Intricate Dances Showcase the Incredible Diversity of India

Photos: Navin Mediwala

Photos: Navin Mediwala

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By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: There is a language to dance which those of us who have two left feet can never fathom but can certainly be in awe of. It is a language that has many facets, encompassing hands, feet, hips, arms, fingers – and even just as importantly, facial expressions. And if the dance is a classical one, especially one of the eight classical dances of India, you have to wonder how the dancer remembers the intricate moves in all the entire sequences?


And you have to admire the mind of the choreographer who juggles all the elements of dance and makes a symphony for others to appreciate. This is even more challenging with all the complicated hand/finger or mudras and eye gestures that convey feelings which are an integral part of Indian classical dances. Add to that the musical composition and the songs and taal (beat) that accompanies the movement and you can understand the complexity of a sequence.


Each of these mudras and movements are particular to the style of Indian classical dance. In Bharat Natyam (from Tamil Nadu), there are 55 root mudras; 32 require one hand and 23 require both hands. In Kathak (North, West and Central India) there are 28 for a single hand and 24 for both. The other six styles – Kathakali (Kerala), Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), Odissi (Odissa), Manipuri (Manipur), Mohiniyattam (Kerala), and Sattriya (Assam) – all have their own mudras to tell their stories.


It was just this diversity of dance styles, and the accompanying colorful costumes and makeup, that Houston’s own renowned exponent of Bharat Natyam Rathna Kumar wanted to showcase when she presented Incredible India – Unity in Diversity at the Miller Outdoor Theatre this past Saturday, August 19 to a huge crowd in the seats and on the hill beyond. “India is a country that gets under your skin,” Rathna said in her brief introductory remarks. “Quoting an Indian soldier fighting in World War II, ‘Even in a corner of a foreign field, there is always India in my heart’.”

This year’s show was produced by Samskriti, Kumar’s signature performing company, in association with, for the second year, the Consulate General of India. “India is an ancient land and a young country,” said Consul General Anupam Ray. “It has the most diversity in the world.” He said he was amazed “how Rathna can fill up a theatre this size” and that “the face she presents is the one we want you to see.” Assisting Rathna, handling all the stage lighting and direction was her sister Seetha Ratnakar, a retired Assistant Station Director of Doordarshan Television, visiting from India.

The curtains opened to a backdrop screen showing the silhouette of mountain ranges in dawn’s light. Offstage, Rathna quoted from Mark Twain and Albert Einstein and, offering salutation to the Sun God, summed up with “There is unity in diversity in India. We have many religions, many languages, but we are all one.”

And in the appropriately named first piece, Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), three male dancers, Venugopal Josyula, Vijyakumar and Vasanthkumar started the first dance with yoga movements, ending with head stands. Next came two Bharat Natyam dances – Ganesha and Ananda – from students of Rathna’s Anjali Center for Performing Arts. Ganesha paid homage to the elephant-headed God of Auspicious Beginnings (whose birthday, coincidentally, will be celebrated with a 10-day festival starting August 25) and was performed by 12 girls with movements that fused ancient and modern footwork to a pulsating soundtrack. Ananda, or the expression of joy, continued on with more carefree and vibrant movements as another set of girls danced in trios to taals (beats).

The Odissi Panchabhoota (five elements) performed in Odissi style by 9 girls from the Aruna Mohanty Odissi Academy, choreographed by teacher-in-residence Bijaya Dash, told the story of Prithvi (earth), Jala (water), Teja (fire), Mathura (wind) and Biyana (sky) to a background male narration to the soundtrack and blown-in smoke closing the set. The visually stunning Vismaya, another Rathna composition, unfolded like a water lily with the entire group of 12 girls in red and green sarees with gold belts and black long-sleeved blouses – sans ankle bells – clumped on stage left, dancing to an endless male singing Jhe kina kina jhum taal and ending the set gathered on stage right.

After a 15-minute intermission, the story of diversity through dance continued with a marvelous Kathak piece, choreographed by Shiva Mathur, Director of the Shivangini Academy of Arts, telling the story of Krishna and Radha. The set slowly grew to a tempo with the sheer size of 25 girls dancing as two groups and ending in unison with their arms tilting upwards signifying joy and respect to Divinity.

The tempo of the evening slowed down with a display of the graceful moves of Indian martial arts in Kalari by visiting Indian artist Vasanthkumar, ending with a pose with sword and shield in hand. The finale was the marvelous Ekta ki Awaz (the voice of unity), again choreographed by Rathna, in which dancers performed different numbers representing 14 different parts of the Indian Subcontinent, each turning back to salute corresponding images of the Indian countryside on the backdrop screen. And the program ended with Vande Matram (Salute to the Motherland) by three dancers and ending with a curtain drop with all the performers and artistes taking a bow.