From Kathakali to Kathak: Eight Indian Classical Genres at the 2014 SF Ethnic Dance Festival 

By David Roche

Sattriya Dance Company Photo courtesy of artist
Sattriya Dance Company / Photo courtesy of artist

The weekend of June 14-15, 2014, is shaping up as an unusual opportunity for Bay Area dance lovers: the chance to experience a stellar showcase of Indian classical dance by some of the finest dancers in America. While an evening of wonderful Indian dance is hardly a rare occurrence in the culture-rich Bay Area, this particular confl uence has a unique focus.

In the words of Sangam Arts President, Usha Srinivasan, “Festival goers will get to experience what very few people in the world, including India, can witness on one stage with one extended program, on one weekend. It’s unprecedented.”

Performing what the leading national arts institution of India, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, has designated the eight “classical” styles, Indian American dancers trained in India and in this country will present dances united by the canonical authority of a common spiritual and technical aesthetic of Indian dance. Classical, by this national defi nition, indicates those dance genres aligned with the tenets of the foundational Sanskrit manuals on theater direction, Bharata’s Natya Shastra (“Rules of Dance Drama,” ca. 200 BCE – 200 CE) and Abhinaya Darpana by Nandikeshvara (“Mirror of Gesture,” ca. 200 CE) being the two most prominent.

An artistic expression grounded in ancient textual or Hindu religious authority has become an even more national and sectarian signifier within the current political climate of India. But, politics aside, the core texts of Indian aesthetics have long been part of literary and fine arts theory and do indeed represent a cultural unity within ethnic diversity throughout South Asia.

Wherever Hindu temple and court complexes exist, even at the local village level, dance may have served as a component of the ritual process. And those distinct dance styles arising from temple and court may have shared common characteristics of theme and technique with other traditions spread widely not just across the region, but across the entire sub-continent.

The diverse community of Indian American dancers, hailing from all over India or born here, has taken a contemporary understanding of traditional kinesthetics within those dance traditions, based on the canonical texts. It has also taken, head on, the gender role restrictions and socially bracketed histories that once made these genres exclusive and isolated within a regional culture zone or among a select class or caste.

Indian American dancers in the Bay Area, in particular, have acted as transnational agents in taking bold steps with new, inclusive performance practices and stage techniques that have had a profound influence here and are now looping back to the homeland.

While familiarity with the major Indian forms of Bharata Natyam, Odissi and Kathak is almost a given for knowledgeable San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival audiences, the five other genres of Indian classical dance featured in this weekend’s programming are less well-known.

Mapping India by culture regions, the designated classical dances, in their court and temple points of origin, cover the entire area of present day India, from Manipur and Assam in the northeast to several contiguous states of North India, South India, and to Kerala in the southwest.

Categorizing these dances by region of origin within the borders of present day India is a bit misleading, however. In fact, the lofty “classical” designation bestowed by an Indian national cultural institution is indicative of an awareness of these forms throughout the country. National support and recognition that allows for underwriting of productions and support to educational institutions from Central Government resources not only in a home region but in large cities throughout the country is an additional cachet.

By curating a program of the eight genres of Indian classical dance, Sangam Arts in partnership with World Arts West, producer of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, realizes a vision of a foundational Indian dance world co-existing with the exuberant and popular Bhangra, Bollywood and folk styles that have swept across global urban centers. If the canons of Indian classical dance represent the ancient grammar books of a root language, then the eight classical forms are the living languages themselves. Knowledge of these dances is an education in South Asian deep performance aesthetics.

An overview of the eight genres follows:

The most recent of the dances to be designated “classical” in 2000, Sattriya still maintains a ritual role in some surviving bhakti (personal devotion to Krishna) Vaishnavite monasteries of Assam. Attributed to the 15th-century saint-composer, Srimanta Sankaradeva, Sattriya is a group dance-drama for celibate monks to accompany his one-act plays.

As with the other seven classical genres of Indian dance, Sattriya traditionally follows distinctive Hindu themes. The repertoire utilizes both abstract dance fi gures and expressive, story-telling dance, and a gestural vocabulary, including distinctive gait, hand signaling and facial poses. As with all eight classical genres, the division of the body into rotating planes of head, torso and legs is nuanced by the manner in which a masculine (tandava) or feminine (lasya) stance or arm extension is rendered dependent on the subject matter of the song text.

Sattriya is accompanied by devotional music in local ragas known as borgeet, composed by Sankaradeva and other composers. Krishna’s flute, hand cymbals and the khol (double-headed tuned drum) form the traditional orchestral accompaniment instrumentation. The distinctive costuming is uniquely Assamese utilizing a local silk from the mulberry plant woven with filigree patterning.

A dance for celibate monks in monasteries in remote Assam that, for the past fi fty years, has also been danced by men and women on urban stages seems, at first glance, like a radical disruption of the tradition. But it was just that long period of prior isolation that preserved the strictest adherence to textual authority. The story of how Sattriya was rediscovered and brought to public attention is a fascinating chapter in the cultural and political history of post-Independence India. An icon of Assamese cultural unity and identity, Sattriya emerged from the monasteries and gradually became part of public performance in the hands of non-monastic devotees who trained with the leading gurus of these monasteries. These were monks who had completed their tenures within the sanctuary compounds and left to rejoin the world. Bhakti philosophy continues to permeate Sattriya within and without the monastery setting regardless and the dance has become an Assamese living national treasure.

San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival will present the Sattriya dancers Madhusmita Bora and her sister-in-law, Prerona Bhuyan. They grew up in a village in Assam and danced from childhood immersed in the traditional local festivals. Bora studied Sattriya with renowned guru Ram Krishna Talukdar. An advocate for the preservation of traditional Sattriya and Assamese culture and, in particular, the sustenance of Srimanta Sankardeva’s original Majuli monastery on an island eroding in the Brahmaputra River, Bora and Bhuyan’s Sattriya Dance Company, now based in Philadelphia, dances with a sense of engaged mission. My own exposure to Sattriya is limited to a recent ethnographic documentary video on the living tradition and a study of musicological texts. The Sattriya Company’s association with the Philadelphia Folklore Project and the Pennsylvania Arts Council has helped in establishing a new site for this genre in the United States.

Deeply rooted in ethnic dance of the northeastern Manipur region’s Meitei community, the best-known Manipuri classical dance today references Vaishnavite bhakti themes depicting the Rasalila or divine play of Krishna. Originally derived from a five-act festival drama, the Rasalila begins with an invocation to Krishna followed by a series of dances both lasya and tandava in nature. Dancers glide with a slow swaying gait indicating respectful reverence. Krishna’s character is danced as if playing the fl ute in a pas-de-deux rapture with Radha or in the joyous company of the gopis (cowherd girls).

In solo performance, the theme of the Raslila is maintained through a flow of rhythmic subtlety and a lyric grace that is considered dance worship. It is restrained within a strict vocabulary of gestures.

Traditionally accompanied by hand cymbals and the pung (double-headed cylinder drum), the female dancer is costumed in a tight fitting jacket and a stiff, umbrella-like underskirt covered with a short, white upper skirt and a cone-shaped cap covered by a white muslin veil. The male dancer, portraying Krishna, wears a turban headdress, a saffron colored wrap and sparkly jewelry.

Sohini Ray, Director of Manipuri Dance Visions, is a leading performer and choreographer of Manipuri dance performing in the Festival. Trained by Guru Bipin Singh from the age of seven, she started her performing career with the Jhaveri Sisters as a child artist and has gone on with her own company to produce and perform around the world. A renowned scholar of Manipuri dance as well, Sohini Ray currently resides in Los Angeles.

Heading down from the northeastern states of India, through Kolkata and along the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal, the dance genre now known as Odissi has as its home base the Hindu temple complex at Puri, the seat of the Jagannath sect of Vaishnavism and traditional home to a retinue of consecrated female dancers (maharis) from at least the 11th-century to the 20th. Male dancers carried on the tradition as well. With temple sculptural depictions a millennium older than the dance adorning the walls of such magnifi cent structures as the temples at Bhubaneshwar and Konarak, the history of temple dance in Odisha has much deeper roots.

Characterized by its lasya style, the tripartite integration of distinct head, torso and leg movement is particularly pronounced. Static stances and the striking of a pose representing Jagannath, for example, are characteristic of Odissi. Pure dance (nritta) and gestural song interpretation (abhinaya) are featured. A technique of weight-shifting in which the torso moves in a rounded, fluid arc above pronounced, solid footwork is particularly stylized. Animated by the mardala (double-headed cylinder drum), the dancer weaves smoothly like moving sculpture over a nine, ten, or eleven beat rhythm cycle.

The female dancer’s costume includes fine filigree jewelry and a jewel piece on the forehead. A white crown adorns the head like a halo. A bright sari and ankle bells complete the ensemble.

The Guru Shradha company of the Bay Area will be performing a duet at the Festival, “Megh Pallavi,” choreographed by Guru Ratikant Mohapatra and danced by Maya Locana and Akhil Joondeph. Mohapatra is the son of the late Padma Vibushan (Indian national award) Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Pallavi is a pure dance (nritta) that builds in tempo and layers pattern after pattern toward a crescendo and is a demonstration of the dancers’ technical abilities. Odissi soloist Sujata Mohapatra will also be performing at the Festival.

Derived from a dance-drama from the Brahmin village of Kuchipudi in the Krishna district of Andhra, south of Odisha along the Bay of Bengal, Kuchipudi dance is a close cousin to Odissi, Mohiniattam and Bharata Natyam. A dance-drama, “Parijatam,” or “Bhama Kalapam,” composed by the Vaishnavite saint, Siddhendra Yogi in the 17th-century and sustained within the community of male descendants from the village, represents the ur text of the tradition. As with the other “classical” genres, a much longer lineage of tradition is evoked in the recounting of historical and anecdotal accounts regarding temple and court dance in the region.

Eventually, the dance element began to replace the dramatic rendering of Krishna legends in Kuchipudi. The songs (padams) dealing with hero-heroine themes, in particular, remain the core texts of the Kuchipudi tradition, particularly those composed by Kshetrayya, a master poet of playful erotic devotion with themes depicting the separation and moods of lovers, the protagonist being Muvva Gopala, Krishna as fl ute-playing cowherd.

While the gait and other characteristics of Kuchipudi may closely resemble those of Bharata Natyam, the lasya fluidity of the former appears less geometric or sign-specifi c than the latter. But it is the uniqueness of the song texts and the selection of episodes from the life of Krishna that truly distinguishes this form for dance aficionados.

The Bay Area-based Natyalaya-Kuchipudi School of Dance, under the artistic direction of Jyothi Lakkaraju, a student of Guru Sri Chinta Radhakrishna Murthy and his son, Sri Chinta Adinarayan Sharma, will represent Kuchipudi at the Festival program.

Bharata Natyam
A 20th-century performance reconstruction forged from Sadir, the dance of the temple dancers (devadasis), contemporary Bharata Natyam has seen a spectacular rise in popularity in the post-Independence period of the past sixty years. Today’s dancer no longer dances in a temple ritual and may no longer be exclusively female. While male gurus (nattuvanars) have long been part of the history, male dancers on the mainstage is a recent and welcome phenomenon.

The story of the transformation of Sadir and other strands of dance and dance-drama into modern Bharata Natyam is a fascinating one. Much of that history revolves around the establishment of the Kalakshetra dance school by George Arundale, a British Theosophist, and his wife, the renowned Rukmini Devi Arundale, in Madras (Chennai) in 1936. Encouraged by such luminaries as Anna Pavlova, Maria Montessori, Annie Basant and Rabindranath Tagore, the Arundales were major culture actors in the Indian Independence movement, setting forth a clear vision and implementing an overhaul and revision of dance performance aligned to ideas of a noble, indigenous history, though one obscured by the mists of antiquity. As court and temple patronage trickled to a minimum at the end of the 19th-century, the rise of a new patron class looked to Rukmini Devi Arundale and Kalakshetra for guidance and curatorial expertise.

The most prominent devadasi Bharata Natyam dancer of the 20th-century, Balasaraswati (1918-84), was also active during this period. The differences in the approaches of the two star dancers, Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi Arundale, present a fascinating glimpse into legacy issues regarding the ownership of traditional repertories and caste artists’ guild rights versus modern, egalitarian teaching methodologies and conservative, elite social reformation [full disclosure: I studied with Balasaraswati and her brothers, Viswanathan and Ranganathan].

Now, fully embraced as the flagship of a national dance movement, Bharata Natyam has become emblematic for a classical dance tradition with the prestige of Western ballet among the Indian American middle class. With the Kalakshetra influence, the traditional Sadir emphasis on a soloist portraying many characters through abhinaya has been wed to the choreographic inspiration of historic Tamil dance-dramas. These productions were enacted by male dancers (bhagavatars) in the temples of Tanjore. The hybrid mix resulted in a new style Hindu group dance-drama for modern times.

The soloist program at the heart of Bharata Natyam involves movement through pure dance to narrative conveyed through emotional expression, but with the last composition always ending in a dance of joy. Accompanied by the Carnatic ensemble of percussion, vocals and other instrumentation, Bharata Natyam contains a world of improvisation and expressiveness mapped on the body as a symmetrical grid and emotional ground.

The dancer Bhavajan Kumar and the Nava Dance Theatre, both performing at the Festival, represent a second and third generation of post-Kalakshetrainfluenced Bharata Natyam. Their rise signals an important development for the Bharata Natyam genre in the West. They will be joined on stage by the most recently trained troupe of Kalanjali dancers directed by Kurukshetra alums and Bay Area Indian dance icons, K.P. and Katherine Kunhiraman.

Kerala’s version of Sadir, Mohiniattam rose to prominence in the 19th-century court of the illustrious Maharaja Swathi Tirunal (1813-46) at Travancore. Swati Tirunal was a polymath and noted Carnatic music composer and his compositions are revered.

The lyrics of many Mohiniattam song texts are written in a mixed language known as Manipravalam, a literary hybrid of Tamil and Sanskrit utilized for Vaishnavite religious literature. In the 20th-century, the poet Vallathol Narayana Menon, a founder of Kerala Kalamandalam and Kalyanikutty Amma, the “godmother of Mohiniyattam,” have been the major directors of the tradition.

The languorous sway of the dancer, resonating like the lapping waves and fluttering palms of Kerala, represents the motion of Mohini, the enchantress, a guise of Vishnu in luring demons away from the nectar of immortality. As with the other South Indian classical dances, the gestures (mudra) of the face and hands (hasta) follow a formal canon of meaning. As with other classical genres the basic dance unit (adavu) begins with knees bent and legs spread apart to form the shape of a pot.

As danced by Sunanda Nair at the Festival, the disciple of Padma Shri (national Indian award) Kanak Rele, the beauty and grace of this lasya classical tradition, is brought to life. The gentle gait and natural motion of the Mohiniattam dancer, the characteristic hair design with a large bun pinned to the left side crowned with white jasmine flowers, the ankle bells, the white sari with gold border, and the musical accompaniment all distinguish the dancer of this genre.

The best-known and most dramatic of the many dance and drama traditions in Kerala, the extraordinary Kathakali theater, though dated to the 17th-century, preserves some pre-classical, i.e., pre-Natya Shastra elements. Elaborate face makeup, applied in a painstaking procedure over hours, is only one of the distinguishing features that points to a difference with the Natya Shastra norms. A long narrative concert style presentation running for hours, an ensemble of actors and a drum ensemble and singers of high accomplishment are signs of the strength of the most prestigious of troupes.

The traditional all-night performance begins with the curtain act in which a leading character from different Ramayana or Mahabharata episodes is introduced on stage to the clamorous accompaniment of voice, drums and cymbals. Stylized eye movement, almost Kabuki-like in exaggeration, and strongly marked foot stepping and swaying in heavily layered costuming takes place behind the temporary curtain before the main story unfolds.

Through hand gestures and facial expressions, including those suggesting the nine rasas or emotional essences, the traditional male dancer enacts the text being sung. Female actors are a welcome 20th-century addition.

The Kerala Kalamandalam teaching institute is the bestknown institutional center teaching the northern style today but other centers exist throughout Kerala and beyond. Sunanda Nair and Kalanjali co-founder, K.P. Kunhiraman, whose father was a well-known Kathakali actor, are both excellent exemplars of the tradition, and will be presented at the Festival in an abbreviated format.

The exciting and dramatic Kathak genre shares a “classical” designation and is the only dance of the eight that is danced with straight-legged rather than knee-bent basic position.

Kathak is based on the tradition of itinerant mendicant storytellers wandering from village to village sharing religious discourses (kathas) with the public in temple courtyards. During the historical period of Mughal and Rajput kingdoms in the North and Deccan, the themes and style of presentation gradually developed to fit the decorum of the court. Two major styles eventually emerged from various court traditions: the Lucknow and the Jaipur styles. Of the former, Achchan, Lachchu and Shambu Maharaj were considered major 20th-century figures and their disciple, Birju Maharaj, honored by the Festival in San Francisco last year, is universally considered one of the great Kathak dancers of the past fifty years.

Compared to the other “classical” genres, Kathak lays much more emphasis on rhythmic wizardry. The tabla hand drums and the dancer’s ankle-bell encased legs and the slap of solid footwork produce a propelling combination of cross-rhythms to excite the viewer. But the construction of thrice-repeated patterns ending on beat one of a cycle, arrived at from different vantage points, is only one part of the picture. The spinning-top turns, reminiscent of Mevlevi Sufi sacred dance revved to high-speed, though technically stirring, is not the whole story.

The expressive arm movements and turns of the head, the hand gestures and glance of the eyes, the sashay into position, done with subtle grace and self-confidence, serves as the lyric counterbalance to the flurry of activity displayed in the leg action. In the body of a master dancer, Kathak’s “classical” pedigree and association with the Natya Shastra canon becomes clear, a perfect blend of lasya and tandava.

The Chitresh Das Dance Company, returning to the Festival stage, has been a longtime partner with the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, growing up together. With the Chhandam School of Kathak an exemplary and thriving dance nonprofit, Pandit Das and associates have established a noteworthy institution with many satellite branches bringing the joy of Kathak dance to students here and abroad.

The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival has been a welcome home to Indian dance traditions for the entire span of its existence. But staging a weekend devoted to the dances of a single country – regardless of the classical or popular designations – is a first for the Festival. Add Bollywood, Bhangra, and assorted regional folk dances and the panorama of Indian dances that live and continue to attract new participants and audiences in the Bay Area is very special indeed. World Arts West, the producer of the annual festival, is proud to have been a catalyst in the growth of Indian dance here.

In the words of Executive Director, Julie Mushet, “The Festival continues to celebrate its unique role in the Bay Area as a dance bridge between and among cultural communities. Focusing this weekend on the deep traditions of Indian dance is an opportunity to fulfill our mission in a beautiful new way.”

Building on the work of early Indian dance masters teaching and performing in the Bay Area, a new generation of Millenials, young bi-cultural Indian classical dancers, is set to take the stage. So light the oil lamps and incense, beat the drums and call down the pantheon of deities, ancestors and the living audience to witness the eternal flame of sacred performance still flourishing but now in San Francisco, in sanctified secular space, at its signature Ethnic Dance Festival.

This article appeared in the June 2014 issue of In Dance.

David Roche writes on South Asian ritual and performing arts. He is the former Artistic Director for World Arts West (1998-2000) and current member of the Board of Directors.