Dancing History in Dallas

August 18, 2011

The opening of ICCR supported unique dance exhibition, A Century of Indian Dance through the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection, attracted over 500 visitors on the weekend of Aug 13 and 14, something unheard of as the entire dance community was there in attendance.
Revathy Satyu, eminent dancer-teacher based in Dallas, running the Arathi School of Dance, was the starting point of the tour. She had seen the launch in Bangalore of Dance DISCourse and liking the idea of an all-male ensemble representing various forms, decided to host the show. Much credit is due to her for initiating this novel tour, which other cities - San Antonio, Detroit, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Charleston - then agreed to host too as it’s a rare opportunity to see and learn live dance history and heritage of India.

Purusha, the all-male thematic dance display of costumes with devotional themes and 10 change costumes regaled audiences. President of Texas Dance Council, Dr. Linda James wrote in the Visitors Book, "In 1969, I saw my first performance of Indian dance performed by Uday Shankar’s Company! Today, I’m seeing his history on wall and in film. I am delighted you brought this marvellous exhibition and dances to us." The entire exhibition as seen in Delhi was redesigned to suit a travelling version. PVC substituted with grained canvass was used to bring out the beauty of old photos more.

Comments in Visitor's Book are noteworthy for their depth and substance. Prof. Emeritus Janice  LaPointe Crump said she was so happy to see that Ted Shawn, La Meri and Anna Pavlova were still remembered in India. She could not believe she was seeing originals which she as a long term dance historian loved to see.

“The exhibition with its handsome program and dvd (I purchased it) showed the clean hand of a dedicated and experienced scholar.  His talk introducing the history along with the key artistic attributes of the three genres was enlightening. It was thrilling to see the men perform for I'd always wondered why men were so rare in art/religious forms that were danced by men at one time.

I was reminded of the residency of the Festival of India that I produced at TWU back in the 1980s. The festival was produced by your country to introduce indigenous dance/music forms to the US. The dance troupe consisted of groups from each of the regions - Odissi, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathak and Manipuri. Kathakali was not included because it is so elaborate a preparation. It was the only time that I'd seen men dancers. The Odissi dancer's (Lingaraj Pradhan) dancing was sublime, joining soul, body, and divinity. Cheers and applause were almost too rude because he embodied the dance in such a deeply metaphysical way,” wrote Janice LaPointe Crump in her note of appreciation.

Many youngsters who have grown in USA felt they did not know much of Indian dance history and so even Odissi was unfamiliar! Old settlers were overjoyed to see elegantly framed photos in original of Balasaraswati, Kalanidhi Narayanan, Kamla Laxman, great gurus Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and Muthukumaran Pillai. And iconic Ram Gopal, Uday Shankar, Guru Gopinath and Ragini Devi, Indrani Rahman, La Meri, US Krishna Rao, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Leela Samson, Madhavi Mudgal and many more came to light. Padma Subrahmanyam's handwritten letters, sketches made by famous artists and other memorabilia were ‘awesome!’ - a  word often used in America.

Dance objects in everyday life drew old and young alike to see firecracker boxes, textiles, masks, pencil-boxes, all platforming Indian dance. Many IT geeks were delighted to be taken back to their childhood days when Nataraja pencil box was part of a school bag or Nataraja crayons. The flip-books also drew group of scholars and students as they flipped through pages of history.

The film ‘A Century of Indian Dance’ made by Ashish Khokar, curator-custodian of The Khokar Collection, was admired for neatly compressing years of history in capsule form. Visitor Santosh Vyas wrote, "Seeing the film was like taking me back on a time machine...I’ve never seen such beautiful display of Indian dances."

Seshadri Iyengar
Murali Mohan & Tushar Bhatt
Lingaraj Pradhan
ICCR was kind to support further with a travel grant for 4 dancers who were an integral part of the Khokar Collection event. K Murali Mohan and Tushar Bhatt - both exceptional Kathak dancers of Bangalore now making national waves in dance circles; Lingaraj Pradhan, the Odissi talent who wins hearts everywhere he goes; Seshadri Iyengar who showcased fine technique and abhinaya in the continuity of Padma Subrahmanyam - Padmini Ravi mould of Bharatanatyam. Standing ovation in the end made the evening memorable.

Says Ashish Khokar, “To see youngsters learn our dance forms with same depth and detail in places like Dallas is an eye-opener. At Murali Mohan Kalva's Kathak workshop, there were a dozen learners from age 10 to 20 and all have good proficiency. Seeing Shanti Murali's children Shyam play saxophone as well as masters like Kadri Gopalnath and daughter Meghna dance both Bharatanatyam and Kathak with aplomb, shows how far away from mother India, these parents are inculcating right values and cultural attributes and these youngsters are doing it along with normal school and college curriculum.”