Dance Festival of India at Carnegie Hall, New York  
Featuring the best in Indian classical dances  
- Dr. Sunil Kothari 
Photos: Jay Mandal/On Assignment 

October 20, 2008 
It was a dream come true not only for Kuala Lumpur based Ramli Ibrahim, the brilliant Odissi exponent and choreographer and his dancers of Sutra Dance Theatre, to perform at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York on September 20, 2008, but also for other dancers and companies like Prof C V Chandrasekhar and his dancers of Nrityashree Dance Company, Chennai, dancers of Repertory of the Kathak Kendra, New Delhi, Vempati Chinna Satyam's artists of Kuchipudi Dance Academy, Chennai, and dancers from Houston, Texas based Sunanda Nair's Mohiniattam dance company. 

The ARCH Inc, based in New York and run by Sridhar Shanmugam, a Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer and former member of Chandralekha's dance troupe, now settled in New York for more than ten years, along with support from Mahesh Naithani, a music connoisseur, music festival organizer, an art collector and a businessman, in close association with the Carnegie Hall organized this unique festival for one evening showcasing the five classical dance forms of India, each within a time frame of 25 to 30 minutes with an interval of 20 minutes.  

The ARCH Inc is a consortium of organizations operating as a single 501 © (3) non profit organization, registered in 1999, that works to make a difference in the community primarily through creativity-based and multi-cultural education. They have successfully presented dancers and musicians and have a studio space in Manhattan where classes in Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kathak are run by leading dancers based in New York and music classes by musicians of Academy of Music, who under the guidance of Sangeet Research Academy, Kolkata’s musician vocalist Dr Vijay Kichlu have music courses offered to music lovers. The ARCH Inc is a meeting place for artists, musicians, dancers and people interested in creative arts. 

Reams have been written about Ramli and his achievements and the readers of Angarag are by now familiar with his excellent and outstanding dancing, impressive choreography, highlighting Guru Deba Prasad’s style, further embellishing it by his imagination and uniform transmission of technique to his dancers whom he has been training from a very young age.  

His company consisting of himself, the star pupil January Low, inimitable Guna, and other experienced and young dancers Rathimala, Geethika, Divya and Michelle, a confluence of Malaysian Muslim, Hindu, Chinese, immigrants from India, now settled in Malaysia, performing with élan India's neo- classical dance form Odissi, with Siva Natarajah, a vastly gifted painter, photographer and lights- designer who with his arresting lighting creates the mystic and literally keeps the audiences ‘spellbound’! 

They performed within 30 minutes two dance numbers: Managlacharan and Aditya Archana. The vast sprawling Isaac Stern Auditorium/Roland O Perelman stage of Carnegie Hall was transformed into a sacred space, the moment the dancers entered the stage offering prayer in praise of Goddess Saraswati. Narrating her as one dressed in white and colourful costumes, bejeweled with silver ornaments, the dancers with their flawless movements and joyous abundance captivated the audience. Late Guru Deba Prasad’s style has been imbibed by Ramli in an admirable manner. The solo number has been choreographed as a group dance. The energy that the dancers exude has to be seen to be believed. A characteristic of Ramli's approach with dancers forming a circle, moving on the stage, energizes the space. There is a forward and backward movement, and formations which amaze onlookers, the patterns that invest themselves with novelty, the iconographic poses, reinventing in a sculpturesque mould, bring those visuals alive- a sheer delight to feast one’s eyes on them! 
The text in a nutshell is as simple as this: “A homage to the mother Goddess in her form of Saraswati, the Goddess of Eloquence, wisdom, learning, patroness of Arts and Music. Graceful woman, white in colour, she is seated on a lotus, playing a lute, holding a book and rosary.” The dancers consecrate the space and they give the audience its proper salutation. This text in Sanskrit evokes resonances, are a mere peg for Ramli to imagine with layers upon layers of experiences, the number of times he has performed as a solo number or as a group number - the transformation of the word into images of beauty, leaves on spectators impressions of a rare vision. The atmosphere is charged and if the audience is tuned to the exposition, it is transported to another world.  

The second choreographic work bears Ramli's signature. You can never forget if you have seen it once. And if you see it for the first time, it will haunt you with its hypnotic power. So strong is its impact.  
The program note says the following: “From ancient times, Surya has always been the object of worship. Emerging from the primordial waters, he sits on a lotus in his golden chariot, drawn by seven horses, representing the seven colours and driven by his charioteer Arun. Surya, the Sun, is not only regarded as the source of light and knowledge but also that of the world. Thus he is known as Aditya. The hymn to Surya expresses some of the highest emotions, alluding to the wonder of our existence. Surya is the maker of the day, the dispeller of darkness, the nourisher, the eye of the world, the witness of deeds, the King of planets, the one having a thousand rays. Most of all, he is Mahapapahara, the one who is able to remove delusion, misfortune and flawed thinking, thus bringing his devotee to liberation.” 
Now to metamorphose this text with images, imagination, references, graceful movements, using all the weapons in his armory, Ramli does not shy away from using balletic approach, his knowledge of ballet, the years he has spent in the Sydney ballet company, lifting a dancer, letting her entwine the male dancers’ bodies. Sensuous and in the most aesthetic manner, the choreography offers visual surprises. It certainly places his Odissi in a special class, separate from the run of the mill dances and at one go achieves global appeal. He breaks the rules, like a poet and creates poetic beauty. The images of Surya driven by seven horses, also seen in the Bharatanatyam choreography of  
C V Chandrasekhar, were exquisite. The bending of the dancers in yogic position, the offerings to Surya, lifting the female dancer raising her as it were to heaven et al were evocative and picturesque. 

If the presentation appealed to most of the people and there was a general feeling that Odissi and Kathak dance forms were the best, it is understandable. Not because Bharatanatyam's appeal is less or Kuchipudi was not at its best. CV Chandrasekhar's three Bharatanatyam choreographic pieces were of the highest order, and so were Vempati Chinna Satyam’s choreographic pieces.  

In Kuchipudi, the dancers Prabha Ramesh, Geeta Madhuri, Kalpana, Vempati Ravi, DSV Sastry and Venkatachalapathy, accompanied by the musician Kantilal, Murali, Neeladri, DVN Murthy and Sudhakar were in their element and showed off Kuchipudi at its best. Whether it was Brahmanjali or a tillana, they displayed Vempati's bani (style) to an advantage. There was robust acting in Ksheersagara Shayana, a kriti of Thyagaraja, in the episode of Draupadi Vastrapaharan, when Venkatachalapathy, son of late Vedantam Rattaiyya Sarma acted as Duryodhana, and one saw literally the wickedness personified in Vempati Ravi's abhinaya as Duhssashana.  

The Kuchipudi dancers’ entries and exists in serpentine movements were applauded by the audience as such movements were not seen by them. These movements also differed from Bharatanatyam and earlier presentation of Mohiniattam by Sunanda Nair and her dancers from Houston, Texas.  

The troupes of CV Chandrasekhar and Vempati Chinna Satyam were supported by Indian Council for Cultural Relations. 

Disciple of Dr. Kanak Rele from Nalanda Mahavidyalaya, Mumbai, Sunanda has after migrating to Texas maintained the high standard of Mohiniattam as revived by Kanak Rele. Sandwiched between the Odissi and Kuchipudi, it did suffer in comparison. At the same time, it revealed the beauty of the form different from mistaken notion that it is a poor cousin of Bharatanatyam.  

The two compositions choreographed by Sunanda in group format showed Krishna's playing with gopis and the swing on which Radha and others were having wonderful time, the Kanduk khel, the game of ball dance, Panthadi were apt and brevity was the soul of their presentation. The Gita Govinda ashtapadi was rendered as a group number in an engaging manner in Mohiniattam. Neither less, nor more, just adequate. What was missing was edakka (hour glass drum instrument) which lends a specific touch to the Sopana music for Mohiniattam. Babu Parmeshwar's accompaniment with other musicians was balanced. 

C V Chandrasekhar's choreographic pieces with which the festival opened were well crafted and imaginatively choreographed in Bharatanatyam revealing the architectonic beauty of the form by well trained dancers of Nrityashree Dance Company from Chennai. A versatile performer and a choreographer with vast experience, musical acumen and minus a flamboyant attitude, replete with dignity and ‘auchitya,’ Chandrasekhar's presentation was most appropriate as an opening of the festival. 

The three pieces included Benediction, Adoration and Ecstasy. Benediction was an invocation, an offering to five deities, viz. Ganesha - the remover of obstacles, Siva - the powerful, Devi - the Energy, Vishnu - the protector and Surya - the all pervasive, danced to five different ragas and rhythms. The dancers evoked the mood of adoration and devotion. The geometric lines of Bharatanatyam, with the distinct stamp of Chandrasekhar's training, based on his original training under no less a person than late Rukmini Devi at Kalakshetra was a glorious celebration of this global dance form. It was followed by a number titled Adoration.  

The idea of Siva as the supreme dancer Nataraja is a cherished expression in the visual and performing arts in India. The piece recreated the beauty and grandeur of Siva's dance as experienced by the mortals and celestials. 

The concept mirrored in the poetry describing how the Lord’s hands swayed and created patterns in space, and how the eyes followed the hands. As his feet moved, the rhythm with Lord Shiva's ankle bells created music. The piece was set in raga Durga. The dancers performed it with exquisite movements, arresting groupings and they covered the stage with ease filling the space with visuals enhancing the impact a form like Bharatanatyam invariably creates.  

In Ecstasy, the tillana found a joyous exposition of the very aesthetics of Bharatanatyam. Complex rhythmic structures in dance were woven through wefts of melody. The final texture was magical. The tillana was set in the raga Simhendramadhyama. The dancers at times sat on the floor and played the cymbals and joined other dancers, exploring different levels while dancing. 

The dancers including three male dancers and female dancers consisted of Chandrasekhar's two daughters Chitra Dasarathy and Manjari, Ashwini, Krishna Chidambaram, Nirmala, Krishna Kumar, Praveen, Shaffik and musicians on mridangam Adyar Balu and Devaraj. C V Chandrasekhar and his wife Jaya Chandrasekhar conducted the nattuvangam.  

Kathak Kendra Delhi brought lightening speed with their repertory members in their chakkars (turns) which took one’s breath away.  

Six youthful young female dancers and two male dancers brought down the house. Titled Sampada, a treasure, by choreographer Prerana Shrimali, it revealed various traditional infrastructures incorporating them in an over-all design, giving glimpses of the many splendoured beauty of Kathak- the chaal, the gats, the tihais, the footwork, tatkar, the rhythmic wizardry, to the exquisite tabla and pakhavaj playing by two brothers Fatehsingh and Yogesh Gangani, worthy sons of late Kundanlal Gangani, further enhanced by the melodious notes on sarangi by the wizard sarangi player Ramesh Mishra. The finale kept the audience on the edge of their seats. And the rousing standing ovation they got was indicative of the power the Kathak dance form exercised, keeping the audience hungry- not giving more, but with restrain, they left them wanting to see more of their dance. The dancers were two male dancers Mulla Asaraf and Mahendra Parihar, and the female dancers were choreographer Prerana Shrimali, Vidha Lal, Pratishtha, Shailaja Nalawade, Pragati Sood and Eisha Aggarwal. 

A memorable evening. The like of which is a rare event in New York. Many summers ago Beate Gordon, Director of the Performing Arts program of Asia Society used to present year after year, Indian classical dance forms at Carnegie Hall, at times group dances, at times solo dances by the likes of Birju Maharaj, Sitara Devi, Yamini Krishnamurty, and group dances like dances of Purulia Chhau and Yakshagana dances. Those halcyon days are a matter of the past as are the days of Festival of India in USA. The well- informed critics are also no more in New York; many have been retired and the new ones have no clue as to what classical dance forms are like. With a staggering variety of dance forms of the world presented in New York, the critics have a difficult task to undertake to do justice to the traditional dance forms of India. 

Old timers and India lovers like Prof Richard Schechner, dramaturg, director, author, scholar, of Performance Studies of Tisch school at New York University, Ralph Samuelson, Director of Asian Cultural Council and others showered lavish praise on artists and organizers The Arch Inc who in association with the Carnegie Hall, had managed this artistic coup! They wish to see more of Indian classical dances, the young masters and young companies.  

To bring 60 dancers, and musicians accompanying the dancers from different parts of India and Malaysia, was a Herculean task. But the organizers succeeded against all odds. 

Linking the dance forms as a host and a commentator was none other than Anita Ratnam, the celebrated Bharatanatyam dancer, director of The Other Festival in Chennai, charting her own path in what she calls Neo -Bharatam and whose brainwave is the fantastic e-journal, a brilliant orator, a speaker, a seasoned commentator and a 'pucca' New Yorker - she divides her time between Chennai and New York (she is global, she mentions). She was in her element. Her commentary in absence of the program notes was excellent as she made it simple, comprehensible and enjoyable. With stunning stage presence she charmed away the audience who was willing "to eat out of her hands." Bravo, Anita!! 

In terms of feedback one received several comments to the effect that there should have been more than one evening presentation. Doubtless the event has generated an excitement for classical dance forms by artistes, practitioners from India who have made their mark on the international scene. 

Dr Sunil Kothari, dance historian, scholar, author, is a renowned dance critic, having written for The Times of India group of publications for more than 40 years. He is a regular contributor to Dance Magazine, New York. Dr. Kothari is a globetrotter, attending several national, international dance conferences and dance festivals. He has to his credit more than 14 definitive works on Indian classical dance forms, including Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Chhau Dances of India, edited books Rasa, Damaru, New Directions in Indian Dance, photo biographies of Uday Shankar and Rukmini Devi. Kothari was a Fulbright Professor and has taught at the Dance Department, New York University; has lectured at several Universities in USA, UK, France, Australia, Indonesia and Japan. He has been Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific (2000-2008) and is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. A regular contributor to, Dr Kothari is honored by the President of India with the civil honor of Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi award..