By Fenella Kennedy
The South Asian Dance Retreat (SADR) was organised for the third year at the Ohio State University, Columbus. It was supported by the Barnett Center for Integrated Arts and Enterprise in collaboration with the Department of dance, The Ohio State University, and involved Kala Pradarshini dance school run by senior Bharatanatyam dancer Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala in Chennai. The two-week intensive, led by Parvathi and Odissi dancer Kaustavi Sarkar, brought together Indian classical dance and music from different countries to collaborate, teach, share and grow from each other’s practices.
The class structure consisted of a series of exercises and basic movement patterns aimed toward improving body alignment and coordination. The techniques demanded a strong sense of rhythm, musicality and body awareness. The students learnt excerpts from the established repertoire in Bharatanatyam and Odissi, along with their historical, cultural and socio-political context. The two-week dance intensive culminated through two showcases of the participants and the choreographers.
Kaustavi Sarkar's years of experience as an Odissi dancer were amply displayed in the grace and clarity she brought to teaching and performing. She is also a respected scholar in multiple fields of dance research – this year she received the Hayes Research Award for The Arts in recognition of her interdisciplinary work on Odissi dance, Critical Theory, and Motion Capture Technology.
Her co-organiser, Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala, brought a similar pioneering spirit to the art of Bharatanatyam as a performer, teacher, choreographer and organiser with over three decades experience in Chennai. Parvathi aims to create an intelligent synthesis of classical culture and contemporary resources, collaborating with distinguished musicians and making innovative use of multimedia in performance.
The decision of the university's Dance Department to co-sponsor this year’s retreat was a testament to the efforts of Kaustavi and Parvathi, and allowed for a broader range of classes and instructors than ever before. Students came from all kinds of backgrounds, several countries and experiences, from beginners, to those who had been dancing their whole lives.
What made SADR special was the showcasing of the workshop participants in their own event. Parvathi’s mature and critical teaching techniques were beautifully demonstrated by a spellbinding performance by the students. The performances at the end of the retreat clearly showed how each dancer had been celebrated.
Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala celebrated the patient serenity of Seeta in a luxuriously textured embodiment of love, endurance and dignity; while Kaustavi’s presentation of Draupadi and Radha, with dancer Sriradha Paul, was engaging in its conspiratorial scheming, which culminated in a breathtaking group tillana jugalbandi of Bharatanatyam and Odissi choreographed specifically for the event by Parvathi and Kaustavi. Both of them acknowledged that the teacher’s worth is by the way a student performs, and this showcase received a standing ovation for several minutes, asserting the quality of their work.
While the first part of the showcase was the students of the SADR, the second was to highlight the guru-sishya parampara through Samanvaya, the succession of teachers and disciples in traditional Indian classical dance and the nurturing of the pedagogy of oral transmission practices.
Samanvaya was a tribute that brought together gurus and their sishyas from three different dance legacies of the two different Indian classical dance forms of Bharatanatyam and Odissi. It featured Bharatanatyam gurus Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala (Director of Kalapradharshini, Chennai, India) and Priya Gajaananan (Kalabhavanam, Columbus, Ohio), and Odissi guru Kaustavi Sarkar (Odissi at Ohio State and Kaustavi Movement Company), with sishya Shreyah Mohanselvan (a teenage dance prodigy and high school junior at Columbus Academy, Gahanna, Ohio). It is interesting to note that Shreyah had her Bharatanatyam arangetram in Columbus, Ohio at the age of 12 under the tutelage of Priya Gajaanana; her Odissi manchapravesa in Chennai in August 2015 at the age of 15 under the guidance of Kaustavi Sarkar; and her Bharatanatyam debut in Chennai, under the guidance of Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala. The disciple was truly blessed to have the opportunity to perform with her three gurus and made them proud.
With the deities Siva, Jagannatha and Ganesa gracing the stage, the programme was a visual delight and treat to the audience in the harmonious sequencing of the different items – an invocation to Ganesa in Bharatanatyam and to Durga in Odissi, depiction of the love of Krishna and Radha in Bharatanatyam, and the playful interactions of Radha and her sakhi in Odissi. Last but not least, an exploration of the many interpretations and connotations of rain in the strong Dikkugal ettum in Bharatanatyam, and the melodious and soothing Varsha duet in Odissi left the audience spellbound.
Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala captured perfectly the sentiment behind the event in her speech, “We senior artists would like to pass this art to the new generation. We encourage the younger generation to take on this art with passion.” The performance ended to a resounding standing ovation and concluded the annual South Asian Dance Retreat hosted by the Department of Dance.
Indian classical dance has found a passionate champion in the Mid-West, and Columbus will look forward to Kaustavi Sarkar and Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala's future collaborations and the return of the SADR next year.
One student commented that the highlight of the retreat had been the chance to experience and compare different forms of Indian classical dance; another praised the “tireless and whole-hearted commitment” of her instructors and peers. Dance Department chair, Susan Hadley, valued the retreat’s connection to the local community: “I would like to see the retreat return in the future, continuing to provide a bridge between town and gown, global and local, music and dance.”