Erasing Borders & Erased Preconceptions
- Kiran Rajagopalan

A unique festival of Indian dance was recently held in New York City which featured performances, workshops, panel discussions by artistes based in the US and India. Aptly titled 'Erasing Borders,' this annual dance festival - now in its second year - was jointly organized by the Indo-American Arts Council and the Asia Society. Both organizations consciously included a gamut of Indian dance styles ranging from traditional and experimental classical to post-modern and Bollywood.

Friday, June 4
The festival began with a superb evening of performances by Shipra Mehrotra, Navtej Johar, Parul Shah Dance Company, Cynthia Lee, and Wanted Ashiqz who presented pieces in the Odissi, Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Post-modern/Kathak, and Bollywood styles, respectively. Shipra's opening performance showcased her solid grounding in tradition and training in Odissi by Dr. Chitra Krishnamurti, Gangadhar Pradhan, and Aruna Mohanty. She began with the 'Hamsadhwani Pallavi' choreographed by the late Kelucharan Mohapatra. She then presented Jayadeva's 15th Ashtapadi, "Ramate Yamuna," in which Radha suspiciously imagines Krishna making love to another woman.

Shipra Mehrotra in "Ramate Yamuna"
Navtej Johar in "Meenakhi (The Fish-Eyed Goddess)"
Navtej then presented an excerpt from "Meenakshi (The Fish-Eyed Goddess)" which was choreographed as a varnam using Muthuswamy Dikshitar's kriti, "Meenakshi Me Mudam" (Purvikalyani; Adi). The sancharis were embellished with Navtej's deeply personal touches such as depictions of Meenakshi as a motherly, sensuous nature goddess. Especially provocative was the image of Meenakhi's trademark parrot as a representation of her vivacious spirit. Unfortunately, the music recording was of poor quality, and it was played too softly in the auditorium.

The third performance was by Parul Shah Dance Company, and they presented an excerpt from 'Samanvay.' Originally conceived by Kumudini Lakhia and re-choreographed by Parul Shah, this nritta item was a nice introduction to Kathak dance for the Asia Society's diverse audience. The subtle costumes, effective lighting, and superb coordination collectively enhanced the presentation, and these features also bolstered Parul Shah Dance Company's reputation as one of America's best classical Indian dance ensembles.

The highlight of the evening was Cynthia Lee's 'Ruddha (Rude, Huh?),' which erased borders by depicting the friction between dance styles and cultures. Cynthia intelligently combined Kathak rhythmic bhols and nonsensical English words and then juxtaposed matching Kathak and American post-modern movements with them. And the result was a challenging work that was instantly recognizable, humorous, but cautionary in its message about fusion.

Cynthia Lee in 'Ruddha (Rude, Huh?)'
Wanted Ashiqz in 'Inspired'
The evening ended with a lively Bollywood performance by Wanted Ashiqz. This ensemble of well-trained male dancers showcased various Indian and American pop culture icons that inspired them to dance such as: Michael Jackson, Madhuri Dixit, Hrithik Roshan, Govinda, and Beyoncé. Wanted Ashiqz was an apt addition to the festival because Bollywood is unquestionably a style of Indian dance. Moreover, Mumbai's film industry has promoted the other forms of traditional Indian dance in India and abroad.

Saturday, June 5
The second day began with a workshop, 'Angika: The Dance Body,' which introduced the basic movements of Bharatanatyam, Odissi, and Kalaripayattu. It was conducted by Mesma Belsare, Shipra Mehrotra, and Sridhar Shanmugam, and they thoroughly explained the differences in kinetics of their respective styles to the largely uninitiated participants. However, the workshop could have been more effective had each presenter taught at a continuous stretch rather than in small segments.

The next session, 'Vachika: Talking Dance,' was an engaging panel discussion on spoken word and sound in Indian dance, and it was moderated by Elise Thoron. Cynthia Lee began with a brief demonstration of Kathak toras (basic rhythmic syllables) followed by Prerana Deshpande and her student demonstrating a Kathak kavi in which spoken words are recited and enacted over rhythm. Anuradha Nehru then presented a Kuchipudi jati, and Rajika Puri danced to a rare spoken-word Odissi composition on Kâli that was choreographed by Debaprasad Das.

These demonstrations were followed by a discussion with Cynthia Lee, Sheetal Gandhi, Reena Shah, and Rajika Puri. Cynthia's talk focused mainly on her work, 'Ruddha (Rude, Huh?),' which was inspired by homophonic translation (creating a text based solely on the sound of another). Sheetal emphasized that even isolated words and sounds can build up to a visceral meaning that transcends the literal narrative. Reena, a Kathak dancer and writer, added that contemporary Indian dance can push towards abstract narrative through judicious use of spoken word and sound. Finally, Rajika Puri performed several excerpts from her works such as 'Union/Severed' and 'Tapasya,' which depicts Ganga's descent using a blend of spoken word, music, and rhythmic syllables.

Sheetal Gandhi in "Bahu-Beti-Biwi"
Mythili Prakash in "Vibha (Lustrous Glory)"
The second panel, 'Mathematics of Rhythm II,' explored the Carnatic and Hindustani systems of tala and its application to Bharatanatyam and Kathak, respectively. Jonathan Singer began with a brief overview of basic rhythms and sub-rhythms on the mridangam. Mythili Prakash then demonstrated alternations in a basic adavu's cadence when the gati is changed, and then she broke down the structure of a trikala jati. Prerana Desphande emphasized the main difference between both styles of dance and music in an elaborate discussion of samam (first beat of a tala cycle). The session ended with an incisive presentation on mathematics in Bharatanatyam by Smriti Jain that was conducted over Skype.

The day concluded with an evening of performances by Mythili Prakash, Mesma Belsare, Parul Shah Dance Company, Sheetal Gandhi, and Ailey II. Mythili's Bharatanatyam presentation, 'Vibha - Lustrous Glory,' extolled the guru's divine light of knowledge. 'Surya,' based on verses from the Aditya Hridaya Slokam, described the sun god as the visual symbol of guru whose pervasive rays illuminate the universe and sustain the Earth. She also danced with abandon to a Sufi poem, "Khuda Ki Tasveer," in which the guru is perceived not only as a spiritual guide but also as a physical manifestation of god.

Mesma Belsare in "Chaurapanchasika"
Mesma then presented two contrasting pieces - "Chaurapanchasika" and "Akshah (Axis)." The former was a Bharatanatyam adaptation of a 12th-century Sanskrit poem on forbidden love that was heart-felt but marred by a distracting slideshow of miniature paintings in the background. The latter piece was done in collaboration with Carnatic vocalist Deepti Navaratna in which Mesma sought to express abstract music through sattvika abhinaya.

For their second performance, Parul Shah Dance Company presented an excerpt from "Radha Naval." In this abhinaya piece, Radha recalls Krishna's mischief during Holi as she eagerly waits for his arrival. Parul's portrayal of Radha in various moods in the piece was subtle and aesthetic.

Parul Shah Dance Company in "Radha Naval"
Ailey II in 'Takademe'
Another highlight of the festival was Sheetal Gandhi's 'Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-In-Law, Daughter, Wife)' which combined dance, percussive text, and vocalization to great effect. The piece was an incisive commentary on the traditional role of Indian women, and it was offset by brilliant touches of humor. Also noteworthy were her renditions of Rajasthani and Punjabi folk songs.

Ailey II's concluding performance, 'Takademe,' was a concise modern American dance composition set to Sheila Chandra's score with sollukattu. It was not a typical group fusion piece in that its intention was to keep modern dance distinct from Indian dance. Instead, choreographer Robert Battle deconstructed the score's complex Indian rhythm and then choreographed dynamic modern dance movements that matched the music.

Sunday, June 6
The last day was quite leisurely as it consisted of an innovative workshop led by Paula Cole followed by a panel discussion and an informal "cushion concert." Originally conceived by Dr. Richard Schechner, the 'Rasa Boxes' workshop was a series of fun exercises that incorporated rasa theory into American performance technique. Participants were challenged to tap into the eight rasas, as described in the Natya Shastra, without separating acting, movement, and voice modulation in the overall experience of an emotional state.

Rasa Boxes workshop
The second session was 'Moving Traditions,' a lively panel discussion with Dr. Richard Schechner, Navtej Johar, Anita Ratnam, and Chitra Sundaram. They discussed the changes in the systems of learning and patronage for Indian dance. The idea of changing tradition was introduced by Dr. Schechner in his lucid discussion of several South Indian counter-narratives of the Ramayana. The moderator, Purnima Shah, then asked the panelists to comment on the shift from the guru-shishya parampara tradition of learning to the dance institutions. Anita stated that the mushrooming of dance schools was the result of widespread patriotism and the desire to fabricate a national identity centered on culture. Navtej then added that an intimate bond between teacher and student was still needed to kindle the spirit to dance.

Purnima's second question to the panelists was on the current ways in which to fund Indian dance. Chitra responded with an overview of British dance companies specializing in Indian dance. Interestingly, Indian dance is consciously marketed as part of British culture, and the British Council allocates funding to Indian dance companies based on region. However, Anita discussed alternate funding sources such as dance performances in the private/corporate sector and the "business of Bharatanatyam" (workshops, lecture-demonstrations, master classes, arangetrams, etc.).

Anuradha Nehru & Ramya Ramnarayan in "Palukute Nelatali" from Kutcheri-Mehfil
The final performance was an intimate 'Kutcheri-Mehfil,' and the room was filled with soft cushions upon which the audience reclined while watching abhinaya pieces. After Chitra's excellent introduction to abhinaya, Anuradha Nehru presented a javali, "Parulanna Maata" (Kapi; Rupakam; Dharmapuri Subbrayar) in which the heroine pleads with her obstinate lover to not listen to idle gossip. Bharatanatyam dancer Ramya Ramnarayan performed a Sangam era Tamil poem depicting a strong-willed woman dutifully sending her father, husband, and young son off to war. Anuradha and Ramya then performed Annamancharya's charming padam, "Palukute Nelatali" (Karnataka Devagandhari; Khanda Chapu), to live music by Deepti Navaratna.
Prerana Desphande from Kutcheri-Mehfil
Rachna Sarang from Kutcheri-Mehfil
Kathak's subtle abhinaya was highlighted in the performances of Prerana Deshpande and Rachna Sarang. The beauty of Vrindavan on the banks of the Yamuna was vividly described in Prerana's interpretation of "Vrindavana Dham…" Likewise, Rachna Sarang portrayed Meerabai's fervent devotion to Krishna in the bhajan, "Shyama Baso." The duet between Rachna and Prerana was fantastic in that the two dancers seamlessly alternated their depictions of a virahotkhandita nayika. They were accompanied by Astha Shukla (Hindustani vocalist), Amod Dandawate (tabla), and Indrajit Roy-Chowdhury (sitar). The kutcheri ended with a surprise - an impromptu performance of a ghazal by Rachna, Navtej Johar, and several other participants!

Even though "Erasing Borders" is still a young dance festival, it is undoubtedly an important global platform for Indian dance. It was professionally managed by Prachi Dalal with the help of numerous volunteers from both the Indo-American Arts Council and the Asia Society. Moreover, the festival benefitted tremendously from an enviable venue, a fine roster of artists, and a diverse audience. Given these factors, there is no doubt that 'Erasing Borders' will become a permanent fixture in New York City's dance scene and one of America's most prestigious dance festivals

Kiran Rajagopalan is a Chennai based Bharatanatyam dancer originally from the United States. He is a disciple of A Lakshman and Sujatha Srinivasan. Although he holds a BA (Honors) in Neuroscience and Spanish, he has chosen to follow his passion for dance. Kiran finished his MA in Bharatanatyam from Madras University in April 2010.