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Friday, June 11, 2010

Erasing Borders and Transporting Minds

Erasing Borders and Transporting Minds
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

New York, NY – “Erasing Borders: Festival of Indian Dance – Spring 2010” was the header of the colorful green and red postcard that Prachi Dalal handed me. The Dance Director of the Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC) was combing through unusual jewelry at a city street fair that particular late May afternoon. We struck up a brief chat and when the conversation turned to dance, she passed off the card encouraging me to attend.

Ultimately, I was connected to publicist Jitin Hingorani of Jingo Media and, on the second Sunday of June, found myself strolling into the expansive lobby of Asia Society and Museum at 725 Park Avenue near 70th Street. On the slate was an informal performance titled “Kutcheri-Mehfil: Cushion Conversations.” This was the closing performance of a three-day weekend festival held June 4-6 that had featured traditional and experimental, classical and post-modern Indian dance. With some of the work performed by American dance company members, the fest truly aimed to make connections between India, America and a globalizing world. In addition to performances, the fest also offered panels, workshops and demonstrations of Indian and Indian-inspired dance.

Stepping off the elevator into a visually pleasing, stone-tiled waiting area on the eighth floor, I noticed fellow patrons slipping off their shoes and placing them in a row along the wall of a narrow hallway. I couldn’t recall a time wherein I’d removed my footwear for an event but recognized the custom and gladly (and enthusiastically) abided. I was also relieved I had recently trimmed my toenails and that my feet were looking acceptably presentable!

The performance attracted a full house and we attendees stood by around a small water feature, with flower petals and small circular candles floating on the surface, in the middle of the room. The gathering reflected the unification -- the erasing of borders not only between art forms but also between peoples – that the event was trying to promote. Beautiful brown, black and white faces, neat attire and a pleasant, congenial and anticipatory vibe reigned.

Tall, heavy doors suddenly swung open and access was provided to a high-ceilinged “theater” (actually the Rose Conference Hall), which featured a low stage at the opposite end, an area for musicians to the left and, set in rows on the immediate floor space, cushions and fabric seatbacks. At the very back of the room sat chairs for elders and those preferring a less makeshift seat. 

These would be tight, warm quarters for sure and quite conducive to getting to know your immediate neighbors. Perhaps this was the intent I thought, given the theme of world unity and amity.

After some shuffling about by us audience members as we jigsaw puzzled ourselves into our sitting spaces – carefully placing a foot here, an elbow there, a seatback here – Ms. Dalal, dressed in a bright yellow salwar kameez with gold trim, introduced dancer and choreographer Chitra Sundaram. A standout in India, Britain and other dance circles abroad, the sunny-faced woman, in a flowing red-patterned sari, focused her talk on Abhinaya.

Quite literally mime, this method lies at the heart of Indian dance and consists of a dancer conveying poetic, philosophic and imagistic meanings suggested by accompanying lyrics. “The dancers are not going to just jump around the stage,” Sundaram explained. “They will be performing text-based rhythms and need you to be very close to them.” The intimate performance area and cushion-based seating certainly allowed for this.

“Abhinaya is not just expressive dance… it’s an incorporation of the whole universe… all sound… the moon, heavenly bodies… with the body, from the body, on the body… conveying emotional feelings,” the dancer/choreographer added with regard to the all-encompassing nature of the format.

“The primal purpose is to generate rasa,” Sundaram continued, drawing a comparison between the performer’s objective and the complexities of rasam, a thin soup from South India. While the ingredients are few and simple, getting the perfect flavor is elusive. Similarly, in Abhinaya, transmitting that aesthetic experience and evoking rasa is elusive and every performer seeks to experience and share rasa with the audience. “To generate the flavor of a particular emotion and release it into the space… to generate emotion outside the dancer. The performance presumes someone is watching. Literally translated, Abhinaya is ‘taking the meaning to words’… reading certain signals… it has an emotional impact on you.”

At its base, Dalal said, “Abhinaya is interpreting poetry… and it takes on a magical form when if unfolds spontaneously in front of an audience in an intimate space.”

Joining Dalal and Sundaram was Purnima Shah, Associate Professor of the Practice of Dance at Duke University and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies and Ethnography from the Department of Theatre and Drama, University of Wisconsin-Madison. An accomplished dancer, Shah has given performances on three continents.

Simply yet elegantly dressed in a black top and tan slacks, with her long black hair tied back with a red ribbon and gold hoop earrings glinting in the stage lights, Shah pointed out, “A mark of artistry is how well you interpret and present Abhinaya. The songs have very few words and are very poetic, but they don’t describe everything.”

Shah also commented on the typical performers of Abhinaya, saying, “In Indian dance, a mature dancer is past his/her 40s, which is unlike most worldwide dance wherein a ballerina reaches her prime at 28! Maturity comes with age and life experience.”

At that moment, Dalal summoned the musicians, which included Deepti Navaratna, a Carnatic vocalist from Cambridge, MA, and Srinidhi Mathur, a Carnatic violinist from India. Dalal also introduced the first performer, Anuradha Nehru. A Kuchipudi dancer and choreographer, Nehru has been critically acclaimed for her performances around the world, has taught for over 20 years in the United States and leads a dance company called Kalanidhi Dance.

Attired in a colorful red sari accented by a gold belt, golden bangles and a gold necklace, Nehru described the background of the poem she was going to perform. She noted that it would be a “light-hearted Javali” and describe a woman who comes upon her beloved, notices that he is not his usual self and suspects that he’s been affected by someone. “Your face seems so crestfallen, why are you so upset?” she translates. The woman assumes it is another woman that has created the change in her beloved and her imagination goes wild thinking about what could be the problem. “If you tell me first, you can feast on my lips,” the subject says.

With the musical accompaniment, Nehru began her performance. Closely watching her facial expressions and body movements, one could easily understand what was being conveyed even if one didn’t know the story itself or was unable to translate the accompanying lyrics. This was the sign of talent of which Shah had spoken. Indeed, the mood evoked by her gestures and the tinny music that emanated from tripod-mounted speakers was one of sadness and melancholy, as the frustration of the questioning lover became apparent.

Ramya Ramnarayan, a Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer from New Jersey, followed. Dressed in a burnt-orange sari trimmed with gold and “masked” with dark heavy eyeliner, Ramnarayan performed a very dramatic spoken piece to begin, then a poem selection from Sangam literature. The Sangam period is defined as a time window between 600 BC and 300 AD during which approximately 475 Dravidian Tamil poets from various professions and classes of society created a collection of over 2,300 poems. This classic Tamil literature predominantly deals with emotional and material topics such as love, war, governance, trade and bereavement. Ramnarayan’s gestures were warlike with simulations of arrows being fired and warriors being killed in battle.

To support the next performer, another set of musicians, of a Hindustani (North Indian) tradition, strolled in and sat near the end of the stage, replacing the previous group. Providing vocals, Ms. Astha Shukla is trained in Hindustani classical, semi-classical and light music. On sitar, innovative musician Indrajit Roy-Chowdhury has performed at leading venues in New York, Washington D.C. and Kolkata, India. Manning the tabla, Dr. Amod Dandawate has accompanied many high-caliber Indian artists.

The featured performer was Prerana Deshpande, an internationally acclaimed Kathak dancer and dance teacher/choreographer. Attired in a muted brown sari with ovular shapes and simple bracelets, Deshpande described her piece as a poem about finding inner peace and a place called Vrindavan, the abode of Krishna -- a virtual Eden, very tranquil, with cows, birds, fertile soil, a river and a beautiful girl.

The next dancer/storyteller was Guru Rachna Sarang, a middle-aged woman dressed in a pale green salwar kameez. Sarang is a distinguished Kathak artist who has been performing, teaching and choreographing for the past 40 years. She chose to perform poetry from Mirabai, one of India’s most beloved poet-saints. The latter is known for the devotional nature of her poetry, directed toward Giridhara, a form of the God-man Krishna. In the selection, the subject is yearning for Krishna’s attention, a desire that borders on jealousy.

Teaming up to perform a piece by 15th Century poet Annamacharya was Nehru and Ramnarayan. In this selection, a passionate lovemaking session between a celestial couple is described, with phrasing about a “voice sweet as honey”, “bared breasts”, “lotus-like eyes”, “body covered with beads of sweat” and an “exhausted look”, all related to the state the goddess is in. The audience here became particularly involved in this piece. They were rapt in fact, heads cocked to the side, grins spreading across faces, eyes twinkling and amused, almost feeling a guilty pleasure about enjoying the telling.

Also performing a duet was Sarang and Deshpande, about a woman, yearning for her lover, who becomes increasingly irritated and agonized by the sweet sounds of nature around her.

The latter was the last set of the regular performance period and the moderators thanked the performers, musicians and coordinators for their collaboration, effort and the many miles some had traveled to attend the event. It was clear, though, that the audience wanted to hear and see more. So it was suggested that a Ghazal be performed, something that “one doesn’t get to see very often” as one coordinator opined. A Ghazal, with Islamic origins dating back to the 6th Century, is a poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain.

“Do we have time?” said one moderator. “Two minutes!” another responded, which elicited a laugh from the audience, who recognized that the performers really wanted to provide this experience, no matter how much time remained. Jumping to the stage was Navtej Johar, joining Sarang. Johar is a leading Bharatanatyam dancer and respected choreographer from New Delhi, India, and has performed at prestigious venues the world over. The duet’s “act” was simultaneously amusing, transporting, expressive and heartfelt.

Johar characterized the latter as “an experiment” and said that this is how these performances should be conducted. “This is what Abhinaya really is about. What we do on stage is fake (i.e. choreographed and not spontaneous as it was meant to be). It’s a tragedy,” he expressed. “These are things that happened in intimacy. I see you eye to eye and then go beyond. I talk to you like my lover… and you are not my lover… How do I make my body available to the people in front of me? That’s what we are doing here.”

In the viewing audience’s opinion, this had certainly been achieved. These “cushion conversations” had truly been intimate, wherein a tangle of multi-cultural peoples in a lounge-like atmosphere responded to the personal works performed directly in front of them. 

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