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|
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 watch...as 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..
|Chitrasena & Vajira|
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
- Reed, Susan A. Dance and the Nation: Performance, Ritual, and Politics in Sri Lanka. 2010.
- Videos are available online from the accompanying DVD at the ethnovisions website; features recordings by the author in the late 1980s of male/female stage dance, the Kohomba Konkariya ritual, training etc--very nice!
- Nurnberger, Marianne. Dance is the Language of the Gods: The Chitrasena School and the Traditional Roots of Sri Lankan Stage Dance. 1998.
- Subha's Blog. "What Samhara Means: A Review of Samhara and an Unraveling of What it Really Means for Sri Lankan Dance"
- "Samhara" at the 2012 Konark Festival - Amateur video footage.
- Related Post: Film Dances/Appearances of Ram Gopal and Extant Dance Footage. Discusses Ram Gopal's Kandyan Choreography in the Hollywood film Elephant Walk which may feature the Kandyan dancer Jayana Rajapakse.
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."