverside where he writes for the school paper.
The Manipuri Dance Ensemble in Adoration: Dance of Divine Love in India and Spain, Sunday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. $30. (323) 663-1525. World Festival of Sacred Music will be held Sept. 13-28. (310) 825-0507. [email protected] www.festivalofsacredmusic.org.