In an intimate performance room, with relatively few rows of chairs semi-circling the dance floor and two rugs for guests, we watch the musicians sit on one side of the room take their places on the carpet that is their orchestra pit. The violin is familiar, though violinist Sandeep N. Bharadwaj holds it vertically. Scanning the program we learn that the wooden flute is a Bansuri (played by Chethan Anant). A single head drum, mridangam, that looks different from a more familiar tabla, is played by high schooler Akhil Sai Avasarala. The “nightingale”, as Mandala Director Pranita Nayar later introduces her, is the soprano-range Minu Pasupathi, sitting in the center. And to her right is Uma Balachandran, the pacemaker Nattuvangam, as we later came to learn. Meanwhile, the colorfully clad and bejeweled dancers are in the opposite corner, flexing their feet.
The violin then lets out a sustained soulful wail evoking a feel of the day beginning, and the nine dances ensue. If you too have traveled to India, when the drums join in you may have memories of the heat coming on as the morning continues. The first thought of this reviewer was how Klezmer jazz-like that beginning violin note was. In retrospect that thought epitomizes how many a Western-limited brain – even those of many who similarly have logged some significant tourist time in vast India – would try to fit the experience of Mandala Arts’ Indian arts showcases into something familiar. You too will likely conclude- and quite happily-- that it’s a chance to experience something else again. This is not Western, this is Incredible India, as the old tour-promoting slogan goes.
The four dancers (Colin Mascarhenas, Misha Talapatra, Ashwaty Chennat and choreographer Laksha Dantran—like the musicians, all bred in Chicagoland) silently tell the tales of love (Poetry of Krishna) —from yearning, to rejection, to repentance—and explication of Hindu teachings that bear on unions. Their fingers as posed purposefully, as are their geometric bodies- alone, or in pairs, or as total ensemble. How their eyes move from side to side is as choreographed as their feet. Gestures tell stories – splashing water, being on the lookout for the one, and finding true love. Hands flutter to show the sun’s energy, or then snake through the air like fluid ribbons. At one moment the ensemble seems to be doing the as American-as-it-gets Doh See Doh, and then you instantly are reminded of who came first. Those moves, not unlike seeing the antics of silent film actors in their expressions, are merely one way a Western mindset attempts to synthesize the exotica into something familiar.
In this reviewer’s opinion, one gets so intrigued that it’s easy to overlook how much physical effort is at play in the dancers’ bodies to create these moving kaleidoscope patterns. Clearly, these are not art forms one picks up overnight!
Indeed, in a post-show conversation with New York born and now U of C student Uma Balachandran we learn that her role—of pacemaker director for the performance—is something she began learning while a wee girl. It’s not words she is saying to propel the count for dancers and musicians alike, but rather just sounds akin to scat singing. Uma says, “There is a saying, we learn, that if you can’t say it , then you can’t play it.” Early on her parents spotted her talent in giving voice to the beat, a skillset that she will try to keep nurturing ,as she realizes her hoped for career in medicine.
Mandala Arts Connects Us With South Asian Culture
Family members are there in the audience with you. You are sharing in what feels like an intimate family gathering, replete with the tasty chai and samosa treats in the lobby after the performance.
Mandala Arts holds a small gathering like this yearly, as is the real tradition. Expect to leave hungry for a next performance, or a trip to India.