Beyond Borders

Beyond Borders

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Art and culture is a powerful tool for the promotion of understanding among people, communities and civilizations. As a Malaysian born Indian residing in Jakarta, cultural understanding is an all year round experience as I experience life in what I would consider one of the most colourful, vibrant and culturally interesting countries in Southeast Asia.

And an inaugural performance on October 29th entitled ‘Mosaic of Indian Culture’ celebrated the depth and vitality of ties between two great nations – India and Indonesia.

On the evening of October 29th, Balai Kartini hall in Jakarta celebrated Friendship through Culture marking the second event of the Festival of India that was underway since Oct 16th. The venue played host to the diplomatic community as well as guests from both the Indian and Indonesian society. An event they will all remember as an evening spent celebrating the splendour and intriguing arts of India. A night where every Indian went home with a piece of his mother land he never earlier discovered and every non-Indian with a spirit to discover incredible India.

Organized by the Embassy of India and supported by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and Department of Culture and Tourism of the Government of India, the people of Indonesia will embark on a thrilling adventure and discover mutual grounds for commonality as the first ever Festival of India spreads across the Indonesian isles from the month of October 2009 until July 2010 in cities of Jakarta, Bandung, Medan, Jogjakarta, Surabaya and Bali.

The purpose of the festival is to develop greater understanding and with it, greater friendship with the Indonesian people who have, themselves built a dynamic civilization, a country so vast that I have yet to experience all of its bountiful offerings in the two years that I have been here. Indonesia and India have shared not only cultural but also religious, architectural and economical ties for hundreds of generations.

The festival portrays India’s aspirations, achievements and ancient living heritage which will enable the people of Indonesia to further understand what she is, why she is so and how she as a civilization has endured for over 5,000 years. It will advance Indonesia’s knowledge of India’s heritage and achievements, thus heightening the already growing potential of its commercial and economic relations.

The concept of this festival dates back as far as 20 years ago, spun from the brilliant mind of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and has been showcased in many other countries in the past. This year in Indonesia , the Festival of India would be an unprecedented, nationwide celebration which will include dance and musical programs, a fashion show, a food festival, lifestyle and antiquities exhibitions, a film week and other educational projects.

The event commenced with an inaugural speech by His Excellency Mr. Birendra Nanda, followed by Mrs Aditi Mehta. This was followed by the lighting of the ceremonial lamp by His Excellency, his wife Mrs. Rukmani Nanda and Mrs. Aditi Mehta.

India and Indonesia shares a long history of cultural links and we hope that through the sharing and collaboration in cultural events during the festival, we will be able to bring our people closer together and foster tourism, trade and cultural relations, said His Excellency Mr. Birendra Nanda, Indian Ambassador to Indonesia in his welcoming address.
Cultural relations between our two countries need very little introduction; the traditions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, Islamic tales and fables, dance, music, food, textiles and motifs all entails to the long surviving cultural links between the two countries,added Mrs. Aditi Mehta, Joint Secretary of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, New Delhi.

The Director of the Jawaharlal Nehru Indian Cultural Center in Jakarta and Festival Director Mr. M.K. Singh had very thoughtfully chosen a sophisticated repertoire of performing troupes. They consist of nine performances hailing from the arid deserts of Rajasthan to the lush paddy fields of Assam, and from classical forms to authentic ritual folk offerings from the famed Gir forests. It is truly a microcosm of India.

The show marked the first time that such a variety of styles of Indian artistry has been shown in a single evening in Indonesia. Host Arletta Danisworo who glittered in a beautiful violet and gold lengha, kicked of each performance with a short recitation of its origin.

The show began with an introductory eight minute ensemble called the Purva Rang, drawn from all nine cultural troupes that were to perform that evening. This was one of the highlighted items to witness with the splash of colour, sounds and spirit brought together to entice viewers of whats more to come.

As the curtain parted, a curious spotlight was roused on the twenty-one seated musicians who were illuminated. They in turn and in tandem creating an almost cosmic composition with amazing expressions using a combination of musical instruments from various states of India accompanied by lyrics of folk songs invoking an infectious groove got everyone feet thumping.

They were like a receptacle overflowing with rasa, like an incandescent vulnerable firefly, burning pure and bright. The object of all arts is the evoking of rasa. Rasa or sentiment (though not an exact synonym) in dance is the enkindling in the spectator a state of bliss or pure joy which is aesthetically aroused by the dancers or performers portrayal of bhava or emotions.

The musicians were joined almost suddenly by a contemporary, appearing from the far left corner of the stage, syncing herself with graceful twirls to their rhythmic beats; while others far below began filling up the seats before them. The one thing which is commonly anticipated and most of the time tolerated in this country is the arrival of late guests due to the unpredictable moods and volatile nature of the Jakarta traffic scene.

As the auditorium filled rapidly with latecomers who didnt want to miss even one more second of the following item, the deep strong masculine voice of Mr. Wali Khan Langa filled the air with such control and tenderness that it could soothe any disrupted mind buzzing with the thoughts of the stressful work day just left behind.

Mr. Khan hails from a hereditary singing community from the northern Indian state of Rajasthan called the Langas. They use several string or wind instruments called the Sarangi, Murla, Surinda and Sattara and used no drums, purely relying on the rhythmic bowing of the Sarangi and the Harmonium for rhythmic accompaniment. The Sattara is a paired flute whereby one pipe provides a drone, while the melody is played on the other. The technique of circular breathing enables the player to maintain a continuous sound. The player uses his cheeks to store a reserve supply of air while breathing in through the nose and pumping out with his cheeks.

Intently watching Mr. Khan and his troupe of six Langas can make anyones imagination drift to the majestic forts and palaces of Rajasthan where folk music is the soul of the princely land. The enticing music gives the people of Rajasthan a means of forgetting the tough living conditions in the desert with songs sung about folklores, hymns in praise of the Gods and tales of chivalry of the Rajput Kings.

I must say that with a voice like that of Mr. Khans, even I found myself lost in thoughts of wanting to explore this magnificent country of India in my next travels. What was blatantly obvious was that Mr. Khan needed no assistance from a mike as his voice could reach all corners of the auditorium with his magnificent tenure. The members of the Langa community, although Muslim sing traditional Hindu bhajans since their patrons were and still are elite Hindus.

While still wondering about the unique colourful turbans worn by the Langas, my thoughts were immediately diverted to the sound of bells (salenghe) coming from behind the curtain. Beats of drums and a beautiful voice of Ms. Sai Krita Prasana brought out two stunningly graceful Bharatanatyam dancers decked in Kundan jewellery and draped in purple and mustard silk.

They performed the Pushpanjali (offering of flowers) followed by the Kirtinam on Lord Shiva evoking the nine rasas. The rasas are generally accepted to be Sringara (love), Vira (heroism), Karuna (compassion), Raudra (anger), Hasya (humour), Bhayanaka (fear), Bibhatsa (disgust), Adbhuta (wonder) and Shanta (tranquillity).

Originating from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu and danced to Carnatic music, Bharatanatyam is angular and symmetrical in its approach. Ms. Sahana Raj and Ms. Akila Balasubramaniam from the Natya Sankalpa School of Mrs. Urmila Satyanarayanan located in Chennai depicted each rasa with their limbs in perfect alignment with each move while showcasing the appropriate Abhinaya (feelings) on their faces and connecting them through their eyes. Thus, the art of a great dancer depends foremost on the success with which a dance he/she can express.

At this very moment I could hear my former dance master shouting over and over again Where the hands go, the glance follows and where the glance goes the mind follows too as if I was back in the studio rehearsing our dances for an upcoming show. According to the Natya Shastra, amongst the greatest virtues that a dancer must possess, the first is the grace of repose implying a merging of the self of the dancer into his/her art, into what he/she is creating for the moment. This was fluidly created by the dancers depicting Lord Shiva radiating all movement within the cosmos and lifting humanity from the temporal to the eternal realities.

Being caught up in a precise geometrical glimpse of the cosmic realm soon got my attention diverted to a beat of a different drum – drum beats of the Sattriya that instantly invoked a funky shoulder and neck movement that was rather infectious and I suddenly realised that the people around me were displaying their own funky moves that is permissible in such a tight space. The Sattriya has been part of Assamese culture since the 15th century and is an important ritual performed by male monks in Sattras (monasteries) till today.

The auditorium resonated with the sound and melody of the Khols (drums), Taals (cymbals) and Pepa (flute) churning out music compositions called borgeets. The upbeat music was accompanied by Sattriya dancers lead by Guru Ranjit Gogoi who kept the audience enticed with their gracefulness and soft twirls choreographed to present the story of Lord Krishna.
The dance generally narrates mythological scenes and like all other classical dances, Sattriya encompasses the three main features of a dance, Nritta (pure dance), Nritya (expressive dance) and Natya (abhinaya), said Gogoi who has just recently returned from performing in Russia.

Soft twirls soon turned into sharp turns and intricate footwork of the Kathak dancers who followed next. This was a direct contrast to the Sattriyas sultry style. Kathak is north India’s dance tradition and has a strong Persian influence from its use as entertainment at Mughal courts.

The troupe entered with a series of staggering quick spins known as the chakar. Once assembled in a single line downstage, the dancers stepped forward one by one, each performing her own fast rhythmic footwork to the percussionist’s beat. In this way, this troupe stood out for having a playful, spontaneous element, highlighting the interplay between dancer and musician.

In the Kathak genre, its movement are not rigidly prescribed instead it allows the artist to use a variety of free movements, thus leaving interpretation of a story to the artists power of rhythmical improvisation, imagination and creativity. The stories performed come from many sources in Indian literature, the most ancient being those from the great epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Many stories and songs of medieval origin are in praise of Lord Krishna.

The vigorous footwork and sudden still poses of the three petite dancers wearing ghoongroos (anklets with 100 bells) was reminiscent of Bina Rai who played Anarkali a court dancer in the 1953 classic film based on the historical legend of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. A story of forbidden love; it was the top grossing Hindi film in the year of its release and one of the biggest hits of its decade.

From the glitz of Bollywood to the vast unending expanse of burning hot sand that makes up the Thar Desert, Rajasthan hosts one of the most vibrant and evocative music cultures of the world. The heady, hypnotic combination of rhythm and melodies sung and played by the Manganiars are part of the eternal appeal of this mysterious and wondrous land.

The soulful, full throated voices of the Manganiars have filled the cool air of the desert night for centuries in a tradition that reflects all aspects of Rajasthani life. Songs for every occasion, mood and moment; stories of legendary battles, heroes and lovers engender a spirit of identity, expressed through music that provides relief from the inhospitable land of heat and dust storms.

Mr. Samandar Khan, lead singer of the troupe of eight swayed the audience with his magical voice and amazing yet cheeky expressions while clacking away on a pair of khartals reciting in song the story of Krishnas flute which has been hidden by his lady love Radha. Radha and Krishna were lovers. Krishna was a cowherd who played his flute that captivated his lady love. One day Radha decides to hide his flute and the song tells the story of the conversation between Krishna and Radha with Krishna trying to get his flute back and Radha listing out all the reasons as to why she wont return it. The song is laced with wit and humour and played on a very catchy beat.

Khartals are made of Rose wood and is significant in a Manganiars performance, said Mr. Khan when asked what made that pulsating beat which grew on me immediately. Other instruments accompanying the Khartals were a remarkable bowed instrument called the Kamayacha that gives out a deep booming sound created by its big circular resonator and the Dholak a double headed barrel drum whose repertoire has influenced other Indian drums including the Tabla.
What is interesting about Mr. Khans troupe who has performed in sixty-five cities was that they were all related to each other comprising of his son, brother, brother-in-law, father-in-law and three cousins. Women of the Manganiar clan do not sing in public but sing during private occasions exclusively for family.

At one time, the Manganiars were musicians of the Rajput courts, accompanying their chiefs to war and providing them with entertainment before and after the battles and in the event of his death, would perform at the rulers vigil day and night until the mourning was over.

After such an energetic performance and the audience shouting for an encore, emerging from the far corner of the stage was an individual who ever so casually walked onto stage to take her position as musicians playing the Harmonium and Tabla created an instrumental prologue. After invoking the blessings of God in the first line of her performance prem se bolo bindaban bihari lal ki jai, Mrs. Ritu Verma initiated her storytelling journey called Pandvani.

Pandvani is perhaps the most powerful and highly developed form of contemporary performance storytelling in the world. Backed by three musicians Mrs. Verma sings, retells, chants and acts stories from the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata while holding a stringed musical instrument called the Tambura which is decorated with small jingling bells and peacock feathers. The musicians and Mrs. Verma worked in a tight, fast moving call and response relationship that was immensely entertaining.

The telling is in a mixture of prose and song rendered dramatic by a very rich gestural style. It is aimed at a rustic and simple village folk. The language is simple devoid of poetry or any high literary prose that is symbolic with the Mahabharata. The great story is told in simple tongue and is highly entertaining. The harmonium player took the role of ragi, a ritualised audience representative – urging the story forward with interjected questions and supportive vocal approval.

I began performing at the age of six said Mrs. Verma who was inspired by the late Jhadu Ram Dewangen, the man whose creative intervention in the 1940s saved and completely revived the Pandvani tradition. She is clearly an outstanding artist and is at the height of her powers, able to command vast audiences with just the raising of an eyebrow.

With a forceful narrative coupled with traditional and sometimes contemporary interpretation of the Mahabharata, she embarked upon an absorbing episode of the tale of Draupadi, the daughter of King Drupada. Draupadi was wed to all five Pandavas who later on in a game of dice with the Kauravas, is pawned away. Dragged to the court, she questions the wise elders on the injustice, suffering indignities until Lord Krishna comes to her rescue.

This was a virtual one-woman Mahabharata, being presented on the stage in the form of dramatic interpretation as Mrs. Verma swung, mocked, argued and finally underlined the worth of the episode she was presenting. I for one wasn’t the only person who was surely under her magical spell as she had the audience eating out her hands.

Another form of storytelling was up next. Called the Yakshagana, this too is the depiction of various events from the Mahabharata. However, unlike the Pandvani, the Yakshagana includes the portrayal of Gods, demons, avatars or the incarnation of Gods and Goddesses in such elaborate costumes and makeup that it takes any viewer‘s imagination right up to the enchanting mythological world of the Gods and demons alike.
Yakshagana is a traditional dance drama popular in the coastal districts and adjacent areas of the south Indian state of Karnataka. It is generally regarded as a form of folk theatre, but possesses strong classical connections with a vital role in propagating the virtues portrayed in Indian mythology.

The performance of Mr. Shivanan Hegde and troupe consisted of a Himmela (three background musicians with a harmonium and drums) and a Mummela (four dancers/actors) which together performed the Yakshaga Prasanga in an episode called Kalaga meaning heroic fight of a King. The dialogues are in Kannada and Tulu languages. Whilst the dancing patterns are devoid of gentle movements and consist of squatting and jumping that requires quick body movements, the actors portray subtle emotions through their eyes and deep baritone voices.

During the battle sequence, the dance is swift and intense with the pattern varying from one character to another. Mr. Hegdes artists adorned with heavy costumes and head gear impressively jumped high in the air and twirled vigorously without losing their physical balance and rhythm.

Their head gears were made from wood and decorated with attractive artificial stones, golden coloured paper, glass and mirrors which commensurate with the role of each actor. The crown, a symbol of sovereignty, is worn by all kings while demonical characters wear a different type of crown that has a coloured disc in front. Less important characters wear simple turbans of cloth.

What is interesting are the intricacies of their makeup. Made from vegetable dye, the motifs on each character is different. The faces of Kings and princes are painted rosy pink while demonical makeup is heavier with artificial eyelids, horns and white dots or squares liberally applied to portray the ferocious and violent nature of demons.

Because the Yakshagana is a performance of many episodes with over a 100 songs lasting through the night, only one episode was performed to provide the audience a sneak peak of what they are all about. Though I am not well versed in the stories of the Mahabharata or Ramayana, I could somehow gather that Mr. Hegdes troupe was depicting a scene of a King and his soldiers going to battle with an invading warlord who eventually loses the fight. Boy! What a trilling ride it was.

A victory then rejoiced with the entrance of the Bihu dancers presenting songs of love and affection. Lead once again by Mr. Gogoi; this form of dance is characterized by brisk stepping, flinging and flipping of hands and the swaying of hips representing youthful passion.

It was lovely to watch as the dance began in a slow tempo gradually quickening towards the end. The enthralling beats of the Dhol, Cymbals and Pepa were accompanying by four dancers draped in pink and beige Assamese handlooms. They were perfectly synchronised and expressed a flirtatious feeling of youth and energy. Being the most oldest and important dance of Assam, it is performed during the spring festival marking the beginning of the agricultural season and the Assamese New Year. It is also performed during the season of marriage.

The intriguing closing act was one that may have left many a guest baffled and surprised. It was called the Siddhi Dhamal performed by Mr. Moor Jahan Ismail and troupe. The Siddhi folk are a tribal Sufi community of East African origin which came to India eight centuries ago and made Gujarat their home.

Its common knowledge that India has many cultural influences and is an ocean of cultural diversity and so one can see people of European, Arabian, Persian and Chinese decent. But not many know that there are descendents from African in India who are a part of the Indian community.

The performance presented an overview of Siddhi ritual performance, from the traditional muezzin call to prayer to a staged ritual performance of a Dhamal. It consists of joyful, satirical praise to their ancestral Saint, Bhava Gor. Intoxicating drum patterns support the dancers who perform increasingly virtuosic dance solos, gradually reaching an ecstatic climax.

While the music gets more rapid and exciting, the dancers unfold with group acts of satirical imitations of animals and other creatures, climaxing in a coconut-breaking feat. The exuberant energy the troupe brought to the stage is captivating and powerful. Their unique African-Indian heritage is a fascinating discovery with every performance an exhilarating experience.

As you are clamouring for more you notice the entry of the rest of the performers coming back on stage for a short composition with the unity of all musical instruments of each ensemble. This show has come to an end for now doing more than enough to whet your appetite for more dainty morsels are on your way during the coming weeks and months till the middle of 2010.

All of us present just had an appetiser. The more than a thousand spellbound guests gave a standing ovation to the performers as the leaders of each group were presented with bouquets by His Excellency Mr. Birendra Nanda, Mrs. Rukmani Nanda and His Excellency Indonesian Ambassador to India Mr. Andi M. Ghalib.

The Mosaic of Indian Culture truly wooed the Jakarta audience with the graceful rendition of classical and folk dances and music. Choreographed by the artistic Mr. Kalpesh Dalal, the performers led the mesmerized audience on a trip to an ancient and glorious civilization.

Whether studied by the children of Indian immigrants looking for a tangible connection to their heritage or local Indonesians attracted to Indian culture, the multi-style ensemble was testament to Indian dance popularity beyond traditional borders. And by the time the Festival draws to a close Indonesia would have had a glimpse of India – its clothes, food, music, arts, literature and films.

The writer is an aerospace and defence journalist, an Indian classical dancer and an ancient history enthusiast.

 {module Rosemarie – Beyond Borders}

Rosemarie John

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