The colors and sounds of India

An ancient dance style that began as a form of worship moves in on Tel Aviv

Uma Dhanwatey521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Uma Dhanwatey521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Fans of Indian dance are in for a treat on May 13-14, when the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble from Bangalore performs its Sriyah show at the Suzanne Dellal Center, as part of this year’s Dance Tel Aviv program and the Celebrating India in Israel Festival. The troupe’s previous visit here was two years ago when it took part in the inaugural Indian culture festival.
The ensemble bases its work exclusively on the Odissi dance form, which originates from the state of Odisha in eastern India and was traditionally performed by young women in temples as an act of worship. Archeological evidence suggests that it is the oldest surviving Indian dance form, and it features in bas-relief artwork from the first century BCE. It contrasts with other classical Indian dance forms in the emphasis it places on the tribhangi – meaning threepart break – which refers to the independent movement of the dancer’s head, chest and pelvis.
Nrityagram started life in 1993 when the celebrated proponent of the Odissi genre, Protima Gauri Bedi, established the troupe’s dance village in Bangalore in southern India. Odissi, says the ensemble’s managing trustee Lynne Fernandez, involves far more than just getting out there and shaking a leg and various other limbs.
“The spiritual element of the dance is inherent in the practice and it cannot be taught as a separate idea,” she notes. “It is experienced naturally and individually by each dancer depending on their involvement, perspective and practice and experience of their art form.”
Aspiring performers of Odissi have to be ready to put a lot into their training and, thereafter, their stage work. As the ensemble’s web site notes: “[Odissi] is a crucible of inspiration and ideas, a coming together of creative minds, which push themselves to the absolute limits of their abilities.” The members of the troupe share far more than just a passion for the art form, and delve into numerous areas of Indian culture and tradition. “[The village is a] space where dancers, musicians and choreographers live together for years, developing their ideas, perfecting their technique and complementing their learning of dance with a knowledge of mythology and the epics, Sanskrit, yoga, meditation and the martial arts.”
The demands of the art form mean that dancers start when they are very young. “In most cases classical dance is learned from an early age,” says Fernandez. “However, in Nrityagram we do take dancers who are physically fit and naturally talented to train, even at the age of 18 and above.”
Naturally, the later start entails something of a crash course. “They work on a very intensive learning program to be able to absorb information faster and practice the dance form with a greater degree of involvement,” continues Fernandez.
While she says she is not particularly conversant with Western dance forms, Fernandez observes that Indian dance is spiritual at the core. “Perhaps one of the most obvious differences [between Indian and Western dance] is that Indian classical forms of dance are mostly based on the idea of dance being a medium for transcendence to achieve a higher level of consciousness, based on religious beliefs that celebrate universal love and freedom from the conscious mind in order to unite with the Infinite Godhead. Most of the dance styles began as an offering as part of rituals performed within the temple precincts to invoke sacred spaces within and without the dancer.”
Odissi attaches great important to aesthetics.
“The color and texture of our costumes are chosen specifically to enhance and enrich the complete experience for the viewer, as is the special light design that highlights the luminous design of this very sculpturesque dance form,” explains Fernandez.
Of course, it helps when all that is accentuated by tailored illumination.
“The lights play a very important role in enhancing the total experience for the audience,” she continues. “It brings attention to the extraordinary origins and grand personalities of the characters that are played out during the show by the dancers.”
The sonic aspect, says the managing trustee, is also of prime importance.
“Music and dance are intimately related to each other, and [the music is] composed almost simultaneously in our pieces. There is no dance in India without very specific music for it.”
Although Nrityagram has been touring the world for two decades now, one presumes Western audiences were not initially entirely ready for the company’s offerings. Fernandez begs to differ.
“The ensemble started in 1993 when it toured the US. The audience response was instantaneously positive and overwhelming and has been so ever since.”
Even so, the dancers do their best to make their artistic language, with its history and traditions, as accessible as possible to Western culture consumers. “We use short explanations with facial expressions and hand gestures to enable the audience to follow the storyline of some of the dances that tell mythological stories,” says Fernandez, adding that some of the original devotional nature of the art is maintained in its contemporary form. “The proscenium stage is now our temple, and the audience our co-worshipers who journey with us.”
Rather than focusing on a specific work, Nrityagram will offer us a visual and sonic potpourri. “In Israel, we will be performing a combination of several different pieces from our different productions, to give the audience a varied taste of what this dance form from India contains,” says Fernandez.
She also says that she and the other members of the troupe have been waiting to come back here for a while, and the audience response here to the ensemble’s Israeli debut was highly positive.
“It was fabulous last time and we hope for the same this time!”
The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble will perform at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Jaffa on May 13 at 9 p.m. and on May 14 at 2 p.m.
For tickets and more information: (03) 510-5656 and