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RASA: An Exploration of Indian Classical Dance at Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre

Ballet audiences of Cambridge, MA were treated to an exciting evening of classical dances from India on Saturday March 16, 2019. ‘RASA - An Exploration of Indian Classical Dance’ was held as part of the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre’s new dance series ‘Dance Saturdays at the Sanctuary’. This innovative dance series that showcases local, culturally diverse dance groups, celebrated Indian dance along with music, visual arts, and even food!

RASA was the brainchild of accomplished dancer Anandini Sekhar, who, in addition to being an in-demand musician, also directs the Vidyanjali Dance School of New England conducting Bharatanatyam dance classes in Newton and Burlington, MA. The three-hour long immersive experience featured two Indian classical dances (Bharatanatyam and Odissi), poetry, music of dance, paintings, and sculpture in addition to a delicious Indian dinner, and a cash bar.

The evening began with a half-hour introductory lesson on classical Indian dance by Bharatanatyam dancer Amrutha Ananth. The ensuing performance was held in the Sanctuary, wherein the ambience was electric with stunning paintings on the walls, banners hanging from the cathedral ceilings, displays of sculptures of Indian dancers. The décor, managed by Shalini Prasad, was enlivened by the paintings and sculptures by local Indian artists curated by Catherine Amidon.

The dances were supported by a team of classical Indian musicians who sat cross-legged on risers to the left side of the stage --- vocalists Aditya Venkatesh, Kavitha Venkatesan, and Anandini Sekhar, violinist Mvn Kiran Kumar, and drummer Varun Chandramouli, who played the two-headed drum called the mridangam. The dancers were conducted by the doyenne of the Tanjore style of Bharatanatyam, Sudha Chandra Sekhar of Michigan who played rhythms on the cymbals to direct the dancers’ movements. The program was emceed by dance afficionado Shekhar Shastri.

The evening began with an exploration of various facets of the dance form Bharatanatyam. Three teams of dancers, dressed in exotic colorful costumes and jewelry’ presented invocations to the Hindu deities Ganesha, Kartikeya and Nataraja, praying for the success of the show. The dancers included students of the Vidyanjali dance school of New England, of Hindu Temple Rhythms of Michigan, and guest artistes Suvarna Krishnan and Anusha Ramachandran. The

dancers wore rows of bells on their ankles and they all were perfectly synchronized with the conductor’s cymbals. Then the younger dancers presented a sequence of dance movement or ‘nritta’ called alarippu. The movements started from subtle neck movements moving to limb movements and eventually leaps symbolizing the blossoming of a flower.

The next piece demonstrated how Bharatanatyam gestures (called mudras) and movements could be used in descriptive dance. Amrutha Ananth presented a song ‘Ananda Natamidum Padam’ that described the cosmic dance of the lord of dance – Nataraja, who dances on one foot with the other leg raised. Dancing to intricate rhythmic patterns called ‘pancha nadai’, Amrutha explored the various rhythmic possibilities in descriptive dance. Storytelling through dance was presented next by a mother-daughter duo, Chitra and Divya Narayan, students of the conductor Sudha Chandra Sekhar of Michigan. Through the lyrical poem ‘Devi Neeye Thunai’, they presented the story of a warrior-queen Meenakshi – the miracle of her birth, how she conquered numerous kingdoms to establish and empire, and her eventual wedding to the Hindu God Shiva, making her a Goddess.

The next innovative item explored how dance could be partnered with poetry. Poet Sunayana Kachroo presented her Hindi poem ‘Paani’ about water – its importance to the human way of life and existence. To the soft guitar accompaniment of Sam Bhambhani, dancers Anandini Sekhar (Bharatanatyam) and Mouli Pai (Odissi) used the idiom of dance to enhance the poetry recitation. The poetry session continued with a rendition in English that was set to a rhythmic meter. The audience joined in enthusiastically clapping time.

The post-intermission session started with a couple of solo items by accomplished Odissi dancer Mouli Pai. She alternated rhythmic interludes with flowing expressive dancing to dance about the monsoon (a season in India marked by torrential rains). Many Indian love poems and song lyrics are set in the monsoon season.

Rohith Jayaraman of the Berklee India exchange introduced the audience to the rhythms of Indian classical dance. First, he got the audience keeping time to the common 8-beat rhythm called ‘adi taalam’. Then he introduced them to the four fundamental sounds of dance rhythms namely ‘that, di, thom, nam’, and proceeded to build a sequence of sounds called ‘jathis’. He finished his segment by singing a fast piece called a thillana in Desh ragam.

The finale of the show was a duet by Anandini Sekhar (Bharatanatyam) and Mouli Pai (Odissi). They danced a fast-paced number – the famous ‘Kremlin Tarana’ by the world-famous Ravi Shankar. Alternating between the Bharatnatyam and Odissi segments, this item showed how the same music can be danced to very distinct classical styles.

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