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INDIAN CLASSICAL DANCE AT SEATTLE CENTER

This Sunday at 2pm, Artists at the Center presents Dance Tantra’s Nritya Kavya Chitra, an hour long performance of Indian classical dance, music, visual art, and poetry. Led by Piyali Biswas De (dancer, choreographer, WA humanities speaker, arts entrepreneur, and community leader), Dance Tantra is one of the largest Indian classical dance academies on the Eastside of Seattle. 30 dancers are involved in the presentation at Seattle Center. In the following Q&A, Piyali Biswas De tells us more about what makes this show a must-see, and the historical context behind these dance forms. 

Photo by Prabu Gunraj

 

What kind of experience should audiences expect to have at Nritya Kavya Chitra?

“Nritya Kavya Chitra” are Sanskrit words, and they mean dance, poetry, and art. It is a mixture of Traditional Bharatanatyam numbers, from invocatory items to more complex numbers like Varnam, which is among the most critical and complex dances in Bharatanatyam. Consisting of complex, longer rhythmic patterns, complex tunes, lyrics and stories, it is usually a longer dance that requires advanced skills and physical stamina.

The final work of the show, Prakritim Paramam—quest for the cosmos in nature, is the event’s highlight. “Prakritim” means nature, and “paramam” means supreme. This production is to realize the power of a formless god within nature and mainly flows with Rabindranath’s poems. Also included is an art exhibit on the Pacific Northwest’s beautiful nature by a talented Indian artist, Sandip Debnath. The audience will be immersed in Traditional heritage performing arts with poems and art.

What dance forms will Dance Tantra be presenting in Nritya Kavya Chitra?

The Indian classical heritage performing art Bharatanatyam, and Rabindranritya, which originates from Santiniketan, India, and perpetuates the traditions and concepts of the first Nobel laureate non-European poet Rabindranath Tagore.

Photo by Sandip Debnath

Can you tell us more about the origins of these dance forms as they relate to time and place? Are these dances still evolving or a preservation of a classical form?

Bharatanatyam, a dance of emotions, melody, and rhythms, originated in Southern India over 2000 years ago and has constantly evolved with time and cultural contexts. It is considered to be a descendant of an ancient Devadasi (literally, servant girls of gods) culture in Southern Indian temples between 300 BCE and 300 CE. With the arrival of the East India Company in the 18th century, and British colonial rule in the 19th, classical Indian dance forms were ridiculed and discouraged by Christian missionaries and British officials. In their eyes, Bharatanatyam represented harlots, debased erotic culture, slavery to idols, and priestly tradition. An anti-dance movement emerged in 1892, and in 1910, the Madras Presidency of the British Empire banned Hindu temple dancing. 

A revolutionary lawyer and artist, E. Krishna Iyer, understood the greatness of the art and lamented the disrespect shown and the stigma attached to it due to its association with devadasis. He founded the Madras Music Academy and teamed with Rukmini Devi Arundale to save this dance art from dying out. During India’s independence movement in the early 20th century, a period of cultural and political turmoil, Bharatanatyam was revived as a mainstream dance outside of Hindu temples by artists such as Rukmini Devi Arundale, Balasaraswati and Yamini Krishnamurti. This was a part of building a modern India through Indian nationalism, along with protecting traditional artistic traditions. State-sponsored dance festivals were introduced in 1955 in an independent India to display art with religious, social, and cultural connotations. In the late 20th century, Tamil Hindu migrants reintroduced the traditions of temple dancing in British Tamil temples. Traditionally, Bharatanatyam numbers are based on Indian mythology, but Bharatanatyam dancers represent contemporary themes nowadays as well. 

Rabindra-nritya is the enchanting cross-cultural dance form of India’s first Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. It has crossed boundaries and delighted audiences globally for decades. This distinctive dance form, a creation by Tagore himself, blends all Indian classical dance roots with a contemporary essence. With its graceful and fluid movements, Rabindra-nritya weaves a tapestry of emotions that irresistibly captivates the eye while the soul is serenaded by melodious poetry and contemporary stories. Rabindranritya celebrates the cycle of seasons, nature, devotion, patriotism, etc.

You mention working with Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath’s words. Can you tell me more about using that as inspiration?

I grew up in West Bengal, India, immersed in Rabindranath Tagore’s literature and songs and performing in Tagore dance dramas. His pathbreaking literature has inspired me since childhood during my dance training days. His vision was ahead of his time, relevant today and in the next few centuries. Rabindranritya is a dance genre created with his work, which is graceful and fluid, influenced by many Indian Classical dance forms, including Bharatanatyam. His poems have always had a global character, embodying inclusiveness and the concept of harmony. Prakritim Paramam is a soulful attempt to represent Tagore’s vision of formless divine power through his poems, songs, and dances appropriate to the audience here. I used the original English translation of Tagore poems in the dance production.

Can you tell us about the music in the show and how the music and dancers relate inside the work?

Music plays a powerful role throughout. The entire presentation music is custom-made, and Dance Tantra holds complete ownership of it. The music collaboration ranges from Chennai & Kolkata singers in India to talented Greater Seattle-based Indian artists who worked for many months to create compelling music for the Prakritim Paramam. Also, all traditional Bharatanatyam group dance music is produced in Chennai and Kolkata, to cater to dancers’ skills and experiences. We’ve involved talented singers like Srikanth Gopalakrishnan in Chennai, Ashim Bhaumik, Deepa Banerjee, and Gaurav Chanda from Seattle. In this presentation, we’ve two brilliant music directors, Riddhi Datta from Bellevue and Swapnendu Kar from Kolkata.

Photo by Sandip Debnath

 

Is there context that will be helpful to know for someone coming to watch the show? Especially someone who’s never seen Indian classical dance before?

Expect a lot of graceful, soulful, rhythmic dance steps with expressions, hand gestures, head-neck-eye movements, and gorgeous costumes and accessories. Immerse with Nobel prize-winning poems with a relevant theme that will put the audience into deep thinking mode. An awe-inspiring art exhibit artwork by a talented artist with 30 disciplined dancers is here to inspire Seattle’s audience to appreciate Heritage art forms. I will be dancing a technical pure Bharatanatyam dance (Peacock alarippu), balancing on a clay pot. Dance Tantra’s recent Bharatanatyam graduate, Tonoya Biswas, a Junior from Eastlake High School, presents her solo Rabindranritya with traditional Dhunuchis (two clay incense burners on hands). First generation American kids like her are indeed the future creative bearer of Indian classical arts here in America.

How did you come to dance? How did you come to establish your Sammamish-based dance academy, Dance Tantra?

I started learning Bharatanatyam and Rabindranritya at the tender age of 3 years old. I have never looked back since then. Over 4 decades of learning, performing, and choreographing flourished more since I moved here to Seattle in 2006. After many requests, I started my Dance Tantra academy with 7 students in 2016, which has grown to 100+. I take pride in my students bringing quality dances, passion for heritage, classical performing arts, and creativity. I love this dance instructor role besides my full-time IT job. I feel like living in a temple teaching curious kids and adults aged 4 to 50+ years old. The name Dance Tantra came in an interesting way. Tantra means “system” in Sanskrit and also it has letters from my two daughters’ names: Tonoya and Triyana. It is a methodical dance System I am trying to build for my students. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.