The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble in Utah!

Saturday, March 16, 2013
I saw Nrityagram! Dance! In person! In Utah! :D

Yes, us wee Intermountain West inhabitants don't get to see very many live performances of Indian dance, especially of the caliber of Nrityagram, so this was quite a treat! On March 14, Nrityagram performed in Provo at Brigham Young University (BYU) as part of its Performing Arts Series this year.  I was initially stunned to hear Nrityagram was coming to BYU, a private religious university owned and ran by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the LDS or "Mormons" - remember Romney?) and located in a conservative and religiously-homogenous area.  While Utah isn't the most hip and happening place overall, there are some trendy and diverse areas and offerings concentrated in Salt Lake City proper and the University of Utah which is a respected, public research university.  But Provo, and BYU, down to the south is a different story!

BYU library's Music and Dance entrance
But now I know better than to be surprised by BYU's snagging of Nrityagram. For one, BYU seems to have a great dance program and regularly hosts diverse visiting performing artists.  BYU's Contemporary Dance Theatre has even visited and performed in India, and their International Folk Dance Ensemble has performed Indian dances/music.  But here's the real reason: Over the past year I have uncovered a little secret.  BYU has a surprising collection of Indian dance materials in its library!  The dance collection contains rare pamphlets and booklets like a 1965 booklet on Kalakshetra, a 1963 pamphlet on Balasaraswati, and a 1949 program for Uday Shankar's American tour! A limited-edition original of Ragini Devis' 1928 book Nrityanjali is there as are a number of titles by Indian dance scholars Sunil Kothari and Mohan Khokar. Of more recent dancers, Padma Subramaniam's three-volume set on Karanas, Jayalakshmi Eshwar's pictorial guide to Bharatanatyam adavus, and VP Dhananjayan's book on Indian dance are in the collection.  There's even a small set of volumes from the amazing Sruti magazine published in India!  And tons more!

Clearly this collection indicates acquisition policies supporting detailed and authentic Indian dance materials and also the support of Indian dance enthusiasts who have donated rare originals.  Or maybe one of the librarians there is an Indian dance nerd!  The collection is likely driven by course offerings given that BYU offers a number of individual classes on ethnic dance techniques around the world, Indian included.  Nrityagram's visit and lecture-demonstrations are the cherry on top this year! I hope the students know how lucky they are!

Thoughts on "Samhara" and  Kandyan Dance

So back to Nrityagram!  Images of Nrityagram dancers were among the first things that drew me into Indian classical dance forms years ago when I first discovered them.  I specifically remember gazing at images like this one over at Flickr.  The simple, cotton practice saris and absolute joy of the dancers is so engaging and led to my love for performances in practice saris as collected in my post on classical practice dances in Indian cinema.

The performance on March 14, "Samhara," was a collaboration between the three Odissi dancers from Nrityagram (Surupa Sen, Bijayini Satpathy, and Pavithra Reddy) and two female Kandyan dancers from the Chitrasena Dance Company, Thaji Dias and Mithilani Munasingha (and of course five live musicians!).  Kandyan (or “up-country”) dance is one of the three main dance forms identified with the majority Sinhala ethnic community in Sri Lanka and is considered Sri Lanka’s national dance. 

Nrityagram's Odissi choreography took classical movements and imaginatively expanded upon them to create beautiful shapes and creative patterns.  Bijayini Sathpathy is an expert at holding her legs frozen in upward positions; it's difficult to do and many dancers visibly show their discomfort and jump a few milliseconds ahead of cue to lower their leg and get some relief, but Bijayani holds her limbs effortlessly and blends into the next movement without skipping a beat.  I found it magical to I did everything else, especially with the lighting techniques and peek-a-boo appearance/disappearance of the dancers!  Nrityagram skillfully employs creativity while maintaining respect for traditional Odissi..

Two pieces, Arpanam and Alap, featured a thrilling, rhythmically-diverse duet (featuring both Indian and Sri Lankan percussion) between the Nrityagram and  Chitrasena dancers.  What stole the show for me was the tall, svelte, picturesque Chitrasena dancers!  Their thin frames accentuated the energetic and pulsating movements taken from Kandyan dance, and their joy for dance was infectious.  While the movement vocabulary they used was relatively limited compared to the Odissi dancers, I found it so visually engaging I think I forgot to breathe in certain parts!  The wide-legged posture, sky-high leg raises, confident bounces,  ardhachandra hand gesture, simplified (nontraditional?) costumes, and display of sensuous, feminine beauty are aesthetically a stunning mix.  Here is a practice example of the style of the Chitrasena dancers and they way they interplay with Nrityagram in Samhara:

Chitrasena & Vajira
I was surprised to learn that Thaji Dias, the Chitrasena dancer closest to the camera above, is the granddaughter of the famed Sri Lankan dancer Chitrasena (Maurice Dias) who started the Chitrasena School of Dance, the first of its kind in Ceylon, in 1944.  Chitrasena's work shares some affinities with Uday Shankar.  Chitrasena was a "high-caste, English-educated dancer" who became "well known in Colombo for his oriental ballets that combined Ceylonese, Indian, and Western techniques" (Reed).  It seems that as his dance career progressed and dance became more accepted in Sri Lanka post-independence, Kandyan dance occupied the central character of his choreography. He essentially adapted the traditionally exclusive Kandyan dance of low-caste male ritualists to the stage using group choreography, descriptive gestures, melodious music, aesthetic visual techniques, translations for uninitiated audiences, and a dynamic, modern touch.  Chitrasena and his talented dancer-wife Vajira played a large part in popularizing Kandyan dance in Sri Lanka and raising its acceptability in a time when traditional dance in the country was held in low esteem.  I won't go into more detail here, but those interested in the history of dance in Sri Lanka should definitely get a hold of Susan Reed's book "Dance and the Nation: Performance, Ritual, and Politics in Sri Lanka" (you can see some videos from the accompanying DVD for free at the ethnovisions website).

As bits and pieces of conversations from audience members floated around me during the intermission, I was happy to hear a group behind me analyzing the arm and leg movements in detail and comparing/contrasting the two dance styles; they had apparently attended the lecture demonstrations Nrityagram held for BYU students only (cwy!) the day before (someone posted a pic from the event on twitter).  One woman was amazed at the "like, twenty different eyebrow and eyelid positions!" and as she read through the program was surprised so many of the performers and musicians had advanced education. 

But the most exciting part of the whole evening was meeting the dancers and Lynne Fernandez, Nrityagram's Managing Trustee!  Lynne was extremely gracious in talking with me and I was beyond humbled to learn that she was familiar with my blog and had found some of the rare devadasi footage I had featured useful.  I had some questions I had planned asking Lynne or the dancers (Odissi in Oriya films, existing recordings of their performances, Nan Melville's supposedly unfinished documentary), but I was so nervous I forgot everything! I was completely star struck...and still adjusting to the fact that Nrityagram was in front of me, in Utah, in the flesh!  

After the performance concluded, one thing was clear: I am a recorded-moving-image-girl at heart!  I found myself wanting to "rewind" a particularly-beautiful moment in the performance to watch it over and over and analyze it!  Live performance allows you to immerse yourself in the moment and atmosphere but never allows the opportunity to do so again!  It's a one-time deal, never to be repeated in exactly the same way.  Now I must return to pacifying myself with clips and amateur videos online like this one from the 2012 Konark Festival. :)

I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to see such talented dancers.  And I'm guessing this was Nrityagram's first performance to begin with an LDS prayer, a custom at BYU. :)

Sources and Further Reading/Watching

P.S. - As an aside, I want to point out that in Part 3 of my series on Indian Dances in Western Films about India, I had discussed an "oriental" dance in the 1938 British film The Drum featuring Miriam Pieris, the "first Ceylonese woman to study, master, and perform publicly, both Kandyan and South Indian dancing."  In Susan Reed's book noted above, I was happy to find more information about Miriam.  From the book:
"The introduction of women into the Kandyan dance was a revolutionary act.  In the early twentieth century, with the exception of village folk dances and the temple dances known as digge natum, which were limited to a few women of a particular subcaste, Sinhala women did not dance, as dance was considered a practice suitable only for prostitutes. [...] In the early 1930s Miriam Pieris shocked the nation when she performed Kandyan dance on stage in Colombo with the Sarasavi Players.  Her dancing, which was publicized in the Times of Ceylon, was considered scandalous. [...]Although Miriam did not go on to become a professional stage dancer, her performance on stage was significant for breaking not only the gender barrier but also the caste barrier.  To my knowledge Miriam's appearance on stage was the first appearance of a dancer of either gender from an aristocratic family. [...]Miriam's act gave Kandyan dance credibility at a time when the English-educated elite, espeically those from Colombo, had little or no interest in Kandyan dance."  


  1. I'm glad you had the chance to see Nrityagram and the Chitrasena dancers in the flesh! I never miss their performances in Bangalore. Here's an article I wrote on them a few years ago:

    1. Hello Isabel! How lucky that you get to see them regularly in Bangalore. :) I am very familiar with your post on Nrityagram! It's a beautifully written ode to their work and an excellent introduction. By the way, have you heard any updates on Sandrine Da Costa's Odissi documentary?

  2. Minai,
    Thanks for another nice introduction. I do not think Utah is backwaters. There is a famous mathematician Jim Cannon in Provo. I spent six weeks in Salt Lake City visiting another brilliant mathematician Mladen Bestvina. I could find Andhra pickles there and an excellent second hand book shop which had section on Gandhi.

  3. gaddeswarup - I had forgotten that you said you had visited Utah in the past! I didn't mean to imply Utah is "backwaters." I meant that while Utah has its positives (excellent outdoor activities/skiing, small pockets of trendiness in SLC, relaxed pace of living) Utah does not have the most culturally-diverse population and that an internationally-touring company like Nrityagram, who surely has concerns about filling seats in big auditoriums, seems an unlikely choice for an area like Provo. When I scanned the audience (which was not house full, I'm disappointed to add) I saw almost all white folk and a few Indians in attendance. Did you get your Andhra pickle at Ganesh Indian Cuisine in Midvale? That's the only place I'm familiar with that serves South Indian food like that. :) Utah does have a small but decent population from India/of Indian descent, a Hindu temple and a Hare Krishna temple, lots of Indian restaurants, at least one Indian dance school, and visiting but relatively local Indian dancers. But rarely does an opportunity like Nrityagram come along! But I'm glad it did, and I hope Nrityagram got a decent return on their investment. :)

    1. That was back in 1996. I do not remember the name of the place but Bestvina may remember. The surprise was the book shop; I never saw one before with a section on Gandhi.

  4. Good post.
    I used the links to have enjoyable reading and viewing. Thanks a lot.


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