Jul 242012

Follow it. Be swayed by the Spirit of Compassion.

Mahee Aziz, a Sydney, Australian, who comes originally from Bangladesh, is at the moment globetrotting and bringing to the charmed eyes of mesmerized audiences the potent exoticism of three traditional and canonical, Subcontinental Indian dance forms: the Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam, and the North Indian style of Kathak.

And it is our City’s great good fortune that he is coming to Louisville.

Do, on that occasion, let this Pied Piper lead your heart away; and in the compassionate spirit for which deep and spiritual India is famous, turn out in support of the various charities and causes with which Aziz has involved himself: victims of AIDS, underprivileged children, and widows.

Aziz will be our revving up our cultural scene at a planned performance at Shine Wellness Studios on Saturday, July 28, at 7pm, as a second US stop following his scheduled performance at a medical conference in Washington, DC. At his own personal expense he has chosen Louisville as the venue for a benefit show he is putting on to raise money for the Bangladesh charity ‘Change the Lives,’ which is dedicated to helping underprivileged children in Bangladesh.

Let’s not let him make the pilgrimage to our Kentucky land without the welcome and support both his art and this cause deserve. Let’s not disappoint his anticipation of open hands and hearts, and properly wowed eyes and ears, among all us Louisville residents he has come to enchant. For gosh sakes, let’s not send him away empty-handed!

Even more in Bangladesh than in India, where the caste system remains prevalent, the cause of underprivileged children seems to resonate with special urgency among the more elite and middle-classes. Most professional and successful from Bangladesh know personally or are even related to someone who lives amid a level of poverty that makes our own homegrown variety look lavish by comparison. They seem unable to turn away from what they cannot help but see; and I just feel sure Louisvillians will not turn a blind eye to this ambassador of charity, either, when he comes bringing to our own attention his message of human need.

A lot of people in Louisville still may not suspect the size and strength of the transplanted Indian culture that flourishes here in our own community. I’m not sure whether there’s a Kuchipudi instructor in Louisville yet or not – but one can find out on August 18! – because that is India Day at the Belvedere – an event which will be sponsored by ICF (the India Community Foundation) and that promises to be something special.

For sure there will be displayed to the rapt gaze an evocative sampling of the wealth and variety of the timeless magic of Indian dance. My own impression is that the opportunities to see and learn (about) Subcontinental dance forms here in Louisville are equally rich and vibrant as what is being done by our justly-celebrated local dancers who engage in the teaching and performance of Flamenco and Middle Eastern bellydance. Come see what you think.

The Subcontinental dance forms that are currently on the menu in Louisville, complete with instructors, such that anyone can try their hand (and sinuously willowy arms and torsos) at these most magical and mysterious of artistic traditions, are: (and please to imagine in your mind’s ear at this point that light, bonking-sounding, Indian tympanum drumbeat, instead of a Western drum-roll) — Bharatanatyam; Kathak; and of course the infectiously exuberant, contemporary ‘Bollywood’ style.

Since the Kuchipudi tradition is the least-represented here in LV so far, Aziz’ upcoming visit gives us all a chance to catch it live, on the wing. This South Indian dance, from the State of Andhra Pradesh, is the Subcontinental dance form that perhaps a lot of people most think of when they think of Indian dance.

Bharatanatyam, from Tamil Nadu, which is the most likely traditional form of Indian dance, is not dissimilar — the main difference between Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi being that the former has more sculptured and dramatic poses; while Kuchipudi employs more rounded ones, especially with regard to the legs. The Kuchipudi tradition is known for incorporating dancing with, and on, a metal plate called a Tarangam.

Bharatanatyam dancers can be both female or male, resplendent in multi-colored garb and ornamental facial jewelry, executing dance movement that is demarcated by lots of dramatic pauses. It is also this form that is so marked by those characteristic head, neck , and eye movements – those ‘slidey’ gestures they do from the neck up, that seemingly ‘leave their bodies behind,’ in tandem with those signature snaky, waving arms – surely everyone’s idea of the world’s most exotic form of dance.

In terms of the dances’ cultural subtext of associated meaning, Kuchipudi may have more religious connotations with connections to the earth & God, while Bharatanatyam might be more about expressing the inner fire within the dancer’s body.

But speaking of fiery inner expressiveness – love that Bollywood!, which is of course that most exuberant, contemporary , and fully cosmopolitan expression of modern India in dance. We’ve all (I hope) seen it performed in movies and on TV – where you often see it being done in line-dances, or by large groups of dancers; far and away the most nontraditional Indian dance form, it gets people (whole crowds of dancers) self-expressively ‘jumping,’ in masses of seductively graceful, synchronization — seemingly an urban phenomenon (after all, India is a hugely populous place) – and just that much reminiscent of those Hollywood movie extravaganza dance-productions from about the 1930s.

It is (or seems to me, at least) the most seamless adaptation of ancient cultural modes into up-to-the-minute, international modernity that one could have imagined.

As for Kathak tradition, it’s a real border-hopper: Persian-influenced, it may in turn have had an influence on Flamenco, via Gypsies from Rajastan.

But let’s be a bit more thorough about this: there are eight classical dances in India, of which Bharatanatyam is the oldest. (So old, in fact, I find I can’t dig up any definite date of origin, so far does it go back). It’s agreed, though, that at its center is that expression of the fire element. (And of course the most ancient Indian religious texts center on Vedic Fire Sacrifice.) Kuchipudi, a relative youngster, was only (‘only’) founded in the 7th c. AD, by Brahmins – and can be traced to the village by that name, in the State of Andhra Pradesh. Kuchipudi dance was originally male-only – and that for the longest time – but somewhere along the line our Subcontinental sisters successfully infiltrated and are now possibly in the majority. There is even a ‘gender-bending’ form of Kuchipudi, in which the men execute the dance’s characteristically feminine forms, and vice versa. Kuchipudi has traditionally been used as an individual way to express oneself spiritually; or it can be used theatrically, to tell a story.

And, there is ‘country,’ rural, as opposed to a ‘city’ form of Kuchipudi. The rural: rawer, more primal-looking; the classical (citified) version: cleaner – gentler, more refined. (Sort of the same as if you were to compare the banjo in its ‘city’ and ‘country’ forms, as those were represented in early American musical tradition – if that is not too awful a thing to do – one being Tin Pan Alley, and the other, Dock Boggs). I saw a link to the country version of Kuchipudi in which the male dancer was wearing a mask-cum-head-covering kind-of-a-deal – and out of an adjunct to the whole thing – streamed water. And, in a depiction I saw of the classical version, there was a male dancer dressed as half-man, half-woman: moustachioed on one side of his face; made up with make-up on the other.

And – lest we think that Bollywood style is the only one that puts armies of dancers into the field – there was a world’s record set on December 23, 2010, for the largest number of Kuchipudi dancers ever to perform at the same time: 2,800, at a stadium in Hyderabad, the Andhra Pradesh capital.

The Indian style of music that accompanies these Indian dances in all their forms is uniformly what is termed ‘Carnatic’ (or, simply, Indian) music.

All those people, virtually uncountable numbers, who’ve moved to it and danced to it, through so many centuries.

Follow its drumbeat, and follow your heart. And mark your calendar for July 28th.

Nov 212010

[Note – this post helps to commemorate the great Hindu year-end celebration of Diwali, which was last Saturday, on the 13th. Diwali – their Festival, or ‘Row,’ of Lights – is sometimes compared to the Western Christmas and indeed uses Christmas lights (as well as, as with us, the eating of too many sweets). It celebrates Lord Rama’s return and vanquishing of the forces of Evil, after a 14-year exile.]

At the risk of never again being taken very seriously, I will tell you I attended two children’s dance recitals in the last two months as a way to check out, and, yes, support, Indian Dance in Louisville. However, the punch line is that some of these children are very professional and beautiful performers. Adults, no matter how good, couldn’t hope to match them for charm and precociousness.

Some of these kids are so good — and the choreography & teaching behind them likewise — that my mind still chews on the memories like termites – leftover figments still repeating like projected film loop in my brain.

Memory has selected certain favorites from the two recitals — a Kathak (North Indian) recital under the direction of Meena Deshpande (wow! kudos are really called for here – real artistry was attained in this performance) at the Speed early in October; and a Telugu (South Indian) concert that not only included kids’ dancing, all ages, at Ballard High, but Doctor(s) & other professionals singing their Bollywood favorites at ‘Ballywood High,’ at the end of October. (For this latter effort, there were several choreographers who had taught the children, but I am indebted for my invitation to attend to Ms. Vindhaya Katta.)

Here, then, some of the personal highlights for Yours Truly:

Two kids mimicking sylvan statues like Hawthorne’s Marble Fawns with little pastoral female dancers sashaying around them. (Telugu — Ballard High)

A Kathak number where the dance mimicked the movements of a rowboat (Kathak — Speed)

A Kathak number where the dance mimicked the movements (& sounds) of a train (the train — that iconic engima of music itself!) (Kathak — Speed)

The most touching number of the Kathak recital was a homemade film that had a shot of each kid/performer (including the only boy there — the one who played Ganesh) that highlighted some special aspect of the child’s individual personality.

The story of Ganesh with a little plump kid running around in an elephant mask surrounded by dancers (Kathak — Speed)

Little cute kids between 3-6, with one frozen cutely in stage fright (Little Angels Routine — Telugu — Ballard High)

Brindavanam — choreography by Supriya Kancharla – a prizewinner (Telugu — Ballard High)

The beautiful and poignant Nachale’s Love choreographed by Vindhaya Katta (Telugu — Ballard High)

A country-inspired number with kids in cowboy hats (Telugu — Ballard High)

The Telegu celebration placed me amid the Kentuckiana Indian immigrant community, high times and a big night for aspiring kids and grown-ups not just carrying on their native traditions, including numerous folk dances on traditional themes, but also incorporating that wholly contemporary and international ‘Bollywood’ spin in the interpretation that lately has made Indian drumming, music, dance, and song meld so seamlessly into what strikes us as totally international and ‘modern,’ and which defines the scintillating Indian niche in modern pop culture – but which one can see, from events like these, is inspired by ancient elements of an ancient cultural scene.

The folks at Ballard High rolled out the red carpet for us non-Indians who came to share their family/cultural event, national food, exquisite native dress, and bilingual spirit: cheering and participation from the audience were de rigeur all evening, and as often we were addressed in their native language as in English.

A defining moment was when the emcee spoke to one young dancer in their native language, and the boy hesitated, just a moment while he translated it in his head, before answering in English — whereupon the adult, realizing the child was more English-fluent than Telugu-fluent, switched to heavily-accented English as well. This brought home to me how great a degree this event captured a moment in this community’s history when it is changing – Westernizing – once and forever: almost faster than they themselves can keep up.

An honored guest of the Telegu evening was a child-star genius who has had a string of guest appearances on national TV talk shows, performing mental feats like defeating panels of noted college professors on his favorite intellectual subjects – a kid the MC characterized as half a descendant of one Indian subculture; half from another – ‘and 100% American!’

These people seemed flatly overjoyed to be joining in American life – and so infectious was their joy and the beauty and charm of their native culture, I was overjoyed about it, too.


Star bright,

First star I see tonight . . .

The first star one ever sees – the one that rises into one’s own childhood memories – is inevitably the one that always will shine the brightest in that individual’s heart. The adults who are working so hard to pass on the culture that shone for them, in India growing up, are making sure that same star shines for the new generation in America – alongside the other, newer, American star that will also shine for these children, here.

Filmmaker Martin Scorsese has done a collection of his favorite (vintage) Italian films, with personal narration (called My Voyage to Italy), in which he tells us that these were the films that struck him as being bigger than life, more richly mythic and magical than anything he, as a kid growing up, ever saw on this side of the Atlantic, in real life – and that they – these movies – that were watched at the time by no one else in the US except the Italian immigrant community – were what, combined with the American experience, gave him his love for film, his filmic vision – that, in a word, made Martin Scorsese Martin Scorsese.

So I wonder which of the kids I saw up there at these recitals (apart from the young genius, who we know is a rising star), nurtured on Indian art forms, might one day turn out, on the Scorsese model, to be a great creative force in American/International Dance?

The moment when the torch is passed, and cultural streams crossed and cross-pollinated, is a glorious but all-but invisible one – one that takes place largely unnoticed, limitedly celebrated – at events like an immigrant community’s recitals for its children.

What we see around us all the time are the realizations of American Dreams; American’s Dreams — the American Dream. But the essence of a Dream is that it’s not real yet. And that is what I attended on those two occasions, this past month: Dreams not yet but maybe one day coming, true.

Alright, enough of that.