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My mother was my best friend
- Sharon Lowen

May 13, 2023

My mother, Ethel Rose Lowen, was my best friend - sharing love, trust, and respect until she passed away peacefully at the age of 101. Throughout my childhood she ensured that I had every opportunity to be exposed to the finest arts and world cultures. Annual season tickets for all of the international dance, music and theatre series made it possible for me to see performances from Europe, South America, South, East and SE Asia including the Bolshoi Ballet, Uday Shankar, Ballet Folklorico, Eastern European Folk Dance and Puppetry, Marcel Marceau, Kabuki along with national companies of Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham, Joan Erdman, Nikolais and the NYC Metropolitan Opera at Detroit's suitably large Masonic Temple Auditorium.

Sharon Lowen and Ethel Rose Lowen
On Ethel Lowen's 100th birthday

She shared her love of discovery of the arts while working fulltime in partnership with my father. His brilliance as a PhD Chemical Engineer was less so in business so my mother largely maintained the family selling industrial supplies like welding rod. Her MA in Clinical Psychology could only be practiced on her family as she was ahead of her time as a woman and a Democrat to get the sole political employment in her home town.

Inspired at age 4 to learn classical Ballet, I reluctantly quit piano after only one class at the age of 5 because my mother said I could choose one activity and I felt it would be a waste to spend on piano lessons since I would switch to Ballet when I was 6. She later never limited the number of activities or extra-curricular classes I could pursue, but only my elder brother continued on the family piano.
I, along with my elder sister and brother, were given the freedom to pursue any and all of our own interests and the idea of parents managing or selecting for us was anathema to our family ethic though assistance was always provided.

I can best share my mother's perspective on being supportive of not only my choice of career, but also taking the impossible risks of doing so in another culture, in her own words. I was scheduled to present a paper at the 4th International Gross National Happiness Conference in Bhutan in 2009 and invited her to join me. The organizers had limited numbers of observers, so my mother's attendance was contingent on her presenting a paper as well. At the age of 92, she was the most honored participant and even the King of Bhutan knelt to take her blessings.

Here are a few of my mother's thoughts:
"My way has been awareness of the connectedness of the human race, shared understanding of the joy and brevity of our trip on the planet. I have followed this mantra: to not harm anymore, to not harm the planet, to not allow oneself to be harmed.

Parents with enlightened backgrounds take an active part in the growth and development of their school-going children, encouraging education, free exchange of ideas, and a desire for questioning apparent prevailing injustices. Our experiences often can be of value in teaching them how to avoid mistakes, but sometimes their life paths are very different. We must learn how to guide without being forceful. Sometimes we do not have the answer they are looking for. But even if we cannot relate to their different life style choices, they still require our acceptance and unconditional love. The effort to listen requires only the skill of patience and remaining non-judgmental. Only when you are asked should you provide suggestions. Challenges should be for constructive, positive and creative thinking, always emphasizing an appreciation for the gift of life.

Family is unquestionably an important part of understanding aging, but one should not underestimate the importance of extending oneself into the community and continuing to make new friends. At 91 years of age, I still travel the world, and lead an intensive life socially. The reason for this is that I am always looking forward to meeting the people who are waiting to meet me at the end of the long journey. My bags are packed with gifts for all my friends and I have a million stories to tell each of them. It is the relationships I look forward to which gives me the energy to live life to the fullest."

Her sharp wit, sense of humor and genuine passion to connect made her not only my biggest supporter but a sought after well-wisher for her opinions by the likes of Ibrahim Alkazi, Outlook Magazine editor Vinod Mehta and the Ambassador of Belgium. H.H. the Dalai Lama invariably stopped to touch foreheads with her whenever he saw her, even when he had little time to greet anyone else.

When I was in my 30's I once asked her how curious it was that my sister and I had pursued our love of dance through University and beyond. To my amazement, she stood up and did a Tap Dance routine! She had never mentioned earlier that she had learnt enough tap dance to get a part time job in college, but then decided it was more respectable to work in the Biology Lab. After this, I convinced her to go for some of Dr Penny Estabrook's Tap Dance classes at the Delhi School of Music. She gave it a try but stopped when she got dizzy with the turns, even though she was only in her late 60's!

Her support was not unconditional. For example, when I wanted to take a university charter flight to Europe after my freshman college year, I had to write an essay justifying why and how I would go as well as showing that I had saved enough from part-time jobs to cover my expenses. Easy to do as I wrote similar essays over the years and she always then supported my travels.

In retrospect, besides her confidence in me to flourish in whatever direction I chose to go, I know that I always had the security of knowing she was my security net if I needed one. Fortunately I never did.

Before my mother's first visit to India during my Fulbright Scholarship to continue Manipuri Dance I told her to bring a sense of humor and an open mind. Later she said that was all that was needed as we traveled the country during her visits which evolved into 6 months a year for 20 years until she could no longer commute and stayed fulltime for the last years of her life.

Once, a well-meaning friend advised me to tell my mother not to speak so highly of me to others. I realize this may not be part of Indian culture but I replied that if anyone objects to a mother being proud of a child, it was their problem not hers. She was equally praiseworthy of others as jealousy was a cardinal sin in our family and she applauded all genuine achievement. I did need to temper this in school when she would bring me roses after a student performance. Since others were not getting flowers, I suggested a bag of my beloved pistachio nuts instead - a perfect solution. Merited criticism was also dished out, such as "I saw you talking in the back row on stage".

At 6, I started Modern Dance instead of Ballet as my later Ballet Master, Theodore Smith, scared me when I saw him pounding his staff when I watched a class. At 7, 3 weeks before starting Ballet, I auditioned for my elementary school production of Nutcracker and not surprisingly didn't get selected. My mother went to school to speak to whoever was in charge and "miraculously" I and another girl became "backup" sugar plum fairies. While the trained sugar plum fairy performed en pointe, the two of us self-choreographed our sidekick part.

In High School, I was in the annual 10 performance run of Peter Pan at the Detroit Institute of Arts Theater. Late one Sunday evening I realized I'd left my school books at rehearsal and had to get them for a Monday assignment. Without much fuss, my mother drove me downtown and got Vic, the night guard, to open the loading dock door to let me in and get them. Vic said, "You should keep her home and teach her how to cook". Thankfully my dear mother did not take his advice!

My mother also exemplified the ability to rise to the occasion when you see the need. After a speech by Nobel Laureate Dr. Linus Pauling for the local Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, she asked him if there was a reception organized for him. When he said no, she immediately invited him and many others present to come home. She managed to create a wonderful dinner for all and my elementary school self was able to meet a world leader of the peace movement.

My mother was also responsible for my early familiarity with India. I saw Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali when I was the same age as the protagonist Durga and our home library included Mulk Raj Anand's Two Leaves and a Bud as well as Bhabani Bhattacharya's He Who Rides a Tiger. More than this, she befriended and helped an artist from Baroda who had come to work at our famous Cranbrook Academy of Art after his MA in sculpture from Baroda. I am still close to Narendra and Durga Patel after 63 years. Narendra wanted to explore a new media - metal sculpture and my mother got him donated welding equipment and materials. He went on to chair the Sculpture Department at U of Wisconsin-Madison as well as monumental works for the public. Thanks to Durga, I was not only familiar with Indian cooking and saved from the way my mother massacred bhindi, but fell asleep in a chair with their infant son while wearing a sari at age 10. When I first arrived in India as the sole student of my Manipuri guru and not given permission to speak with any of the members of the Triveni Manipuri Ballet, the only people I knew were provided by Narendra and Durga Patel. These four uncles in the art world were G.R.Santosh, Shanti Dave, Himmat Shah and Prof. Shanko Chaudhury. With their support I had many wonderful evenings with a wider circle connecting our creative worlds and friendships to Dhoomi Mal Gallery's founder Ravi Jain, NGMA and later National Museum director Lakshmi Sihare, artists like Gaitonde, Biren De, Paramjit Singh, Husain, Satish Gujral among others.

Ma was also a great travel companion and I took her to every region of India, as well as Cambodia, Thailand and Nepal. At 80, she reluctantly agreed to river rafting in Rishikesh and loved it. On her 80th birthday she slipped and had a hard fall at Varanasi's Sankat Mochan Mandir after my performance for Hanuman Jayanti and, instead of breaking hip, didn't even have a bruise. She modeled a fearless trust in my managing to my life and hers when she was with me.

Sharon Lowen and Ethel Rose Lowen
With Ethel Lowen in Cambodia

My mother's remarkable openness and enthusiasm to life and caring for others did indeed lay the groundwork for my wanting to visit India and then having friends when I got here. While I naturally focus on my mother's impact on my 50 years in India she shared and supported my interests and adventures in many other directions. For example, my first summer in Europe I was hosted by her college exchange student friend, Alex Grall, publisher of Éditions Gallimard in a home filled with first editions and experienced European elegance for the first time. Conversely, when I left my years of puppetry behind and turned down Jim Henson's offer to join the Muppets when my Fulbright visa to India finally came through, my mother continued to attend Detroit Puppeteer's Guild meetings and regional festivals throughout the decades after I'd left, always bringing some of my vintage Kathputli marionettes for friends and the fund-raising auctions.

She lived long enough to see her great grandchildren, to travel all over the world, to read libraries of books, and to have meaningful people in her life wherever she was.

Sharon Lowen
Sharon Lowen is a performing artist, teacher, choreographer and scholar presenting and promoting Indian classical dance throughout India, North and South America, Europe, Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Japan over more than 50 years. She is trained in Manipuri, Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chhau and Odissi. As Founder of Manasa-Art Without Frontiers she has presented successful festivals, seminars and trained hundreds of students who perform in India and abroad. Sharon has written several books, scholarly papers and newspaper articles on culture. Her most recent book is Sringara in Classical Indian Dance.

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