Kathakali Dancer. Image from Google Images.

This weekend the Battery Dance Company is kicking off its annual Downtown Dance Festival, New York’s “longest-running free public dance festival.” From August 14-20, you’ll have the chance to see Battery Dance joined by companies from both India and Japan.

And did I mention that it’s free?

From the press release:

This year’s DDF will feature Kathakali dancers and musicians from India,
supported by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), with whom BDC
has long collaborated, both in India and as part of an early effort to
promote Indian dance in the U.S. The ICCR will be covering all costs to
bring over an esteemed Kathakli dance company, Guru Radha Mohanan & Troupe.
Guru Radha Mohanan will make his U.S. debut in the festival.

A disciple of the world renowned exponent Guru Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair,
Radha Mohanan is a master not only of Kathakali–the highly stylized
classical form of Indian dance theater known for its elaborate costumes and
make up–but also of the Mohiniattam and Bharatanatyam forms. His troupe has
performed in Greece, Germany, U.S.S.R, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and
other countries. He is the founder director of the Kalari Institute located
in New Delhi, India, which is dedicated to the promotion and dissemination
of Indian classical dance forms.

Here’s the schedule of events:

Saturday, August 14–Sunday, August 15, 1:00–4:00 P.M.
Location: The Lawn at Battery Park, adjacent to State Street at Pearl Street
By Subway: 1 to South Ferry; 4/5 to Bowling Green; R/W to Whitehall

Monday, August 17–Friday, August 21, 12:00 P.M.–2:00 P.M.
Location: One New York Plaza
Directions: Water and Whitehall Streets
By Subway: 1 to South Ferry, R to Whitehall, 4/5 to Bowling Green

Unfortunately, I’m out of town (and will be for a while) so I won’t be able to attend the festival myself. But feel free to send in pictures or clips! I’d love to put them up in a later post.

Today it’s time to put the spotlight on another classical Indian dance: Kuchipudi. Kuchipudi originated in Andrha Pradesh, India, and is stylistically similar to Bharatnatyam, although there are subtle differences between the art forms, such as in costume (Kuchipudi costumes have one large pleated fan, whereas Bharatatnayam costumes have a tier of three fans) and steps.

Of all the classical Indian dances that I’d like to view live, Kuchipudi ranks up in the top three, most notably because of one unique feature–the Tarangam where the dancer dances upon a brass plate.

Image from Google Images

The sheer concentration it takes to pull this off in a performance amazes me. The Kuchipudi dancer stands atop a brass plate, balancing a vessel of water on her head and two diyas, or small oil lamps, in each of her hands. During the performance, the dancer moves the brass plate with only her feet, while maintaining her balance with the lamps and vessel to a continuous rhythm. By the end of the dance, she usually extinguishes the lamps or washes her hands with water from the vessel balanced atop her head.

Recently, Kuchipudi dancer Shantala Shivalingappa ended her week-long stint at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. Her performance garnered a rave review from the New York Times. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like she’ll be in the tri-state area anytime soon, but for those interested in catching her at some point can head over to her website and find tour dates here.

Image taken from Google Images

It’s been some time since I last featured a classical Indian dance, so I thought I’d bring up another one of my favorite classical Indian dance styles: Kathak.

kathak-couplePhoto from flickr.com

Kathak is a northern Indian style of classical dance that traces its origins back to nomadic bards who were storytellers. In fact, the word “kathak” is derived from the Sanskrit word katha, meaning story. The dance form has several influences ranging from temple dance to the Persian influence of the Mughal courts from the 16th century.

I only recently discovered that kathak had a Persian influence, but then I realized that this was evident in the kathak costume itself. If you look at images of traditional Persian dress, you can probably see similarities in the dress style with that of a kathak costume:

Traditional Persian Costume

Picture from Google Images

Picture from Google Images

The most striking similarity I see is the cut of the skirt. The Mughal kathak style of costume has a tighter-fitting blouse and emphasizes the skirt with a cut that allows the bottom of the dress to flare out, which has a great effect when the dancer spins.

There are three main gharanas, or schools, of Kathak:

  • Lucknow Gharana: This gharana originated in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. It emphasizes facial expressions (known as abhinaya) and naturalness in dance.
  • Jaipur Gharana: Developed in Jaipur, Rajasthan, this school emphasizes the more technical aspects of kathak, such as complex footwork and multiple spins. (A side note: a unique aspect of spinning in kathak dance is that the dancer learns how to turn and land in the same position. It’s very difficult to spin and land with your heel in the same spot twice, yet these dancers spin multiple times–up to twelve or fifteen sequential turns at a time!)
  • Banaras Gharana: This school developed in–you guessed it–Banaras, and is characterized by different aspects in kathak dance, such as the gait and greater use of the floor space.

These are just three of the main schools, though every classical Indian dance form has at least several different schools within each form. The schools bear the hallmark of a particular guru or group of teachers that has been passed down from guru to student over time.

I find it only fitting that I begin this blog with a very brief overview of Bharatanatyam, the classical dance form I’ve studied from the day my mother first pushed me onto a stage. Bharatanatyam is a South Indian dance style that is among the principal classical dance forms of India, as it’s a very spiritual dance form that is in essence a devout prayer between the dancer and God. It was originally a dance performed in Hindu temples and has since evolved into one of the most recognizable classical dance forms of India.

There are three major aspects to Bharatanatyam: Abhinaya, or dramatic story-telling; Nritta, or pure dance rhythm; and Nritya, a combination of both story-telling and movement. In addition to these techniques, Bharatanatyam also involves adavus, which are combinations of a series of steps, and hastas, hand gestures that symbolize various parts of Hindu mythology.

I found this nifty compilation of several different hastas from the blog Online Bharathanatyam Academy, which has much more information about the movements involved in Bharatanatyam:

Given its rich cultural roots, I was ecstatic to discover that Bharatanatyam was among the dances presented on the recent NBC’s Superstars of Dance, a televised dance competition that was advertised as the “Dance Olympics.” While the show had a dubious platform as a competition, the showcasing of different cultural dances was something that I couldn’t miss. Among the more talented performers that caught my eye, Mythili Prakash stood out as an exceptionally qualified Bharatanatyam dancer:

There weren’t many renowned Indian-American dancers around when I was studying this dance form as a young girl, so I think that Mythili Prakash is well on her way to establishing a greater presence in the world of Indian dance.

You can find out more about Mythili Prakash at her website here.