November 28, 2013

Dhimsa dance in the Araku Valley

One year ago I was travelling in Andhra Pradesh researching a travel article on Visakhapatnam. I decided to take a day trip to the Araku Valley organised by Andhra Pradesh Tourism which involved a long and scenic train ride. I watched transfixed from the train window as rice paddies, rolling green hills and brilliant yellow fields of mustard plant flowers flew past. This region in the Eastern Ghats mountain range very close to the border of Orissa is unique for many reasons. One is that this is the home to many indigenous tribal communities.

Though the Araku Valley is supposed to be “one of the least spoiled and less commercialized tourist destinations in South India” (according to Wikipedia), the AP Tourism department did a good job of commercialising this one-day trip. Of course I couldn’t really expect more from a one-day organised trip, and my very tight schedule did not allow for more. But this was a convenient way to squeeze in a visit to the Araku Valley as well as the Borra Caves (which my editor was keen on featuring) where we stopped on our way back to Visakhapatnam.

After the obligatory visit to the Araku Tribal Museum, there was a demonstration of Dhimsa, the dance performed by the tribal communities of the Araku Valley. This is a ceremonial dance performed by women during festive occasions like weddings and important festivals. This organised demonstration outside the AP Tourism hotel was not the ideal context or setting to witness Dhimsa, but I appreciated the chance to see this tribal dance tradition which otherwise I would not have had the opportunity to see at all. I had only had glimpses of tribal dance in photographs, films and YouTube videos, and this was the first time I was seeing it ‘live’.

The women were dressed in brightly-coloured saris in tones of scarlet, magenta and fuchsia. Each had a flower elegantly pinned to her hair which was gathered in a bun at the nape of the neck. Almost all the women wore three nose rings, typical of the tribal women living in this region.

One thing which immediately struck me was the detached look the women had as they danced. They all had a very straight-faced and almost stern and even bored expression. This was quite a contrast to the wide sparkly grins of the Bharata Natyam dancers I’m used to seeing. Were they bored of this tourist office routine? Perhaps they were. Or maybe a smile is superfluous when it comes to this ceremonial dance.

The dancers were assembled in a row, one arm interlocked behind their backs, the hand of the other on the shoulder of the woman in front. The woman who led the row of dancers seemed older than the others and held a towel. The dancers moved in quick-paced rhythmical steps, making circular patterns moving clockwise in inward circles before changing direction and moving counter-clockwise, this time in outward circles. At times they formed a tight circle and swayed their bodies in unison inwards, before crouching down and shuffling forwards. Their anklets jingled as they danced.

I recently came across my photos taken during this demonstration of Dhimsa and thought I’d share them on this blog...

You can watch a clip of Dhimsa here:

September 5, 2013

Aditi Mangaldas premieres her latest production 'Within'

Aditi Mangaldas is one of the biggest names in Kathak today and needs no introduction to Indian dance enthusiasts. Known for her virtuosity and innovative choreography which takes a strong foundation in classical dance and blends it with a contemporary sensibility, combined with a refined aesthetic sense for stage and costume design, her productions have received critical acclaim across the world.

With her feet firmly planted in classical Kathak, having studied with none other than Kumudini Lakhia and Birju Maharaj – two living legends in the Kathak world, Aditi Mangaldas is not afraid to explore dance choreography with a contemporary eye. The description of her dance company on her website aptly describes her creative vision:

“Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, the Drishtikon Dance Foundation has been established with a vision to look at tradition with a modern mind, to explore the past to create a new, imaginative future… we seek to challenge established norms and develop the courage to dance our own dance, while at the same time being informed about the heritage, cultures, influences and language of other dance styles and forms, viewpoints and ideas.”

Her newest production ‘Within’, featuring seven dancers and four musicians, will be premiered this month at Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi from September 13th to 15th. An introduction to ‘Within’ on her Facebook page describes her latest work as a “a dance production that journeys though the discovery of our inner spaces, the choices we make and their consequences. What lies buried in the deep recesses of our being? Is it humanity? Is it brutality? Are they in ever half embrace? Knocking at our inner doors to open? What makes us choose which door we open? Where, when, how does this ideal core start disintegrating? Which inner door leads us from order to disorder? From humanity to brutality? How do we regain our humanity? Can our inner spark grow into the sky?”

The upcoming premiere of ‘Within’ has managed to generate much attention already, not only in the Indian press, but also on social media sites. The dancer’s Facebook page and Twitter stream are updated daily with interesting facts and quotes on the production. When a PR agency contacted Sacred Space with details of the premiere and the offer of an interview, it became clear why there has been so much publicity. Aditi Mangaldas’ professional approach seems to extend to all aspects of putting together and presenting a new production, including hiring an agency to take care of publicity. The vital role of social media in diffusing information is also being tapped into, as well as the dance blogosphere.

We jumped at the opportunity to publish a short interview with Aditi Mangaldas, and with her name being one of the top search terms on Sacred Space, we’re sure many of our readers will appreciate this glimpse into her latest creative work.

Your work often addresses philosophical questions with the themes of ‘time’ and ‘searching’ being recurrent. What was the inspiration for ‘Within’?

This is different from my other works although it also explores questions of time and space and the search for something. It is a question of looking within and what doors we open from within. Actually a lot of events which happened last year brought brutality in sharp focus and it was something we started on by working on mythological themes in the context of social issues. There are horrendous and brutal things you see in the newspaper every day – mythology and social events have become a subterranean stream that feeds this piece, so ‘Within’ is now more about our core and looking within oneself.

India’s population is really young and we have this great legacy of an amazing classical art. Each artist has to be aware that times are changing. So we have to invite a younger audience into our auditorium and need to engage them and challenge them so that they go back with something that resonates with them and they also feel that this is something they wouldn’t have got by sitting at home accessing the Internet. ‘Within’ is an international collaboration with Italian designers and Japanese costume designers and stage designers. The music composers are from India. So it is a combination of very wide variety of rich experiences.

Is ‘Within’ a work of classical or contemporary Kathak? How do you define contemporary Kathak?

‘Within’ is composed of two parts: the first part is ‘Knotted’, a contemporary dance piece based on Kathak and the second part is ‘Unwrapped’ based on classical Kathak. So it’s both classical and contemporary Kathak.

Contemporary Kathak is like taking a seed of  Kathak and sowing it and watering it with contemporary sensibilities, so what happens is the plant that grows out of it has the roots of Kathak but may not have all its characteristics.

Tell us about your training schedule and what a typical day is like for you.

We have been immersed in the production completely, not just me but also all the dancers and the collaborators who have been working very hard for months. Our daily schedule is generally that we have an hour of yoga in the morning, say from 11am-12pm and then from 12pm until 5:30pm we have rehearsals with a one-hour break in between. I generally go to the gym in the evenings for about an hour, four times a week. The rest of the time I’m having discussions with our lighting designers, mentor, stage designers and all the dancers and constantly trying to improve and oversee all the details of the project.

Where will ‘Within’ be performed next?

Currently there are three performances scheduled at the Kamani Auditorium on September 13th, 14th and 15th but we are hoping to take it to festivals all over India and abroad.

(Images by Dinesh Khanna)

June 15, 2013

The last Mahari

Above: Shashimani in 2011. (Photo by Sandrine Da Costa)

UPDATE: Shashimani passed away on March 19, 2015. You can read her obituary in the New York Times at this link.

The Maharis were the temple dancers who performed for Lord Jagannath in the Jagannath temple in Puri, Orissa. Dating back to the 12th century, the Jagannath temple is an important place of pilgrimage for Hindus. This temple was also once a great cultural centre where dancers and singers would worship Lord Jagannath through dance and song as part of the daily temple rituals.

Shashimani is the last remaining Mahari belonging to this temple tradition. She is now in her late 80s and lives in a lane close to the great temple. Two years ago, while conducting research for an upcoming film on Odissi, I along with the film’s director, Sandrine Da Costa, had the chance to meet Shashimani and have a short discussion with her.

We climbed up a narrow staircase to a dark room where Shashimani lives, in the house of a temple servitor. When she was told that she had visitors, she excitedly asked her student who was with her to help her apply the bright red dot of sindoor on her forehead. She wrapped the end of her sari over her head as she received us with her hands joined in a respectful namaste. She sat on the floor of her modest room and motioned for us to sit too.

Shashimani told us how she was dedicated to the Jagannath temple by her parents at the age of seven. Through a ceremony called Sari Bandhan she was formally married to the god. “When the marriage knot was tied with Lord Jagannath we became Maharis, she explained. “From that day, we became the wives of Lord Jagannath.” The Maharis would then be considered to be married women and would remain wedded to the god for the rest of their lives.

There were many dancers connected to this temple and each had specific duties (seva) to perform. There were 21 different sevas and the Maharis would take turns going to the temple to perform the rituals. “Each Mahari had different sevas to perform,” Shashimani explained.. I would dance in the morning when Jagannath would be woken up, and at night when he would be put to sleep. The other sevas were performed by the other Maharis. I would come to the temple for seva four to five times a month. After the other Maharis died, I was the only one left.”

Shashimani was a Bheetar-gani Mahari, a Mahari who would dance inside the temple sanctum. “When the main temple door closed after arati, we would sing and dance inside the sanctum for Lord Jagannath until the door opened again.” Sometimes she would also dance for the god during dhupa, the evening meal. “During dhupa we only danced, we wouldn’t sing. He would take a long time to eat and we would get tired,” she lamented. “We wanted him to eat quickly!” When I asked her what would happen after the temple doors closed for the night, she hastily replied: “Don’t ask me what happens at night time! No dancing!”

She also described for us the costumes the Maharis would wear: “We would get all decked up and wear lots of heavy jewellery from the neck to the navel. We would wear bangles and beautiful silk saris and a big garland. We would even have jewellery in our hair and decorating the nose – we would be completely covered with heavy gold jewellery. Who dresses like that today?”
The Maharis would also dance during festive occasions. She told us about the Chandan Yatra, one of the most important festivals honouring Lord Jagannath. “In front of the Lord we would dance and sing. Then he would be taken to Narendra pond. While the Lord played in the water we would sing many bhajans and songs from the Gita Govinda. After playing in the pond, the Lord would have his meal and then have a nap. In the evening he would go to the pond again. Again we would go with him and dance and sing.”

Shashimani stopped dancing in the temple five years ago because she no longer had the stamina to continue. She told us that the Mahari tradition has gradually faded because there are no Maharis left to perform the rituals. “The other Maharis have all passed away and I’m the only one left. How much can I do?” she concluded.

For a temple dancer who used to get decked up in silk saris and heavy gold jewellery, Shashimani now lives a very austere life. Unsurprisingly, she expected a donation for the time she spent with us and after refusing the first generous offer, did not hesitate to state her price. This article I came across on the Internet describes her situation in more detail and calls on the temple authorities to assume responsibility for former ‘temple servants’.

The upcoming film on Odissi will feature video footage of our interview with Shashimani. The film is still work in progress and is expected to be released in 2014. For updates, visit this page.

Odissi dancer and scholar Ileana Citaristi, wrote a fascinating detailed account of the lives of the temple dancers of Jagannath temple back in 1985. She has kindly shared this article with Sacred Space - you can read it at this link.

The text I’m pasting below was written in 1972 by Ragini Devi (taken from her book Dance Dialects of India) and offers a glimpse into the lives of the Maharis:

The Maharis of Jagannath Temple

When the great temple of Lord Jagannath became the matrix of the religious and cultural life of Orissa, the role of the Maharis in the daily rituals and festivals is clearly defined. It is said that in the 12th century King Chodaganga Deva established seven colonies for temple servants (Sebayatas) adjacent to the temple, and the place allotted to the Maharis was known as ‘Anga Alasa Patna’ the ‘place of bodily gestures’.

Maharis are the holy brides of Lord Jagannath. A piece of cloth taken from the idol is tied around the head of the initiate danseuse by the temple priest to symbolize her marriage to the deity of the shrine.
Maharis are vowed to chastity and their sacred duties and daily life are supervised by the Mina Nayak and the Sahi Nayak, temple servants appointed by the king. A valuable manuscript, Niladri Archana Chandrika, written by a Mahari of Jagannath Temple, describes the ritual dances of Maharis, and their daily life and customs.

Maharis are richly attired for temple service. After bathing, fragrant sandalwood paste is applied to the body. A colourful silk sari of traditional pattern is draped around the body and tied at the waist. A tight bodice covers the breasts. The face is decorated with the sacred ‘tilak’ mark between the brows, and delicate patterns of white dots are applied above the brows and on the cheeks. Fingertips, palms and feet are tinted crimson, and they eyes are lined black with collyrium. The hair is parted and knotted in a chignon wreathed with flowers and adorned with a golden curved disk pierced with a peg of ivory and gold. Beautiful gold ornaments decorate the head, neck, arms, ears, nose, waist and ankles.

Covering her head with a veil, the Mahari goes to the temple accompanied by the Mina Nayak. She is escorted to the inner shrine by the Rajguru, who bears a gold-mounted staff as a symbol of the king’s authority. He is always present at the dance rituals, and, after obeisance to the deity, the Mahari bows to him before beginning her dance.

There are two classes of Maharis at the Jagannath Temple. The Bheetar-gani Maharis are those who dance exclusively before the deity in the inner shrine. The Bahar-gani Maharis dance in the hall of dance (Nata Mandir) or in the temple courtyard near the Garuda pillar. Other temple servants who render daily service are the Gaudisanis, temple maids who fan the idol with charmaris, Gita-ganis (singers), and musicians who play veena, drone, drums, flute, and cymbals to accompany the dance.
There are two daily rituals at Jagannath – one at midday and the other at night. At the midday Sakala Bhupa ceremony when consecrated food is offered to Lord Jagannath, a Bahargani Mahari dances in the Nata Mandir and sacred songs are sung.

At night, after the Sanja Dhupa or food offering and just before the ritual adornment of the idol, prior to his nightly retirement, a Bheetar-gani Mahari renders dance and song before the deity. A portion of the food offerings is given to the Maharis, and this is the only food they are allowed to eat on the days of their temple service.

According to temple records there were twenty Maharis serving Lord Jagannath in the 15th century, each dancer taking her turn in the daily rituals, and all of them participating in the religious festivals. There are sixty-two annual festivals in honour of Jagannath and in two of these the Maharis have an important part. In the Chandan Jatra or Spring Festival, the image of Jagannath is taken in procession to a large tank about three miles from the temple and installed in a boat. Two boats are set afloat, one carrying Maharis, and the other Gotipuas in female dress, to entertain Lord Jagannath with songs and dances. In the Jhoolan Jatra the image of Jagannath is placed on a swing, and entertained by Maharis and Gotipuas with songs and dances.

Maharis, as a community of Jagannath, were exclusive teachers of their art. It was a custom for Maharis to adopt daughters and train them for dance service in the temple. Thus the dance retained its artistic purity and sanctity for at least six hundred years.

Maharis continue to dance in the Jagannath Temple, but their beautiful rituals belong to the past. The dance offering is perfunctory, for the sake of custom. Maharis receive a portion of the food offering and no maintenance or quarters are given to them, as before. Many of them have left the profession, and those who serve the temple are living in penury. It is only now that their art has become precious and they are in demand as teachers of dancing. (By Ragini Devi, Dance Dialects of India, 1972)

February 11, 2013

The revival of dance as temple ritual

Last year I had the opportunity to travel to Hyderabad and witness the temple rituals performed in the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple during its Brahmotsav celebrations. The experience was a very special and unique one because this is the only temple where dance is performed as part of worship today. In the following article I tell the story of how dancer Swapnasundari was able to reinstate and perform the ritual dances of Vilasini Natyam in this small temple on the outskirts of Hyderabad.

Many of India’s classical dance traditions originated in the temples, where dance was presented as a sacred ritual offering to the deity. Eventually Indian classical dance moved from these sacred spaces to performance venues, where it is performed today as entertainment to large audiences. Meanwhile, the temple has become a popular scenic backdrop for dance festivals like Khajuraho, Chidambaram and Mukteshwar.

But in a small, scenic temple in Rang Bagh on the outskirts of Hyderabad, in India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh, the ritual and ceremonial dances which were once performed by temple dancers known as saanis or bhogams have been revived and reintroduced as a part of worship during the temple’s annual Brahmotsav celebrations. These dance rituals have been restored by the temple authorities through the active collaboration of renowned dancer Swapnasundari, who after making a name for herself as a Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer, dedicated herself to learning and reviving the dance of the Telugu-speaking regions, which is known today as Vilasini Natyam.

The opportunity to reintroduce these ritual dances as a part of temple worship seemed destined to happen. While performing at a dance festival in Kottakkal, Kerala, Swapnasundari explained to the audience that a ritual form of the dance Vilasini Natyam had been performed in the temples of South India. Sitting in the auditorium was Mr Sharad B Pitti, the chairman and managing trustee of the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple in Rang Bagh. After the performance, he told Swapnasundari about his wish to revive the traditional rituals of the temple, including the dance rituals. “We would go to the temple every year for the Brahmotsav celebrations but the festival had shrunk from what it once was and should be,” he explained. “It was important for me that the rituals should be done in the right way and that justice be done to them. Since dance was an integral part, we had to include it to make the festival complete. I invited Swapnasundari to Rang Bagh because we were interested in reviving dance as part of the temple rituals.”

For Swapnasundari, this opportunity must have seemed like a gift from the gods: “I was eagerly waiting to dance the rituals in their original setting and context,” she said, “rather like a professor of chemistry waiting to find the appropriate laboratory where his or her wonderful formula could be applied in practice! But no temple came forward before the Rang Bagh trustees did.” This opportunity to reinstate and perform the ritual dances of Vilasini Natyam in a temple setting seemed serendipitous and almost a natural result of her efforts to research, document and teach this dance which was once in danger of being forgotten.

What followed was a long process of research and investigation to piece together the rituals in order to be able to reproduce them as authentically as possible. Mr Pitti described the process: “We looked through ancient texts and heard there was a man who had a few books on these rituals. We managed to contact him and he let us photocopy them. They were in Sanskrit and Telugu. Swapnasundari worked very closely with the temple priests to identify and recreate these rituals. What we have now is a refined and filtered version which is the result of a long process.” With great effort, Swapnasundari even managed to contact the daughter of a temple dancer who had been consecrated to this temple. It took much pleading and insistence but she eventually agreed to come to the temple and show Swapnasundari the rituals her mother used to perform.

Using these references and inputs, Swapnasundari was able to identify the dance rituals which were once performed by the temple dancers of Sri Ranganathaswamy temple. These were first reintroduced in 1996 during the temple’s Brahmotsav celebrations, choreographed and performed by Swapnasundari. Today, she and her disciples take turns performing the ritual dances during the eight days of the annual festival which usually falls in February (see below for the 2013 dates).

The Sri Ranganathaswamy temple in Rang Bagh is the only temple where ritual dances are performed as part of worship today. Swapnasundari teaches Vilasini Natyam free of charge so that this tradition can continue. “This is my way of giving back to the temple an aspect of the art which has been taken away from it. I give free classes in the temple-ritual dances of Vilasini Natyam to those who value my sentiment and offer what they learn as service to the temple once a year.”

For the dancers performing these age-old rituals, it is a special experience which goes far beyond a stage performance. “It is a Seva (service) not a performance,” feels Purva Dhanashree. “It’s part of something bigger. On stage it’s all about you. Here you’re just a dot in the pattern. It’s an inner journey.” Anupama Kylash echoes this sentiment: “It’s an internalised experience. I address myself to Him; it’s a dialogue with Him in my thoughts.” Sanjay Kumar Joshi is the only male dancer performing these ritual dances. “For me it’s a divine experience. I perform the dance only for God,” he says. “We want the dance back in the temple, in its context. There are no consecrated temple dancers here, so we perform these sacred ritual dances.”

A description of some of the dance rituals:

The first daily ritual is the Balabhogam when the first food offering of the day is made to the deity. The temple dancer invokes the deity with a hymn called Choornika followed by a Pallavi, an item of Nritta, or pure dance. At 11am and 8:30pm, before the temple idols leave the temple on a palanquin, Baliharanam is performed, followed by the Pallaki seva when they are taken outside the temple, and the Kumbha Arathi and Heccharika on their return.

During Baliharanam, the Ashta Dikpaalakas, the guardian deities of the eight directions, are invoked in a ritual where each deity is asked in turn to provide protection in preparation for the journey outside the temple. After invocations to Brahma and Garuda, the priests, dancers and musicians move in a clockwise direction around the temple, pausing at each of the eight points which are clearly marked by small raised platforms. Starting to the east, Indra is the first guardian-deity to be invoked followed by Agni, Yama, Nirrti, Varuna, Vayu, Kubera and Isana. At each of the eight points, the priests chant prayers in sing-song unison, followed by a loud rhythmical introduction of the Tavil and the Nattuvangam before the singer and flutist join in and the dance begins. Swapnasundari has reclaimed all the obsolete Talas related to this ritual and re-incorporated these into the chorography of this ritual.

With the invocations to the Ashta Dikpaalakas complete and their protection of the temple ensured, the palanquin moves out of the temple compound in a procession. The procession stops on the way, so that devotees can offer their prayers and offerings. At each halt, the dancer dances to a verse of a devotional hymn. By the time the procession completes its journey, an entire song or set of songs would have been completed. This ritual is called Pallaki Seva.

Before re-entering the temple, the palanquin stops just outside the main doorway for the Kumbha-harathi. The temple priest lights a lamp which is placed in a pot. Accompanied to the music of a Mallari, the dancer takes the pot and performs Arati before the deity and then walks around the palanquin. This is an act of purification before it re-enters the temple.

This is followed by the singing of a Heccharika. Through mimed movements, the dancer requests the deities to re-enter the temple with caution as ‘undesirable elements’ may have entered the temple in their absence. At the same time she warns these negative elements to leave the temple premises.

These are the three rituals performed daily. During the Abhisekam (sacred bathing) and Kalyanam (wedding ceremony) of Sri Ranganathaswamy and Maha Lakshmi, other dances are also performed.

This article was published in the September 2012 issue of Avantika magazine.

This year, Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple celebrates its Brahmotsavam from February 17 to 24, 2013. The dance rituals take place every morning and evening until February 22nd.

In 2014, the Brahmotsavam will take place from February 7 to 11.

Address: Sri Ranganathswamy temple, Rang Bagh, Nanakaramguda, Hyderabad

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