Tag Archives: #indianclassicaldance

Mosaic Silicon Valley’s ‘Femina’: Find the Divine in India, Cambodia, & China

Making The Mosaic – A column that dips into the disparate, diverse palette of our communities to paint inclusively on the vast canvas of the Bay Area by utilizing Heritage Arts. 

Nine different (sub) cultural histories and traditions from around the world were co-presented by Mosaic Silicon Valley and Guru Shradha, in a program called Femina. It was a call for the world to step out of their cultural silos and experience the vibrancy of the Bay Area, the dynamism of the feminine, and the unifying power of the Arts to build a gender-balanced world.

As the program director, it was fascinating for me to delve into the compositions and choreographies and see the astounding common threads emerge, golden and self-evident. We’ll explore these findings through the first act of the program called Divine | Awaken featuring Indian, Cambodian, and Chinese art forms. Femina’s Divine | Awaken was an ode to the celestial and mythological – It was a call for all of us to find our divine and enlightened selves.

Guru Shradha’s Niharika Mohanty urged us to make room for, submit, and surrender to the divine feminine energies of Durga. Along with her Odissi students, Mohanty beautifully re-incarnated the superb sculptures from Indian temples, the forms manifesting god-like in the blue-light of the stage. One journeyed back in time – and saw the sculptors drawing upon their spiritual energies to carve the goddesses in stone. Art is a journey, one realizes, to an inner destination – familiar or invented, real, unreal, or fantastical. One cannot connect to the outside world without having connected within and art accelerates these connections.

Cambodian Classical Dancer, Charya Burt, emulates Cambodian Gods.

The Goddess was visited again by master choreographer and dancer, Charya Burt in the Cambodian Robam Chun Por or The Wishing Dance. It is typically in an opening ceremony, Devada Srey, that is used to convey blessings to the audience through flower petals. I was fascinated by the obvious Indian influences – Deva in Sanskrit is God, for starters. The Cambodian temple, Angkor Wat, is dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu; indeed, there exists a version of Ramayana in Cambodia. Contrastingly though, while Indian classical dance uses movement, percussion, and melody to impress the divine upon us on Earth, Cambodian dance is designed to transport us to the heavens; the movements are soft and un-creature-like – Burt seemed to glide, buffeted by centuries of mysticism.

A dancer of the Hai Yan Jackson Compnay recreates art from the Dunhuang Caves.

The Chinese arts reclaimed history, thus solidifying the connection between the Divine and the Human. The Hai Yan Jackson Company presented “Flying Apsaras from Dunhuang.” This dance and its costumes were inspired by the discoveries at Dunhuang Caves which were believed to have been walled up in the 11th century and contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art. Dunhuang was established as a frontier garrison outpost by the Han Dynasty and became an important gateway to the West, a center of commerce along the Silk Road, as well as a meeting place of various people and religions such as Buddhism. My “Indian” radar picked up on the Silk Route and Buddhism. I could feel the palimpsest of time and geography reveal itself in layers. The age-old apsaras appeared before us and the choreography was faithful to the celestial aura.

In Femina, the Mosaic team was able to create a feminine continuum between realms, time, spaces, cultures, and generations, through beautiful art. Happy Women’s History Month to all of you, dear readers! 

The wonderful thing about programming for Mosaic is that it blurs the lines. The narrative may begin as Art imitating Life but then one quickly discovers that it is Life imitating Art. Stories of life – its past, current, and future – are presented on the canvas of culture of, by, for the people in a specific place. Join us and learn more about the Mosaic movement as we catalyze Inclusion and cultivate Belonging in America! 


Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.

Letters to the Editor: 3/18/2021

Dear India Currents,

Captain Tom Moore served in an imperialist force.

The United Kingdom and the world are celebrating the life of Captain Tom Moore for raising a lot of money for the British health service’s charitable wing. Moore is being praised as a hero, but he was a member of the British occupying force in India. The British caused millions of deaths in India and left the country in shambles.  Moore should have apologized to the people of India for being part of an imperialist force in India. Instead of raising money for NHS Charities Together, he should have raised money for reparations for India.

Ashu M. G. Solo


If you would like your opinion or perspective expressed at India Currents, do not hesitate to contact editor@indiacurrents.com with a submission or note. 

Preeti Vasudevan Dances Stories of Ethnic Folklore to Yo-Yo Ma’s Cello

New York-based award-winning choreographer and performer Preeti Vasudevan is known for creating provocative contemporary works from Indian tradition. Founder and artistic director of the Thresh Performing Arts Collaborative, her mission is to create experimental productions that foster a provocative dialogue with identity, and our relationship with heritage cultures and contemporary life. 

Preeti has been recognized by a number of prestigious institutions in the US for her outstanding contribution to dance. Cultural diplomacy is key to her work through education. As an artist alum of the US Department of State, she leads groundbreaking educational initiatives encouraging self-expression and artistic risk through cross-cultural creative exchange among artists and the community.

Preeti partners her educational and creative leadership with world-impacting organizations, such as Silkroad founded by legendary musician Yo-Yo Ma and the National Dance Institute founded by celebrated dancer Jacques D’Amboise. Recently, she started The Red Curtain Project (RCP), a new initiative from Thresh dedicated to sharing stories from around the world. Born during the NYC Covid lockdowns, RCP’s innovative digital stories highlight universal tenets, inspiring children to see connection and unity between cultures, while also encouraging them to live by the principles featured.

In this exclusive interview, she talks among other things about her earliest influences, her new operatic musical theater production, and the process of presenting ancient, contemporary, and mythological digital stories through movement, theatrics, music, visual art, and a simple red curtain as a prop.

How did you get interested in Bharatnatyam, and who were your earliest influences?

I was always interested in dancing, any dance would motivate me. My mother always says that she saw me dancing even before walking! I had this high energy that would make me want to move all the time. As we are from the south of India, I think my mother wanted me to learn the culture from where we are. At that time, I was growing up in New Delhi. So, it was all the more reason not to lose the connection to one’s roots. 

My earliest influences were dances I saw through the cultural exchange programs between India and China and India and the USSR. Living in the capital, we were exposed to some of the most incredible dances, something I had never seen before. The dynamism and costumes all were mesmerizing. I grew up watching some of the Indian greats as well from Kelucharan Mohapatra to Birju Maharaj to the Jhaveri sisters, teachers from the Kalamandalam. 

My first proper influence was my own teacher, the late Shri U.S. Krishna Rao who made me see dance for its own beauty and didn’t make it over precious. He loved cricket and was a chemistry professor, so he put it all in perspective as something all humans must do – dance! My own gurus, the Dhananjayans, were like my second parents. I owe a lot to them beyond dancing. They taught me how to look at life and where movement can come from. These further opened my eyes to the world of human expression through movement.

How did your dance evolve with the influence of a western and eastern range of dance and theater forms while you were teaching in Japan?

Japan made me grow up! I was used to traveling by then, touring and performing a lot. But these were mostly in India or the west. The Far East was still a mystery to us in the 90s. When I got a cultural scholarship to go there, I was partly nervous and excited – I love adventures! Japanese dance, Nihon Buyo made me experience my own body differently. The kimono, which first confined my body, taught me how to use my spine to liberate myself from the inside; the fans held during dance taught me how to channel the energy of emotions through my fingers onto them as an extension of my body. Thus, when I did perform the Bharatanatyam, I felt all these changes from the inside and made my dancing more three-dimensional and alive than before. 

Prior to Japan, I was a cultural delegate at the India International Dance Festival where the American dance festival came to New Delhi for three weeks to teach Indian dancers modern dance. Almost everything was new for me – falling, lying down, and moving, touching another dancer…between giggles and shocks, I learned to open my eyes to see movement as one of the most amazing energies there is! After these two crucial influences, I felt it seamless to collaborate and continue investigating my own approach to dance. Over the years, I have cross-trained in various forms of movement, theater, and voice to keep searching for the next meaning.

Preeti Vasudevan Choreographing at the Joyce Lab.

What is the idea behind your company Thresh, and tell us about some of the work that you do with it?

Thresh is like the threshold – it is about the present – the now. We come with a past and we go into an unknown future. What’s important is how we see and experience the present. It’s the liminal zone. That’s how Thresh came about in 2005 after I completed my Master’s from the Laban Centre in London. It’s an experimental platform to bring international artists together to create a provocative dialogue on identity and our relationship between our contemporary lives and heritage cultures. It’s about finding the universal experience and truth from the diverse voices as a collective.

Tell our readers about the Red Curtain Project, your recent initiative of sharing stories from around the world that was born during the NYC Covid lockdowns.

The Red Curtain Project (RCP) was born due to Covid. When all performances shut down, we had to find out what we stood for and what we could do for the larger society. Digital storytelling came out of this. My husband, Bruno Kavanagh, does online learning and therefore, he jumped in to help Thresh develop this amazing online platform. We have created 14 stories to date including one of our highlights with the legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Through RCP, we have also done similar work for a Lebanese organization on stories from the war. Now, we are embarking on a new social impact venture called First Voices where we are working in partnership with the Indigenous people of Montana in the US to create a series on ancestral creation stories. This will lead into school workshops within the reservations to empower the youth with leadership skills through the arts.

Describe the process you use to present ancient, contemporary, and mythological digital stories through movement, theatrics, music, visual art, and a simple red curtain as a prop?

Thresh has a great network of artists globally who share a common mission of sharing a story. For RCP, we work with children’s book publishers to select stories based on chosen themes and then license them. We then seek composer and visual artists to work alongside me as I do the choreography. This year, I have been the sole dancer due to distancing and restrictions. But from next year, I will be seeking other dancers who can be a part of this incredible sharing. The Red Curtain is a metaphor – in theater, we reveal everything once we open the curtain and the color red has multiple symbolisms the world over. In my apartment in New York, we have a red curtain. I simply used it, and it became the indicator for our project!

What are you working on next?

As mentioned, we have created our project First Voices. On December 10th, we launched the first performance online. We welcome everyone to come to see this and be part of our new adventure. Apart from this, we are also in residence creating a new operatic musical theater production called L’Orient: Search for the Real Lakme. This is a 21st-century take on the 19th-century French opera, Lakme. It looks at gender and Orientalism, and plays with Bharatanatyam, ballet, opera, and Carnatic music. It hopes to be a really fun production with a lively cast of unusual performers. We have received a residency commission from Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum, NY.


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul and Bombay Memory Box.

Letters to the Editor: 3/11/2021

Dear India Currents,

I read the piece written by Dr. Soni of her critique on Netflix’s new video series on over the top Indian weddings “The Big Day“. I wanted to share a few of my thoughts on it. I found the series entertaining, interesting, and funny. Each couple had a unique love story and their weddings were customized for that and to reflect their own individual styles and tastes. Since these couples came from very wealthy families and backgrounds, they could afford such grand extravagant weddings and the planning team to do it.

What bothered me was that The Big Day showed Indian couples that came from families is not even the 1% in India or the Indian American community but the less than 1%! These were people in extremely wealthy and elite circles.  How many of us Indian Americans, even those who are in the upper-middle and upper class of doctors, engineers, CEOs of companies, can afford weddings on such a grand scale?

Let us take Nikhita and Mukund. Nikhita said in the trailer “I wanna make this wedding everything I ever dreamed of.”  Well, considering that she and her husband were around 24-25 at the time of their nuptials, can someone that young pay for a wedding that cost upwards of tens of millions of dollars? Her father Subrah Iyer is a Silicon Valley tech CEO worth several hundred million dollars ($750 million).  Of course, the majority of parents want to pay for their kid’s weddings but how many Indian American kids have parents who can afford to pay for a weeklong over-the-top wedding in India in the tens upon tens of millions of dollars? The Iyers are in less than 1%, and Nikhita and Mukund’s wedding story is a very far removed reality!

Again, these couples and their families are extremely wealthy and have every right to have these types of weddings. It is just that this is not the reality for most of us. I wish the wedding series was called ‘The Big Day for Indians in the 1%’.

Warm Regards,

Laavanya Pasupuleti


If you would like your opinion or perspective expressed at India Currents, do not hesitate to contact editor@indiacurrents.com with a submission or note. 

Letters to the Editor: 2/25/2021

Dear India Currents,

On skin color…

I am not an apologist for the Indians’ penchant for fair skin. I merely want to say that different nations/ethnic groups have different criteria for beauty/handsomeness, mostly illogical.  Why is a taller man considered more handsome than a shorter one or a 36-24-36 an exquisite figure for a woman? 

Another thing to clarify: in India, unlike in Latin America or among African Americans, skin color is not indicative of racial parentage. Such prejudices hardly exist in India in the workplace, where your work is valued much more than your ‘beauty’.  The preference for fair brides is a throwback from an earlier era, when girls were married off in their early teens and arranged marriages were the overwhelming norm.  The girls were too young to be distinguished by their education and their physique and features had not stabilized yet – skin color was a more definitive characteristic.  This prejudice will slowly disappear as women become more educated and more assertive and have a lot more to show than their skin color.  But prejudices die hard.

Sincerely,

Partha Sircar

Concord, California


If you would like your opinion or perspective expressed at India Currents, do not hesitate to contact editor@indiacurrents.com with a submission or note. 

Letters to the Editor: 2/15/2021

Dear India Currents,

I penned a thoughtful article on BLM to celebrate Feb as Black History Month. This is an honest attempt to contribute through Indian Classical dance to the movement. Many asked me to write about this for a long time. February is the ideal time.

We need to understand Black history, and learning more about systemic racism is essential as our country faces backlash to civil rights activists such as the George Floyd protests. We should know Black History Month and how to celebrate it appropriately. The second week of February coincides with Frederick Douglass’s birthdays, a famed abolitionist who escaped from slavery, and President Abraham Lincoln, who formally abolished slavery. Feb. 1 is National Freedom Day, the anniversary of the approval of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865. Richard Wright, who was enslaved and became a civil rights advocate and author, lobbied for the day’s celebration.

Young African Americans and all young adults of all colors need to understand and be proud of the heritage and history. The outpouring of support, particularly from white Americans and brown Indians, and all colors, for the Black Lives Matter movement during the nationwide racial justice protests in the wake of Floyd’s death, was a positive step toward recognizing more enduring structural racism forms. Racism is baked into the American system in many ways.

As we know, the world changed after Derek Chauvin put his knees on George Floyd’s neck for 8 mins and 46 seconds. Our collective conscience about the injustice of policing was shaken to the core. But this was not the first in the struggle against police brutality. A century-long journey, through the days of slave patrols, segregation during Jim Crow’s south, civil rights movements, through the beatings of Rodney King, the killing of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, the struggle and the protest goes on. Taking a critical look at South Asians in this movement, mostly Indians, we can do more to stand with the oppressed black communities and the racist American state.

Piyali is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher in Seattle foregrounds, collaborating with talented Jasmine Forrest, BFA (Contemporary Dance, Boston Conservatory @ Berklee). Jasmine has a long ongoing history of struggle as a Black ballerina and Contemporary Dancer in the professional world. The renaissance of Indian Classical Dance itself is an outcome of white colonial supremacy and upper-caste demand to be a custodian of “Indian Culture”. White supremacy in contemporary and ballet became standard in the western world.

This is an honest, collaborative attempt to support BLM through art. In this video mix of Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance and music collage, we wanted to portray the movement’s long history against police brutality. Dr. King said, the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But we ask, how long would it be before justice prevails? When enough is enough?

Sincerely,

Piyali Biswas De

 

Sadhana is a 501-(c)(3) non-profit organization established in 2019 based in Seattle WA, USA. It aims to explore and highlight ways in which various art-forms can be used to create social campaigns and awareness, to explore and highlight issues that impact everyone, and explore a common thread across diverse cultural forms around the globe. Art is truly a global language; it speaks to our need to express, reveal, heal, and transform. Sadhana aims to nurture and promote arts such as Dance, Music, Theatre, Photography, Creative Writing, Painting, and Fashion to highlight and educate about issues relevant to all of us.


If you would like your opinion or perspective expressed at India Currents, do not hesitate to contact editor@indiacurrents.com with a submission or note. 

Cambodian, Odissi, Jazz Artists

Ancient Contemporary: Odissi, Jazz, & Cambodian Classical

Making The Mosaic – A column that dips into the disparate, diverse palette of our communities to paint inclusively on the vast canvas of the Bay Area by utilizing Heritage Arts. 

“Children are taught racism. Children are taught diversity. They don’t see it; they only see human. Two words: education and exposure. What are children educated about and what are they exposed to?” Coleen Lorenz, artistic director of New Ground Theater asked, and went on to affirm that she loves the Arts because they are the symbol of universal being-ness, of who we are at birth

This was part of the conversation when Coleen; Niharika Mohanty, artistic director of Guru Shradha Dance; Charya Burt, classical Cambodian dancer and teacher; and I met for the sixth episode, Ancient Contemporary, of Mosaic Connect, an online series designed to explore our common humanity through the performing arts. 

The episode aired when the country was in the grip of civil unrest. Shelter-in-Place had, on the one hand, unified us, on the other hand, protests against police brutality seemed to have uncovered a series of deep fractures among us…and within us. All of us, it seemed, were questioning our identity and purpose. More importantly, we all seemed to be looking at ourselves and each other with new eyes, asking ourselves the question – Where do I belong?

Some were looking to rediscover or reclaim their identity and some were challenging their neighbor’s very right to be included as Americans.

Programming at Mosaic Silicon Valley addresses this issue: how to move multicultural American communities from diversity and inclusion to belonging. We highlight the common roots or representations of any two artforms, such as in Ancient Contemporary, which mediated a course between Odissi and Modern Contemporary one the one side; Odissi and Classical Cambodian on the other. This was done deliberately, to create awareness about our common humanity and celebrate our beautifully rich traditions. Thus, the online episode showcased each style and artist, as well as their collaborations and was followed by discussion.

Mosaic Fellow, Charya emphasizes in Ancient Contemporary, “Arts can provide a model that is inclusive. For culture based artists like us, Arts can provide us with dignity, cultural identity, and pride to those in the community.” 

That pride is the basis of our collaborations. In contrast to the “Melting Pot” model, we welcome artists as they are, to build bridges organically, through discovery and connections.

Niharika was wondrous of the fluidity of vocabulary in the Jazz Contemporary style.

Coleen was impressed by the level of complexity incorporated in Odissi dance.

Charya was amazed at the similarities that her artform and Odissi had, to temple sculpture and mythology.

Clips from both explorations are included in Ancient ContemporaryLet us explore our identity and shared futures through the arts practiced in America today. Let diversity not be relegated to the label “ethnic” which by its very definition, excludes. Instead, let’s come together and include one another in this wonderful American mosaic. Let us be unafraid to express ourselves truly, in order that we may fully Belong. To sum up in Niharika’s words, “There is an ultimate truth. We are One. We stem from the same roots. Arts are more than ever, an expression of who we are.” 

Watch it all come together in the video below!

Follow the Mosaic movement here!


Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.

Poetry in Bharatanatyam: Vinitha Subramanian

Guru Smt. Vinitha Subramanian, the Director of Natyalaya School of Dance in Austin, has been teaching in the Central Texas area for over 35 years. She has scores of arangetrams to her credit and has staged several dance dramas and thematic presentations such as Jungle Book – Seonee, Ganga- A River’s story, Nouka Charitram, Navahavarna, Roopa Viroopa, Ek, and Agasthya, just to name a few. I interview Vinitha Subramanian, in what was a fabulous exploration into the connections between Indian poetry and classical dance.

UA: Bharatanatyam is performed to the accompaniment of poetry in Sanskrit and other South Indian languages. Can you trace the relationship between the two genres historically?

VS: Sanskrit was the preeminent literary language in India for many centuries. The poets and playwrights wrote in Sanskrit in the various courts of India’s rulers. In addition, poets also wrote in local languages: example Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamizh. There has been a profusion of composers in local languages in more recent times as the support for artists moved away from the Kingly courts. Tamizh poetry is very old, dating up to 4000 years.

UA: Who/What are these classical poetry forms that are foundational to the practice of Bharatanatyam?

VS: There are so many forms – starting from very old Tamil poetry which are over 3-4000 years old.

Sangam Literature and poetry: contains 2381 poems in Tamil composed by 473 poets, some 102 anonymous, of these Kapilar is the most prolific poet. These poems vary between 3 and 782 lines long. The bardic poetry of the Sangam era is largely about love (akam) and war (puram), with the exception of the shorter poems such as in paripaatal, which is more religious and praises VishnuShivaDurga and Murugan. The most acceptable time range for the Sangam literature is 100 BCE to 250 CE

The history of Tamil literature follows the history of Tamil Nadu, closely following the social, political and cultural trends of various periods. The early Sangam literature, dated before 300 BCE, contain anthologies of various poets dealing with many aspects of life, including love, war, social values and religion. This was followed by the early epics and moral literature, authored by HinduJain and Buddhist authors, lasting up to the 5th century CE. From the 6th to 12th century CE, the Tamil devotional poems written by Nayanmars (sages of Shaivism) and Alvars (sages of Vaishnavism), heralded the great Bhakti movement which later engulfed the entire Indian subcontinent. It is during this era that some of the grandest of Tamil literary classics like Kambaramayanam  (very famous poet Kamban) and Periya Puranam (lives of the 63 saiva saints complied by Sekkizhar)  were authored and many poets were patronized by the imperial Chola and Pandya empires. The later medieval period saw many assorted minor literary works and also contributions by a few Muslim and European authors. 

In modern Bharatanatyam, it is hard to use Sangam poetry (though we use some selected verses), as it is very hard to understand the ancient language.  

We do use Christian poems in Bharatanatyam – several poets in Kerala (including a priest) have written songs for Bharatanatyam.

Generally medieval Tamil and Sanskrit poetry is extensively used: Poets like Kalidasa and Adi Shankara from (1st– 2nd centuries), Andal  and Alwars (5th-10th century), Kannada Dasa poets like Purandaradasa (15-17 century), Annamayya and Telugu poets( 12th century- 20th century), Sanskrit poets like Jayadeva (12th century) Most modern Bharatanatyam songs are, however, derived from compositions of  relatively modern composers like the Carnatic Trinity (Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Sama Trinity) and the Tanjore Quartet (Chinnaswamy, Ponniah, Vadivelu and Sadanandam) considered the fathers of modern Bharatanatyam. Other popular modern composers include Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar, Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi, Papanasam Sivan, Poochi Sreenivasa Iyengar, Ravikiran. These poets composed in a variety of south Indian languages. With Bharatanatyam spilling beyond south India, poetry in many North Indian languages are also being used: Hindi (Tulsidas, Kabir), Marathi (Tukaram and other Abhang composers), Gujrati, Bengali (Rabindranath Tagore).

The Carnatic Trinity
The Carnatic Trinity: Sri Syama Sastri, Sri Thyagaraja, Sri Mudduswamy Dikshitar

UA: Mostly, what are the kinds of poetry and poetry forms used in poetry accompanying classical Bharatanatyam?

VS: Poetry had religious and devotional themes, and romantic-mystical poetry was prevalent as it was felt that people would comprehend the texts better. Independence-based themes, social reform-based poetry, religious tolerance and moral teachings emerged over time. Indian poetry is generally classified in accordance to the language in which it is written, or the region from which it hails. However, in general, Indian poetry is generally classified into the following types: epics, couplets (dohas), ghazals, bhajans, folk poetry and others.

UA: Indian music and dance is based on raga, bhava and tala. Please help us understand each of the terms with a special emphasis on tala.

VS: Bhava – Facial expressions that help in storytelling. Raga – Melody to which dance-song is set. Tala – The intrinsic beat of the poem as reflected in the music which is set to the measures defined in Carnatic music.

UA: What are the dominant stanzaic forms and meter used in the poetry?

VS: In terms of meter – 2 line poems (haiku like) called Dohas/Shairis are popular, such as those by Kabir. This is also found in Thirukkural, an anthology in Tamil by Tiruvalluvar. Examples of other meters used are Gayathri meter poems from the Vedic literature, the octet poems of Jayadeva and Adi Shankara, longer sonnets are very popular among older and modern poets and have all found a home in bharatanatyam.

Sanskrit prosody or Chandas (meter) is the study of poetic meters and verse in Sanskrit. This field of study was central to the composition of the Vedas. The Chandas, as developed by the Vedic schools, were organized around seven major meters, and each had its own rhythm, movements and aesthetics. Sanskrit meters include those based on a fixed number of syllables per verse, and those based on fixed number of morae per verses as expounded in Pingala’s Chandasutra. 

UA: Nattuvangam- it’s practice, definition and importance to classical dance?

VS: Nattuvangam (pertaining to dance) and Konnakol (pertaining to vocal- instrumental music)  is the practice of reciting rhythmic syllables that emulate the drumbeats  that allow the elaboration of the  inherent beat of the music in various permutations to display the dancers virtuosity in pure dance movements.

UA: The relationship between nattuvangam and beats in classical Telugu, Tamil and Sanskrit poetry?

VS: When a poem is set to music, its inherent meter (determined by the poet) is interpreted in the structure of the Carnatic music tala structure. This Tala is elaborated in the nattuvangam, providing opportunity to the dancer to explore various ways of presenting it. The basic tala measure is combined in various permutations and combinations to provide a rich diversity of pure dance movements and footwork. 

UA: What are some of the more modern poetic expressions to which you composed your own choreography successfully (that are not strictly laid out in meter, yet were transferred beautifully)?

VS: The rigidity is only in the time measure of each avartana of the tala (8 beats, 11 beats etc.) in which each line of the song /poem fits.  By calculating the number of beats in one avartana or combining the avartanas or splitting them we are able to derive infinite combinations of footwork arrangement. The same song with the same rhythm (drum) can be arranged very differently by different choreographers using the hand gestures (hastas and Nrtta hastas) and adavus (choreographed steps) to provide a refreshing look at the inherent meter of the poem every time. Hence every song can be renewed each time it is performed.  

We have set Bharatanatyam movements to songs from various faiths, composed in different languages, even English/western music or Tejano music. When there is no meter but just a song or chorus without beat, Bharatanatyam allows its expression in graceful twirls and striking poses. 


Usha Akella, Austin-based poet has authored eight books. She is the founder of the Matwaala collective and festival and co- host of www.the-pov.com, an interview site.

Sattriya, and Its Fight for Recognition as a Classical Dance

Why I Dance – A monthly column, in collaboration with IndianRaga, in which we uncover the variety of Indian Classical Dance forms and their lineage. 

This first edition of the Why I Dance Column features Sattriya, an Indian Classical dance form originating in the state of Assam.

Originally developed by the great seer-polymath Shrimanta Shankardev, the art form is based on the Bhagvat and takes its roots in neo-Vaishnavism. As a means of social reform, Shankardev aimed to use Sattriya to meet the goal of cleansing the society of caste and creed hierarchy.  Shankardev also used this artistic medium for the propagation of the philosophy called Eka-Sharan-Naam-Dharma (the religion of taking refuge in the name of the only One). Sattriya dances and dramas that are based on the works of Shankardev and his disciple Madhavdev are performed by groups of dancers and actors in a Prayer Hall called “Naamghar”.  

To Prateesha Suresh, Sattriya dance has meant everything. Trained in both Sattriya and Bharatanatyam, she has been instrumental in the recognition of Sattriya as a classical dance of India, which it was declared as by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 2000.  She notes that: “I learnt Bharatanatyam and took up Sattriya (which I learnt as a child) as it belonged to my state and at that point, we were trying to establish its classical status. I performed a lot with lecture-demonstrations for that cause. Today, although Sattriya has gained its classical status, there is a lot of work yet to be done.”

She continues to inspire Sattriya practitioners around the world through her choreographies and lecture-demonstrations, where she breaks down the artform for those unfamiliar. About Sattriya, Prateesha says, “It has many layers to it like a “Shastra” and I am trying to unfold those layers every day of my life!”   

Sattriya is a lived tradition, having been practised continuously since its inception by men in institutes called Sattras. In the 1970s, Sattriya emerged from the Sattras, against the wishes of many. Dances in the Sattriya repertoire are based on the Sutradhari Dance, among others created by Shankardev, as a part of the drama called Ankiya Nat

Dances in the Sattriya repertoire are divided into three sections; Ramdani, Geetor Naach, and Mela Naach, which refer to the  ‘the beginning’, ‘the middle’, which is the dance accompanied to a song, and ‘the conclusion’. 

Khol
Khol (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The percussion used in Sattriya is called a Khol, and does not follow the same jati system used by many other classical dance forms.  Because of this, the changes in tempo are done gradually and are not calculated (which is how the jati system works).

The basic posture of the art form is the half-sitting “mandala” posture called Ora. In Sattriya, the body moves in undulation and the arms are always bent at the elbows and follow a circular path. The torso is held in samabhanga, dvibhanga and tribhanga positions mostly bending forward or side to side. Acrobatic movements like bending back and touching the ground, and either standing or sitting on the knees are also seen in the art form. The fingers of the palm use all the “hasta karana-s” as mentioned in the Natyashastra.

The costuming in the Purush (male) style is Krishna’s attire. It consists of a yellow coloured dhoti, dark blue coloured upper-garment in the angarakha style called “chapkon”, richly embroidered waist girdle with hanging pearls called “kanchi” either in dark blue or black colour and a black or dark blue embroidered crown over the head. 

The costume of the Prakriti (female) style is a plain white skirt, two panels over each shoulder with patterns which join in a “V” at the back, like the Sutradhari. Dark blue or black coloured blouse with rich embroidery. A long piece of cloth tied at the waist, ends hanging in the front called “tongali”. A richly embroidered waistband with two panels hanging from either side called “aachol”.  

Sutradhari costume has both the elements of ‘Purush’ and ‘Prakriti’, where the dancer wears a white skirt, two panels over the shoulders joined at the back in a ‘v’, a long piece of cloth tied at the waist, the ends hanging in the front called ‘tongali’ and a white head adornment which is in the shape of a “kosha”.  Traditional Assamese jewellery like “unti” (earings), “muthi kharu”, “gaam kharu” (bracelets), “mota moni”, “dugdugi”, “gejera/junbiri” for the neck are worn. Light dancing bells called “junuka” are worn on the feet. 

The Why I Dance Campaign is a collaboration between Maryland based Kuchipudi company Kalanidhi Dance, and IndianRaga. IndianRaga provides a platform for aspiring artists to explore their talent, with opportunities to focus on presentation and performance, high-quality audio and video production for digital channels, and learn how to collaborate with fellow artists.  

Tune in next month to learn more about the Indian Classical Artform of Odissi!


Tarini Kumar is an IndianRaga Bharatanatyam Fellow and Why I Dance team member. She is a disciple of Smt. Divyaa Unni, and currently studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Ram Rajya scene

Ram-Rajya in America? Yes, You Heard it Right!

In October, I performed Kathak in celebrations to commemorate Dussehra, the Hindu festival that celebrates the victory of Ram over Ravan, Durga over Mahishasur, Good over Evil. As did all other aspects of our lives this year, these performances were moved online. Though physically distanced in my garage-turned-studio, I was dancing for a much larger worldwide virtual audience and sought themes of universal appeal.

Mulling over the roller-coaster of emotions I have been experiencing due to the events of 2020 – the pandemic, economic uncertainty, the Black Lives Matter movement, the massive wildfires, US presidential elections, and the related dissent and discord – this one dance item resonated with me. 

Author and Kathak Dancer, Anupama Srivastava performing Ram Rajya
Author and Kathak Dancer, Anupama Srivastava performing Ram Rajya

An excerpt from a 1984 Kathak dance-drama “Kab Aoge Ram” by legendary Kathak maestro Padmashri and Sangeet-Natak-Akademi awardee Guru Shovana Narayan, this item titled “Ram-Rajya” is an enumeration of King Ram’s kingdom, as described in the Uttar-Kaand of Ramcharitmanas by Goswami Tulsidas. Ms. Narayan’s trailblazing work hailed “Ramatva ” or the “essence of Ram” as the guiding principle of an ideal society. This critically acclaimed production revolutionized the typical Ram-centric story-telling format of that time and shifted the focus to several other characters in Ramayana who yearned for Ram.

The experience of participating in this production back then left an indelible mark on my young mind, enhanced my ability to process happenings around me, and continues to reinforce that our ancient texts provide context, relevance, and guidance in the present day and age. 

According to Tulsidas, Ram-Rajya was a utopian society, where the righteous King Ram set a very high bar of conduct. Inspired by their king, everyone in the kingdom possessed a unique set of attributes. People had no physical or mental suffering, and nobody died young. They treated each other with love and fulfilled their duties as defined in the Vedas. They followed a path of righteousness, charity, generosity, thankfulness, respect, and faith. Men and women were educated, wise, and stayed away from deceit and hatred. There was no crime and no punishment. There was domestic bliss – men vowed to be monogamous, and women were caring and committed. There were abundant trees, lush forests teeming with wildlife, fertile farmlands, and plentiful milk, honey, fruits, and grains. Birds and pets roamed freely. The sun, moon, and clouds provided a balanced climate and the air was pure and scented. Sweet water-filled rivers, lakes, and wells, and oceans were in check. Riverbanks were clean, and pious people sang praises of Sri Ram everywhere. People had an abundance of all essential material possessions. Precious metals, gems, and crystals adorned city structures and homes. Abundance and prosperity reigned supreme!

Fast forward to 2020 in the United States of America, post the presidential elections. For a country reeling, suffering, divided, frustrated with an apparently failed social-political-economic system, the post-election period is a time of introspection and recovery. But what actions should we take as individuals and as a society on this road to recovery? This is where Ram-Rajya comes in.

The concept of Ram-Rajya put forth in Ramcharitmanas has long been hailed as a gold standard for good governance as well as personal conduct leading to universal prosperity and well-being. A closer look at this description, specifically the order in which the features of Ram-Rajya have been described, reveals that the attainment of a utopian society is a three-step process. First, righteous individual conduct and the conducive way people treat each other lay the foundation of a strong and healthy society. Second, this carefully controlled human behavior leads to a harmonious environment, a balanced climate, and a perfect ecological balance between humans, flora, fauna, land, water, and air. Material prosperity, abundance, fulfillment, happiness, and peace follow eventually as the third and final step.

Whether in America or elsewhere in the world, we are truly at a crossroads in history. With unprecedented pain and suffering on so many fronts, this is a time of reflection and introspection on how we have evolved as a society and as individuals, and where we will go from here. Yes, this does seem to be the “Kalyug” all our sacred texts warned about. And it is these same texts that we can turn to for seeking the guidance to rejuvenate, recreate and rebuild individually, as a society, and as an entire human race.


Anupama Srivastava is a Kathak dancer, Founder and Artistic Director of InSyncKathak Dance School based in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA. After an 18-year career as a hardware engineer in Silicon Valley, she presently splits her time between dance, yoga, family, and writing.’

Featured image found here.

Why I Dance: Over 300 Classical Dancers Speak

Why I Dance – A monthly column, in collaboration with IndianRaga, in which we uncover the variety of Indian Classical Dance forms and their lineage. 

“Why do you dance?” asked Anuradha Nehru, Founder and Artistic Director of Maryland based Kuchipudi company Kalanidhi Dance, “It was such a profound question that it made me introspect and look deeper into my source of inspiration for dance. Upon further reflection and discussion with my fellow dancers in Kalanidhi, we realized there were four motivations that drove us – connecting to our heritage; the sense of liberation that dance affords; the ability to tell stories; and the strong bonds of friendship and community that dance builds.”  This simple yet complex question prompted the creation of her 2016 production Why I Dance.

Six months ago, the world underwent an unforeseen change.  Everything came to a halt, and the world of dance had to overcome an obstacle. Dance classes, workshops, performances, and productions were all canceled. No one knew when they would be able to return to the stage. Hoping to re-energize her dance community, Kalanidhi dancer Sahiti Rachakonda suggested that they start an online campaign called Why I Dance. Kalanidhi Dance partnered with IndianRaga to take the campaign global. The campaign launched August 22nd, on the auspicious occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi, and the #whyidance gained traction.

Artists from all eight of the Sangeet Natak Akademi recognized Indian Classical Art forms participated in the campaign, along with artists from many of India’s folk and contemporary styles. The campaign featured 36 world-renowned maestros and teachers including Prateesha Suresh, Birju Maharaj, Leela Samson, Alarmel Valli, Sujatha Mohapatra, Bijayini Satpathy, Sonal Mansingh, and Kumudini Lakhia. Anuradha Nehru says, “We were pleasantly surprised by the amazing response from India’s most famous and legendary dancers. They responded enthusiastically to our request and obliged readily with their thoughts and words of wisdom and generously shared video excerpts of their dance.

Their participation inspired many dancers from over 65 countries to join this movement, turning the initial wave of dancers into a tsunami,” IndianRaga Founder and CEO Sriram Emani adds “I was amazed by the willingness of some of Indian dance’s senior-most maestros to learn how to shoot a video from home, in the midst of a pandemic, to help inspire dancers globally.” 

 

Pragnya Thamire, a Kalanidhi Dancer said, “It was absolutely phenomenal to have edited the ‘Why I Dance’ videos of some of the legends in Indian classical dance… I learned so much through their words!”  

The response to the campaign was indeed unprecedented.  Dancers from around the world were eager to post their own videos; from the youngest dancers having only been learning for a few years, to the seasoned professionals, everyone wanted a chance to share their story, why they dance.

 IndianRaga team member Isha Kulkarni felt, “The campaign was one of the most exciting and challenging things I have ever worked on and nothing less than a privilege. We got to talk to these legendary artists, hear their thoughts, their experiences and that was definitely one of the things that inspired me to keep pushing harder in spite of the limitations in the current scenario.

Although the campaign was started as a way for dancers around the world to reflect inwards in light of the global lockdown, it is far from the end. Sriram says, “We definitely intend to continue – There is no planned conclusion to this campaign. Dancers can continue to post as per the guidelines and tag us, and we will share as we go along. Many people who used to dance before and left it for multiple reasons are now picking up dance again and participating in the campaign, and we welcome everyone to join in!”

Tune in next month to learn more about the Indian Classical Artform, Sattriya, featuring Why I Dance participant and exponent Prateesha Suresh!


Tarini Kumar is an IndianRaga Bharatanatyam Fellow and Why I Dance team member. She is a disciple of Smt. Divyaa Unni, and currently studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Will My Culture Survive the Pandemic?

Trying to create a space in the United States, Indian Americans rely heavily on the Arts to remain connected to their roots. Instead of soccer practice and baseball lessons, the minivan drives kids to Kathak (Indian Classical Dance) class or Tabla (Indian percussion/drums) lessons. What our parents understood, that took me till my adult years to grasp, was that culture was identity. And we would only be comfortable in our skin, in alien territory, if we could see the beauty of who we inherently were. 

As a young brown girl, I found a sense of camaraderie and belonging with my peers through the Classical Arts. Some learned Bharatanatyam dance and some took Kathak. Some learned to play the Tabla and some, the Sitar. Some took Carnatic Classical Music and some took Hindustani Classical Music. But all of these Arts drove one point home – no matter the geographic location or style of the Art, we were deeply connected to our culture. At times when I was ostracized for that same thing – being too Indian – I took solace in what I knew to be true. I am who I am and there was no reason to resent something so pure- so unifying. I continue to cherish it. 

A lifelong Kathak dancer and student, I saw the strain the Arts went through when my classes at the Chitresh Das Institute went online due to the shelter in place orders. Many students dropped off, our teachers struggled to teach online, and our performances were canceled. I felt myself become uninspired. 

But Art cannot be stopped. Art keeps pushing along like the little engine that could, to give meaning to that which is inexplicable. One Bharatanatyam teacher found purpose in embracing the messiness of online teaching and musicians like Sunny Jain began putting their music on Youtube. IndianRaga and Kalanidhi Dance collaborated during the pandemic to rejuvenate classical arts through their Why I Dance campaign. However, an artist’s career comes to a halt when spaces to perform are limited and they are faced with the reality of a declining income.

The artistic community, many working as freelancers and independent contractors, requires life support. At the Ethnic Media Services briefing on September 11, 2020, LA Based Actor, Kristina Wong told us of the moment that her livelihood came into question. Her one-woman satire, Kristina Wong for Public Office, that she had spent three years researching and running a real election in preparation for, was running on the college/university circuit when the pandemic hit. Colleges and university campuses made the decision to go fully online, as to mitigate the pandemic, and Wong was stuck scrambling to find alternatives to cancelation. 

I’m witnessing a lot of artists just leave Los Angeles. Some are working for the census. Some are just scrambling,
” she noted, emphasizing that her ability to adapt to the online format was a unique luxury and that she still wouldn’t be able to recoup the losses of canceled performances. 

Kristin Sakoda, Actor and Executive Director of the LA Arts Commission witnessed the impact of COVID on the Arts. It was one of the first sectors to close and will be one of the last to reopen. 2.7 million jobs have been lost resulting in a $150 billion impact on the creative industry. As a grant distributor, Sakoda mentioned $20 million in losses for the nonprofits sustaining local arts.

Appreciation of the arts is crucial in inconsistent, unclear times. Art gives context, an escape, a safe space to feel uncertain, and to empathize with others.

Minority arts are quickly disappearing. Jose Luis Valenzuela, a UCLA and community college theater professor, met with artistic directors who cater to communities of color and were worried about the survival of their companies. They are the few sources for access to the arts for minority populations. Representation matters and when that diminishes, so do the voices. Graphic designer and Muralist, Roberto Pozos of Imperial Valley resonates with this message. Living in a space that has been a hotspot for COVID related death, Pozos wants to commemorate the suffering and lift the spirits of those around him. None of this can happen without funding. 

We must push for federal grant funding! Email, call, snail mail your Congresspeople. The last time federal tax dollars were put towards the arts was during the Great Depression and the time has come again to make our mark on democracy and preserve culture. 

I think about what I would do without Kathak. Kathak is not just a form of Indian Classical Dance. Kathak is the best parts of me. Kathak accepts me and grounds me to the reality I am in. Kathak reminds me to forgive myself and others. Kathak is a guiding force, teaching morality and mythology. Kathak is music. Kathak is discipline and learned knowledge. Kathak is Indian history. Kathak is me. 


Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

This post has been updated.