Demystifying India

This past Sunday, the modern dance studio transformed from a simple setting of grey “marley” flooring and black curtains to an ethnically detailed Indian temple for “Demystifying India,” a classical Indian dance performance organized by Supriya Jain ’12 and Saloni Jain ’13. The Jain sisters pulled together the performance with the advising of Erin Strong, Department Chair of Theater and Dance, and the help of their longtime dance teacher Neena Gulati, who serves as a guru at the Triveni School of Dance in Cambridge, MA. The sisters created a stunning spectacle that displayed their passion for Indian culture and dance. The entire room was appropriately adorned for the occasion. Multi-colored flowers bordered the stage, and incense burned faithfully in a small corner beside a shrine for the Indian gods. In classical Indian dance, the dance floor is not merely a place where the dancers display their moves. The entire stage is a holy temple, and the dances themselves are intended for worship and adoration of the Indian gods. All classical Indian performances start off with a tribute to these gods, and “Demystifying India” was no exception. “Bhoomi Mangalam,” the first dance in a series of four dances, invoked feelings of fluidity as the essence of nature was brought about for a dedication to Lord Ganesha, the lord of beginnings and obstacles. Saloni Jain said, “The first dance is performed as a sort of good luck ritual. We acknowledge our protector in order that nothing bad happens during the performance.” “Ras Shabdam” was another dance that was heavily influenced by the deities. This expressive piece portrayed the story of Lord Krishna and his wife, Radha. The dancers, adorned in traditional saris, shiny gold bangles and elaborate headdresses, gathered for this final dance. Big, fierce and twisting arm movement softly complemented the small intricacies of the wrist as the dance combined technique with story portrayal. Red markings on their hands and feet accentuated these intricate gestures, so that the audience could differentiate movements that were sometimes hard to see. “Ras Shabdam” culminated with each of the dancers taking their places atop brass plates, which created a sense of floating and mirror imaging. The live orchestra added to the authenticity of the temple. Sounds from the wooden flute, violin, mridangam (a traditional Indian drum) and nattuvangam (a set of mini hand cymbals) served their role as a keeper of beats. Traditionally played by the teacher, Gulati fulfilled her role as the nattuvangam player. Supriya Jain said, “The Guru always accompanies the orchestra on the nattuvangam. She provides the dancers the beats and also recites the syllables so that the dancers know what to do during the jatis, the portions of pure dance that involve rhythmic and intricate patterns of footsteps.” Gulati also got the audience involved with an interactive workshop where she called up audience members and taught them some basic Indian steps. Gulati’s experience and tenderness of teaching were exemplified during this short workshop. She guided the volunteers with a simple storyline. She said, “As you open your eyes, you will see the whole world where birds are flying, water is falling, fish are swimming, flowers are blooming, bees are buzzing, and the rising sun is setting.” As she spoke, she showed the dancers how to portray this through their movements. “Tarana” was a unique piece because it was a “pure dance” which means that it was a dance simply for display of technique and poise, with no story behind it. With vibrant rhythms, intricate footwork and fast and furious movement, “Tarana” was a great success. Even solid poses, which required much strength and balance, had interwoven intricacies such as delicate finger position, which added to the exotic quality of the piece. One noticeable feature of Indian dance that enhanced the performance was the beautiful execution of facial expression. Supriya said, “Indian Classical dance is as much a dance technique as it is a form of theatrical expression, so mime and facial expressions play a huge role. Much of Indian Classical dance revolves around conveying ancient stories for the purpose of entertainment or to impart a moral message, so one must use the face as much as the gestures to fully portray a particular character or emotion.” Another out of ordinary experience was when Shefali Lohia ’10 chanted the story of Lord Krishna and princess Radha in a poem called, “I Went to the Market” while dancing an interpretive dance. Supriya said, “My sister and I started thinking about the idea for the performance in the early fall and applied and received a grant from the Abbot Academy association.” She continued, “Since then, we have been rehearsing the dances with the fellow performers, contacting the orchestra members, making invitations and posters, creating decorations, and much more – so it was truly momentous to see all of this hard work culminate in Sunday afternoon’s success.”