Tag Archives: #abhinayadancecompany

I Dance, Hence, I Am

Aug 25 Festival to Bring Immersive Experience to BharataNatyam Lovers.

On Sunday, August 25th, Bay Area will experience a whole day’s worth of BharataNatyam – Lec-dems, a panel discussion, expert talks, and of course, performances by visiting and US-based artists – at the IDIA event, a festival of BharataNatyam. I got a chance to catch up with the performers. (For more details on the whole program, visit: (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/idia-i-dance-hence-i-am-2019-tickets-64541376996)

Navia Natrajan

I asked Chennai-based Navia Natarajan who will perform in the evening, when it was that she first knew she wanted to dance; what was it that drew her in. She said, “Joy. That is what I remember about watching my first performance – and all others since, actually – the joy. How much the dancer enjoyed the dance. I always want to get into that space.” Indeed, her goal for her solo debut/ arangetram in her teens was not, perfect technique and not forgetting a step; but rather, to get to a point where she could feel the joy.

We get to experience her joy in a piece that was an exploratory journey for her mentor the revered Bragha Bessel too. Turns out, Bessel had been on the lookout for a specific piece Pichaiku vandiro, a lovingly derisive piece on Lord Shiva, and was in the process of choreographing it. “I got to see Bragha-akka chiseling the piece; I got to, sort of, be a part of her process, watch her develop it for the the first time.”

Shweta Prachande

That piece is in contrast to the varnam/ main item Natarajan will present, where she has interpreted Swami ninne kori nanura through the emotions of a maturing nayika. As a child, she’s enthralled by Lord Shiva, graduating to a crush; then an all-pervading love to finally, an acceptance of the supreme and steadfast one-ness.

Bangalore-based Praveen Kumar will anchor the second evening presentation. For him too, dance was related to happiness. “I was working with a Chartered Accountant, shuttling between work & dance (watching and performing)…There comes a time for everyone, when you decide how to proceed with life & for me it was Dance.” Kumar chose dance also, to stay connected with people in all walks of life. According to him, dance is a representation of Life and it helps him evolve every day.

This reflective side of him will be presented to us in Maate malayadwaja, speaking of the Goddess protecting not only the outer world but also the inner world. Kumar likens it to the realities of living in current times, “every human being is constantly trying to keep up with the pace with the outer world & their homes (inner world). [Only] when there is  a balance in both places, can one find serenity within oneself.”

Kumar portrays male characters every chance he gets, he believes them to be a vehicle for personal as well artistic exploration. It will be interesting to watch his javali, will his Krishna succeed in wooing back a sulking lover?

The nuances of expression are what drew Shweta Prachande, acclaimed artist-Priyadarshini Govind’s student, to the art-form. She says, “The way someone smiles, the way they turn their head, the way they say NO, the way they laugh, the way they express anger, all of these, when presented through expression/abhinaya help create a character.” We can look forward to her presentation of a strong willed and feisty woman through a Padam.

Like Kumar, Prachande too, sees dance as an interplay with life. According to her, “…the outside world is changing so quickly and society is perpetually in a state of flux…dance helps me look deeper to find a balance, to be resilient, to be more compassionate.” This centeredness, is what she brings to her performances, even when rapid footwork and precision technique are called for, such as in the Mishra Chapu Alaripu she will present on August 25th.

IDIA will present another male artist, Chennai-resident Christopher Guruswamy, who literally learnt BharataNatyam from the womb: His mother danced through her pregnancy and would take him to class after he was born. His awakening to the fact that he couldn’t possibly be anything but a BharataNatyam dancer came after he’d applied to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (Gurusamy grew up in Australia) to learn ballet. In an interview, he’s said, “It was in this audition while doing ballet bare work that I realized how much I really hated ballet, loved BharataNatyam and wanted to go to Kalakshetra. So, I asked the panel to not accept me into the course which would let me go to India and study (something I only told my mum YEARS later).”

Anwesha Das

Gurusamy will present what he calls a happy varnam. “Many people consider Manavi to be a simple piece, but to me, it represents innocent, pure, stupid love. I see the nayika as this confident young girl…she could be Miss India, you know?…she just doesn’t understand why the Lord will not respond, there is after all, no reason for him to be so angry.”

Anwesha Das is the on-shore artist at IDIA. A Seattle resident, Anwesha’s dance journey began when her family lived in Chennai when she was a child, it so happened, close to the famed Urmila Sathyanarayanan’s classes. She remembers being enthralled by Sathyanarayanan’s Panchali Shapatham then.

Angayyar Kanni is the varnam through which Das hopes to bring out the beauty of Bharatanatyam, saying, “I enjoy presenting this piece because it portrays the nine emotions or Navarasas. I am in awe of the musicality & lyrics, as they give me ample scope to delineate small episodes of Devi in her different forms – Angayarkanni, Mahakali, Dakshashayani, Umai and so on.”

In Aduvvum Solluval, Das will portray a heroine animatedly talking about the rags to riches story of her rival while also dismissing her rival’s taunts.

Christopher Gurusamy

Natarajan, Kumar, Prachande, Gurusamy, and Das, each will allow us to coinhabit a joyous, connected space along with them. This feeling of community was what IDIA co-founders Kavita Thirumalai and Ganesh Vasudeva are striving to achieve. In a facebook post, Vasudeva says, “We have a dream/vision where Bay Area is one of the best centers for Bharatanatyam. We want Bay Area to produce our own Mythili Prakash. Not just one, but many. We want SF Bay Area to be inspired by quality and strive to attain that quality. We want dancers, and dance students to think critically and produce works that in turn makes audience think.”

Thirumalai is emphatic about the experience: “The mission of IDIA is to spark an immersive environment for aspiring artists, students, and lovers of BharataNatyam. IDIA was our way of creating vibrancy and currency to an otherwise rushed experience of learning and watching this beautiful art-form. IDIA is a whole day of immersion into the why, how, and what of BharataNatyam.”

 

Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/idia-i-dance-hence-i-am-2019-tickets-64541376996

More info: https://www.facebook.com/IDANCEhenceIAM/

United We Stand: Civic Leadership Initiatives For Asian American Representation

On May 3, 2019 Civic Leadership USA (CLUSA)  and DingDing TV in partnership with India Currents held a Civic Leadership Forum aimed at addressing the need for Asian American to work together — the central question of the night being: What are the challenges facing Asian Americans? 

A special guest for the event was Congressman David Wu, the first Taiwanese American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Dr. Xiaoyan Zhang Cheng, visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh, gave the keynote address. Aided with a PowerPoint presentation, he spoke of the unequal representation of Asian Americans in the political sphere. He focused on the fact that Asians tend to pursue high-paying jobs in STEM, thus paying disproportionately high tax dollars compared to other communities. The interesting thing, he noted, was that despite the larger portion of tax dollars paid, the number of Asian Americans holding public office was not proportional.

He also spoke of the pervasive nature of unequal Asian American representation in performing arts. However cinematic hits like Harold and Kumar and Crazy Rich Asians, proved to Hollywood that stories about Asians, featuring Asian actors and actresses in lead roles, can be enjoyed by all – AND make money!! 

“All boats are lifted when water rises,” was his message that resonated with all, highlighting the power of working together. 

This was followed by a panel discussion led by Joel Wong, former President of APAPA Greater Bay Area about the need for Asian communities to work together. The panel included Angelica Cortez (Investor Relations,  Silicon Valley Leadership Group), Somanjana Chatterjee (Diversity Ambassador, India Currents) , and Cathy Peng (CEO at ROCS Global), representing the Filipino, Indian, and Chinese communities respectively. The panelists spoke of of the need for Asians to work together and the successes that are possible with this combined effort.

The program concluded with a dance piece choreographed by Mythili Kumar, Artistic Director, Abhinaya Dance Company. The performance featured “I Have A Dream” — a piece in bharatanatyam (an Indian classical dance form) performed by Indian-American dancers, about the struggles within the African-American community, which was viewed predominantly by audience members who were Chinese-American. A beautiful example of working together!

Events like these are essential in educating a new generation of leaders drawn from within the Asian American community. True to Dr. Xiaoyan Zhang Cheng’s words, the face of genuine representation will be the election of an Asian American president in the near future.

Si Se Puede! Yes, We Can!

On the evening of Sunday, March 3rd 2019, The School of Arts and Culture at the Mexican Heritage Plaza, San Jose,  was the venue for an interesting portrayal of the life of one of America’s famous civil rights leaders, Cesar Chavez. What set this production apart was not only the object of the story, but the medium of storytelling. Cesar Chavez and his celebrated struggle on behalf of migrant farmworkers in California, was conveyed through the traditional Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam.

Presented by the Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose, “Si Se Puede!” brought to light not only the echoes of those long ago struggles, but also placed today’s issues front and center for us to examine. In the current political environment, with the subject of Immigration – illegal or otherwise – taking centerstage;  spotlighting Chavez’s struggles and successes seemed especially appropriate.

Beneath the layers of music and movement, poetry and lyrics, the stage lights lit up an immigrant narrative made up of two separate cultures.  And weaving through it all were the universal tenets of human rights, freedom and social justice.

Abhinaya Dance Company:

Abhinaya School of Dance, founded in 1980, is well known for originality in creative exploration. The recipient of several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, state and city agencies, the dance company has deservedly earned a leading name for itself in the SF Bay area. Helmed by an accomplished dancer, teacher and choreographer Mythili Kumar, the company has until date staged over 50 original productions. Offering classes in San Jose and Monte Sereno, the school has 130 students who have graduated with their solo debut (arangetram) performances.

Abhinaya has staged socially relevant productions in years past. “Gandhi the Mahatma in 1995 was the first of such projects that we staged. Our 2018 production ‘Stories of Justice’ featured the legacy of Martin Luther King. Jr – which included a 6 minute piece on Cesar Chavez,” says Artistic director Mythili Kumar. Her research revealed the fact that Chavez was greatly influenced by Gandhi’s successful non-violent resistance which helped India gain independence from British rule in 1947.

She felt the time was ripe for delving deeper into Chavez’s life given the recent upheaval in the lives of immigrant workers all over America, Her goal is to educate and inspire the diverse Bay Area community about Cesar Chavez’s pioneering work, while also highlighting ongoing struggles that continue to be part of the lives of those who strive so hard to provide us with the very lifestyle that is denied them. 

Cesar Chavez’s quote from the 1960s is relevant even today – “It is ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves!”

Si Se Puede! – Yes, You Can!

Abhinaya Dance Company’s first production in 2019, titled “Si, Se Puede” – which translates to mean “Yes, You Can!” – pays homage to the slogan made famous by the farmworkers under the leadership of Cesar Chavez in 1962.

The program opened with dancers outfitted in traditional Bharatanatyam attire, dancing to a beautiful rendition of verses from the Bhagavad Gita. Stories of the demon king Kumbhakarna, Ravana and King Midas highlighted the central idea of greed as being the downfall of the human condition. Lord Krishna’s twin messages of Universal Love – “Vishwaprema”, and the victory of Truth – “Satyameva Jayate,” set the tone for the story of the man, the visionary, and the leader – Cesar Chavez.

Cesar’s humble beginnings working the fields with his family showed him the harsher truths of life. He was forced to bear witness to abject poverty, hunger, mistreatment, ill health and poor living conditions while working as a migrant farm worker. Abhinaya’s dancers deftly led us through scene after scene showing families of itinerant farm laborers struggling under sweltering temperatures, facing immense hardship, leaving children with no opportunity to enjoy their childhoods.

The soulful voice of Bay Area’s notable Carnatic music vocalists, Asha Ramesh, was ably supported by respected instrumentalists – Ravi Gutala (bols & tabla), Amit Ranganathan (mridangam & kanjira), Lakshmi Balasubramanya (violin), Ashwin Krishnakumar (flute) and Prasant Radhakrishnan (saxophone). Lending counterpoint were Ignacio Alvarez (guitar & vocals) and Gil Cruz (guitar) from the Trio Igalva group.  Ignacio’s rendition of ‘De colores’ was especially poignant. Originally a traditional Spanish song sung during happy occasions, De colores’ was adopted by the striking farm workers at their meetings, and it eventually became a symbol of hope for their resistance movement. Mr. Alvarez’s soft, gentle rendition brought to mind a thirst for beauty and kindness that all human beings yearn and strive for.

Malavika Kumar Walia’s crisp nattuvangam added the perfect vigor to the famed UFW (United Farm Workers) march from Delano to Sacramento, bearing the distinctive flag of resistance. Likewise, Ravi Gutala’s sprightly rendition of bols enhanced the scene where the striking workers were brutalized by law enforcers. Rasika Kumar’s narration provided continuity along with a backdrop of slides from that period in history.

The final scene brought home the fact that the struggles of immigrants is not over yet. Mythili Kumar portrayed a Hispanic woman’s story as she lives with the constant fear of deportation. A normal day in her life with her children shadowed by fear, every time there is a knock on the door. Finally, the law comes calling and she is taken away. The twist came at the end of the scene where the woman wakes and realizes it is a nightmare. This is the reality that untold numbers face today.  

Abhinaya’s production shows us that fear lives among us and holds us in its clutches in today’s world, as it did in Cesar Chavez’s day. Will we have the courage to shed ourselves of the manacles of fear?

Will we have the courage to say – Yes We Can? 

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Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.