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Festival of India@75 and Erasing Borders Dance Festival
- Manjari Sinha

August 26, 2022

The Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC), organized a special 'India@75 Dance Festival' this year, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of India's Independence 'Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav'. The celebration featured two live events on August 6 and 7 at the Ailey Citigroup Theatre, New York and 'Erasing Borders', a virtual dance festival on August 8, streaming performances by dancers from India, Canada, Singapore and the U.S.

The Dance Festival was conceived by Aroon Shivdasani and curated by Uttara Asha Coorlawala along with Shruti Mohan and Dipashreya Sur with Deepshikha Chatterji as the festival director. During an informal conversation, Uttara explained to me that due to the restriction of not bringing dancers from India, she looked around for the best performers available on the criterion of excellence. The theme of the dance festival was ‘Time’ because it was being presented on the 75 years of India’s Independence. They also wanted to showcase something different from the usual performances, hence thought of the 21st century Bharatanatyam or Kathak or even the post-modern theatre and dance films with new elements in them.

The opening day featured Sanjib Bhattacharya and Jagannath Lairenjam in Manipuri with Pung Cholam (Drum Dance) followed by Kavya Ganesh in contemporary Bharatanatyam and Bhavana Reddy in Kuchipudi dance performances. The next day, 7th of August had a Kathak recital by Jin Won with live music, Ailey II in 'Saa Magni' and Mythili Prakash in contemporary Bharatanatyam.

The title of the Manipuri segment was 'Sapta' (seven). Sanjib told me that it was an attempt to paint 'time' using three sets of seven beats cycle, each depicting a significant tradition of Manipuri classical dance. Each set was uniquely designed to invigorate one of the five senses of the human body. Tandav and lasya movement, for instance, was aimed at the audience's sense of sight, the Pung, while drumming on both sides weaves rhythmic patterns through the sense of touch, the music makes them immerse in the ocean of sound through the sense of hearing. Thus 'Sapta' was a celebration of the time that invigorates the senses, using the diversity and traditions of Manipuri classical dance.

'Time the Elusive Friend', a contemporary Bharatanatyam presentation choreographed and performed by Kavya Ganesh came next. The external time is a linear dimension, ticking along in a constant, singular rhythm. Kavya questions, 'What about the internal time?' She conceptualized time as 'Sakhi', the friend, and interpreted time from this intriguing perspective. A talented disciple of Rama Vaidyanathan, Kavya is a thinking dancer like her acclaimed guru. Music by G.S. Rajan enhanced the unusual theme and its nuanced interpretation with a contemporary touch to Bharatanatyam.

The inaugural evening concluded with a scintillating solo performance by the Kuchipudi dancer Bhavana Reddy. Opening with 'Narasimhavataram', she chose Jayadeva's ashtapadi from Geeta Govind, "Nij  gadasa  Yadunandane..." for abhinaya. The concluding Jathiswaram, came as a tapestry of melody and rhythm with the popular Tarangam when she awed the audience by dancing on the edges of a brass plate. The electrifying moment though came as a pleasant surprise when Bhavana sang 'Lekha' (letter), from the 'Bhama-Kalapam' dance drama, which brought the audiences to their feet.

Erasing Borders and India@75 Dance Festival in New York

The second day of the in-person India@75 Dance Festival at the Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theatre, opened with 'Andaaz', (Kathak with live music), an immersive exploration of rhythm and dance by the brilliant Kathak dancer Jin Won with tabla accompaniment by Mike Lukshis and electric viola by Martha Mooke. A sonic and visual endeavour alternating between two different rhythm cycles of 5 ½ beats and 16 beats, Andaaz explored the subtle mathematics and movements through the contemporary and traditional forms of Kathak to portray a captivating canvas of visual imagery. The second item 'Saa Magni' choreographed by Yannick Lebrun and performed by Meagan King and Christopher Taylor to the music by Oumou Sangare from the album Ko Sira, published by World Circuit Records, was presented in the spirit of hope and celebration through dance.

Poo | Poo (contemporary Bharatanatyam) conceived, choreographed and performed by Mythili Prakash underlined polarity. Co-existence. Singularity. Lingering between past and present, global and local, sacred and worldly, stylized and pedestrian, structure and fluidity; Poo | Poo (flower in Tamil | shit in America) negotiated the weight of past and tradition through the freedom of our bodies and voices today in re-imagining of a traditional myth - the dance-off between Shiva and Kali. Music (vocal, sound design) by Aditya Prakash, Ganavya Doraiswamy, Sushma Somasekharan, percussion and sound design by Rajna Swaminathan and light designing by Mike Faba enhanced the overall effect of Mythili's unique concept and choreography.

Introduced by Subhalakshmi Khan, 'Erasing Borders Dance Festival' was premiered virtually on the 8th of August featuring Bharatanatyam dancers from across the globe. Tanya Saxena from India opened the presentations with 'Bindu', a movement film made in collaboration with the Raza Foundation. Inspired by the painting of S. H. Raza, Bindu (the Dot) was imaginatively choreographed and flawlessly performed by Tanya with effective music by Rajat Prasanna providing the perfect musical background. Opening with just the drone of taanpura and aalap on flute in Kaafi moving towards raga Jhinjhoti and Raza's painting in the background when the two hands painted with coloured lines move in slow-paced Samyukta Hastas, depicting how just a Bindu (dot) flows into multi-coloured lines of the geometrical designs of Raza's painting.

'Leher' (Wave) choreographed and performed by Tanveer Alam from Canada, portrayed Kathak like a river that keeps flowing with the musical rendition of the Thumri-like "Nadiya bahti rahe", sung with bol-aalap, providing a musical refrain to the Thaat like slow-moving hand and body gestures of the dancer. Emerged as a quiet response to the time and context of the massive change we all experienced since the pandemic, the dance work in vilambit (slow) teentaal underlines the decreasing velocity of time effectively.

'Terra' was a contemporary dance with influences from movement techniques of Singapore and India. Choreographed by Liz Lea and danced by Subastian and Shahrin Johry from Singapore this dance work was performed mostly on percussion. 'Birds of Time' choreographed and performed by Mythili Maratt Anoop in Mohiniattam was inspired by a moving poem of Sarojini Naidu. The dancer imaginatively interpreted the poem with an assortment of life's dramatic moments ultimately ending in silence, using the eye movements (drishti-bhedas) and the swaying lyrical grace of her dance form most effectively.

The concluding presentation 'Animals: an excerpt film from 'Looking Within Looking Around' was presented by Bharatanatyam dancers from all over India. Conceptualized by Deepali Salil, choreographed and performed by Neelav Sen as Gazelle, Shubhamani Chandrashekhar as Orca, Athul Balu as Hyena and Deepali Salil as Crane, 'Animals' had original music by Sanhit Chaudhury. The beautiful portrayal of animals who know how to co-exist effectively epitomised the importance of 'erasing borders.'

Manjari Sinha
Manjari Sinha has an M.A. in Sanskrit and Music, and trained in vocal, tabla, sitar and Kathak dance. She has regular columns in national dailies as a music and dance critic.

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