In the Fall of 2014, dancer/choreographer Smt. Ramaa Bharadvaj, along with other directors of Chinmaya Naada Bindu Gurukul of Kolwan India, completed a 7-week performance tour of the US, sponsored by the Chinmaya Mission West with the blessings of Swami Tejomayananda.
At the special request of BN&WWW, Ramaa narrates some of her extraordinary travel experiences, precious arts encounters and witty insights in her essay “Nava-dvaara – Nine doors to artistry”. It is being published as a five-part serial.
Nava-Dvaara – The gaze
In a personal letter to my family in the year 1988, Swami Chinmayananda wrote this:
“What we have are all His loving gifts to us. With what we DO with what we have, we can make it all our gifts to Him.”
From the Heavens to the Earth, the Arts are said to have descended as gifts to humankind, with a clear purpose – to educate, enlighten and entertain. It is propitious that my Nava-Dvaara too began that way – with the story of Miracles & Messages brought by a Divine gift. Now, five weeks later, I am at the threshold of the final door, set to open into the world of both the Artists as well as the Rasikas for whom the Arts were intended.
As Artists, how do we present our art form, and more importantly how do we represent it?
As Rasikas how do we receive it and share it?
These in fact will define how we offer our gifts back to Him.
Read on …
Door #9: Stars & Stargazers…
No high school auditoriums; no children running in and out; no screeching mikes; no aunty-uncle chatters. When Daniel Phoenix Singh first envisioned the Dakshina Fall Festival of South Asian Arts 11 years ago, it was to create a professional connect between Indian performing artists and the American viewers. From fundraising to programming, this soft-spoken young man and his team have accomplished just that with style.
The downtown venue and the Shakespeare Theater provided a hip location for the attractive array of artists scheduled for the Festival’s 11th year, with my “MITRA-Dance Hymn to Friendship” featured on the 2nd day.
Receiving a standing ovation from dance colleagues that I admire was memorable in itself. But the Festival had more gifts to offer.
FACETS OF COLLABORATION:
As if the gracious dinner reception hosted by Sridharan Madhusudhanan, Minister of Press Information and Culture, at The Indian Embassy wasn’t chic enough, the panel on Creativity and Collaboration kicked things up a notch.
– Ananda Shankar Jayant was delightfully practical
– Anil Srinivasan was casual and relaxed
– Anita Ratnam was elegant and eloquent
– Dhananjayan was the Banyan tree rooted in wisdom
– Sikkil Gurucharan was up to the point
Here are some quotable thoughts:
Anil: “People who remind me of where I come from and how much more I have to go make the best collaborators.”
Anita: “I collaborate with people who challenge me – where I can start from a place of discomfort … Artists who want to reach out, need to be secure with their art and be ready to meet the other artist. But when two prima divas get together to collaborate, there are challenges – in that case, get a third eye, a dramaturge or director. It cuts egos.”
Dhananjayan: “International collaborations form cultural relationships. There are no inferiority or superiority complexes. Arts bring Hearts together.”
Spirituality in Indian dance:
Ananda: “Spirituality is a personal journey – I don’t worry about it being met from outside. In dance it may or may not happen.”
Anita: “Words such as spiritual and mystic cloak many realities and play into the exotica thus diminishing the true power of the tradition. Everybody has a spiritual core. The culture of the moving dancing body is itself powerful.”
Dhananjayan: “Spirituality is not about religion. Through medium of art one elevates oneself to a higher plane through discipline, devotion and dedication and takes our viewers to a different plane of experience.”
Negotiating the past, present & future
Anita: “Geography is my history. I tell old stories in new ways. I look to the future and mentoring young dancers – they would be my connection to the future.”
Dhananjayan: “Past is the foundation for the present to build a future”
Traditional VS contemporary
Ananda: “Tradition is a flowing river – we as pilgrims come to the river, take what we can and leave ourselves in it. I don’t like waiting at the door for Krishna however traditional it is.”
Gurucharan: “I look to staying true to the tradition that I am trained in and yet challenge myself to push boundaries.”
Perfectionism VS creative exploration
Anita: “In Indian dance imperfection and improvisations of the moment is the beauty. It is different from the mechanical perfection of the West. I don’t look for perfectionism but rather being present in the performance – to have the muscle memory but then to look for something deeper.”
Dhananjayan: “Perfection is a relative term. One which touches the heart of rasika is the ultimate perfection.”
HOW LEGENDS ARE MADE:
The make up was on – the hair was done – it was just minutes before getting into costume. So what does a legend do while waiting backstage? I was about to find out.
It was the day after my performance at the Dakshina Festival. I had chosen to spend the afternoon backstage with the dance legends Shanta & Dhananjayan as they got ready for their time on stage. After 62 years of dancing career, and with a whopping number of performances, international travels and national awards under their belt (or should it be bells!) one would expect for either of them to breeze on to any stage as if it were their living room. But Shanta Akka paced the green room floor in total focus, going through the movements and last minute clarifications with her musical co-stars.
Here was a demonstration by one of the greats, that there is no time limit for sadhana.
She sat down on the couch for a little while, and I handed her a peeled orange section. But she held my hand instead. Eyes gleaming with childlike wonder she said, “I get so nervous before I take that first step on stage. Don’t you?” “Even after all these years Akka?” I asked in surprise. “Oh yes, always” she said and quickly went back to forming shapes with her fingers and muttering rhythms under her breath.
So I guess that’s how Legends are made! Or more importantly, that’s how Legends are kept!
LESSONS IN APPRECIATION:
It was the final day of the Dakshina Festival. Anil Srinivasan’s layerings on the piano and Sikkil Gurucharan’s impeccable singing, were washing over us like a river of nectar. There we were, a group of artists, in ecstatic enjoyment exclaiming “aha”s and “tsu tsu”s.
Suddenly the Indian woman in the next seat (who was intermittently answering text messages while all this nectar stuff was going on) turned to us and screamed “stop it! Just stop making all those sounds. You are bothering me.”
Her shriek brought to mind that great doyen Bharata (of Natyashastra fame of course). What would this woman do if she knew all that he had to say regarding appreciation methods, the ancient Indian way? I pictured her seated in a theater in Bharata’s time and openly grinned.
You see, the audience back then were no grumpy bunch. They were Rasikas, intent on both experiencing and expressing. Among the 6000 verses divided into 36 chapters, Bharata devotes an entire section titled “Success of the production” to providing a complete checklist on theater etiquette. According to that, responses from the audience could range from varying degrees of smiles & laughter and loud vocalizations to a swelling uproar. Then there was:
– The rising from their seats (a standing ovation!)
– The waving of fingers
and of course the ever popular
– Tossing up of the upper garment!
And when completely impressed, they would even give away parts of their own apparels like costly shawls and ornaments.
And what about those who didn’t like what they were seeing? Bharata provides a list for that too, of what he calls “blemishes” that would cause an event to fail. Of these, the one pertaining to audience conduct has to do with hecklers who were there simply to create mischief either because of jealousy or being bribed to be there to obstruct. They would therefore do things like scream, make buzzing noises, clap boisterously, or throw cow dung, clods of earth, grass and stones.
Thus it seems, whether in appreciation or criticism, the audience in Bharata’s times were a noisy lot.
Here I recall an article, “To applaud or not to applaud”, that I had invited writer Ragothaman Yennamalli to pen for the Naada Bindu Festival Journal. In it he discusses the methods of appreciation that have been in vogue in India from ancient times. Surprisingly, applause was not one of them. In fact, Rabindranath Tagore is said to have suggested banning the practice of clapping of the hands because it was a Western concept. In Indian dramatics, clapping was the equivalent of mocking the performer.
All this reflection now leads me to ponder. When US schools students are brought to the theater to watch professional performances, they are briefed about theater decorum. Maybe Indo-American concertgoers should also be similarly introduced to appreciation protocol Natyashastra style? Then the rest of us can relax into our “tsu tsu”s and “aha”s and maybe even toss up an upper garment or two.
9 WINDOWS …
Along with each of the doors that opened to an elaborate encounter, there were also many caressably dear moments – Windows to peek into. I share a few of them here, categorized under my version of the classic Nava-Rasa (nine-emotions).
Yes, it’s true. Life is itself a story waiting to be danced.
– A private lesson on make-up tips from young (and brilliant) Kasi Aysola of MAC cosmetics.
– Vinatha Kumar and her infectious enthusiasm for dance (and dancers).
– Anita Ratnam’s seductive leaning-on-the-piano stance as Surpanakha.
– Sitting in the vine-shaded patio with my precious friend Suchi Branfman after my master class at Scripps College, and watching students go by. There is something energizing in simply watching the Youth. It is like gazing at hopes, aspirations, passions and dreams.
– Getting my California driver’s license renewed in under 2 hours.
– Driving, driving and driving my daughter’s car to my heart’s content.
– Savoring melon daiquiris and spinach raviolis with my pals David and Analucia at Columbo’s in Los Angeles, and the ‘Vathal Kuzhambu’ lovingly prepared by Sukanya Shankar in her kitchen in Encinitas.
– Planting evergreen trees in Poway Park in memory of my nephew Sumi.
– Being part of the Veteran’s Day rituals at Arlington National Cemetery.
– Facing outright rejection by Ellie, my grand-dog.
– Negotiating the corn maze at a Chicago farm and bouncing around in a pit filled with corn kernels.
– Grabbing that window seat on South West Airlines! YES, and I got it every time!
– Finding the hidden signature of celebrated photorealist Richard Estes in each of his outstanding paintings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
– Learning that my entire travel itinerary had been mistakenly cancelled by the airlines after I reach the airport at Shreveport.
– Service at American Airlines counters – all of them.
– Walking the Museum-lined streets of Washington DC in rain.
– Becoming a member of the spectacular Library of Congress and accessing its reading room.
– Posthumously meeting Cher Ami, the spy-bird that carried a message-canister on its injured leg, and flew 25 miles in 25 minutes to save 194 lives during World War I.
– The serene gardens at the Sadhu Vaswani Center in Shreveport, Louisiana.
– Being with my children and son-in-law whom I hadn’t seen in 2 years.
IN CONCLUSION …
Like the perfection of the human body that is described as the house with 9 gates, this story too feels complete for me, in the revelations offered by these 9 doors and 9 windows, though they are only a sampling of the whole adventure.
Art and artists have always been travelers – flowing as a river that brings its own flavor from its source but also gathers the fragrant pollens and colors of the earth over which it runs. Therefore, the more I travel and experience, the less I feel inclined to bestowing superlatives upon my culture, art form, cuisine, clothing style, religion or philosophy. To do so would require first experiencing the cultural cornucopia of all the “others” in this vast wide world.
All I can do is aim to gain a better understanding today, than I did yesterday, of my own cultural riches and share them with sincerity and a sense of humor. That is all an Artist can ever hope to do.
My gratitude goes to the generous hosts who opened the literal doors of their homes to me in the 10 cities that I visited; the organizers who gave their best; my old buddies who embraced me with joy and the new friends who brought a smile to my heart.
As Benjamin Disraeli said, “I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”
Until another time, much love and many thanks for following along …
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ramaa Bharadvaj is a storyteller – sometimes with movements and sometimes with words. She is an award-winning dancer, movement designer, educator, arts advisor, advocist, and published writer. After 31 years in the USA she returned to India in 2009 and is currently Director-Dance at Chinmaya Naada Bindu Gurukul for Performing Arts in Kolvan, India.
Ramaa dedicates this essay to Swami Tejomayananda, who recommended that she be part of this US performance tour.