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'Indian Dance in America' began in 1880!
- Rajika Puri

March 28, 2017

When Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham, (directors of From the Horse's Mouth, a NY-based but pan-US dance institution) asked me to curate a special edition of their show to be entitled “Indian Dance in America”, I was delighted at this recognition of our US Indian dance community. Since the heart of the show consists of stories told by elder members of a particular dance community, I immediately began to think of those who first established Indian dance in this country - and realised that the story of 'Indian dance in America' actually begins in America; the early pioneers were all Americans!

As early as 1906, Ruth St Denis had choreographed and performed a dance called 'Radha'. This was even before she met Ted Shawn and they pioneered American dance itself, established the Denishawn School and company (1915) and, later, toured India with over a hundred performances (1926). I have always thought, thus, that 1906 was the beginning of 'Indian Dance in America', only after which came legendary dancers like Ragini Devi (mother of Indrani Rahman, born Esther Luella Sherman) and La Meri (Russell Meriwether Hughes) who invited Ram Gopal to New York to dance in her company (1930) and who, to complete the circle, started the School of Natya with Ruth St Denis in 1940!

The four From the Horse's Mouth (FHM) shows for this edition consist of stories told by some 20 performers of a range of Indian dance forms - from Bharatanatyam to Bollywood - who each remain on stage during three subsequent stories, doing a series of improvisatory sequences in their specific dance form. The many story episodes are interspersed with five 'movements' when 4-5 dancers - in full costume and, as they say, 'with bells on' - follow each other into a diagonal shaft of light, performing excerpts of dances. We are lucky to have on board 93 year old Vija Vetra, a Latvian who studied Bharatanatyam with Guru Chokkalingam Pillai, and Indra Neela, who studied with Balasaraswati and Guru Elapppa Pillai. In this edition, we are also joined by two singers.

FHM has been done in 40 different contexts of which I have participated in about eight - including one at Lincoln Center's Film Society (entitled 'Reel to Real') during which we told our stories in front of the silent projection of a film of each of us dancing. The shows now regularly include projections of dancers' photographs throughout the evening. For this version's photographs we start with those Indian dancers who are with us no more and begin the show itself with a homage to the first Bharatanatyam dancer to bring a traditional program of solo dance to the US in 1962: Tanjore Balasaraswati who, for many of us is the paradigm of classical dancer.

Ruth St Denis in 'Radha'

Three of the 1880 visiting Nautch dancers
Having virtually completed the curation of this show, I started on the slides, looking for photographs of Ruth St Denis in 'Radha', expecting soon to go on to Ragini Devi as 'Kali', La Meri in her Bharatanatyam 'Swan Lake', followed by Uday Shankar and Ram Gopal during their tours of the US. Imagine my surprise when a chance photograph of three Nautch dancers came up on my browser in an article based on material from Priya Srinivasan's book 'Sweating Saris'. Following this up, I learned that 26 years before 'Radha', a troupe of Nautch dancers, snake charmers and jugglers had come to New York at the invitation of a theatrical producer, Augustin Daly, to perform during interludes of his latest opera 'Zanina' and that they landed in NY in the autumn of 1880!

Ullysses S. Grant

Furthermore, this invitation had its genesis during an 1879 visit to India by General Ulysses H Grant (commander of Abraham Lincoln's Union army during the American Civil War, and president of the US from 1869 to 77) during which trip he was treated by the then Maharaja of 'Jeypore' to a nautch performance.

Daly's troupe of four teenage nautch dancers - Vagoirba, Ala Bundi, Oondabaisa, and their leader Sahebjan - stayed over the especially hard winter and, sadly, did not fare well in New York. Ala Bundi, as well as a child born to Sahebjan, died of typhomalaria within four months. Nevertheless, this historic visit led - 24 years later - to another Indian attraction in NY, this time at Coney Island's Luna Park: an exhibit called 'Streets of Delhi', which is important to our story because Ruth St Denis was very taken with it. In fact, it is likely that this exotic scene with its elephants, turbaned drummers and other musicians was the genesis of St. Denis' 'Radha', which she premiered within a year.

We have many photographs of St Denis in 'Radha', but it is a collage of images of Radha by the celebrity photographer Otto Sarony (found at a site put together by videographer Johannes Holub) that tells us how the dance was inspired by the five senses. Moreover, in a 1941 video excerpt of the 'Delirium' finale (from the Jacobs Pillow Archives) one sees her, accompanied by six seated men in dhotis and a kneeling drummer, twirl herself into delirium until, in a whirl of her ghagra skirt, she falls senseless to the ground.

'Streets of Delhi' exhibit at Coney Island, NY,1880

5 Sense & Delirium sections of RADHA by Otto Sarony

'Orientalism', yes, but what a wonderful beginning to the situation we Indian dancers in the US find ourselves in today. And it would seem that - given that the Denishawn's pupils were Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Jack Cole, 'Indian Dance in America' is coeval with the very beginnings of modern theatrical dance in America itself.

Rajika Puri, trained in Bharatanatyam and Odissi, now performs her special brand of 'danced and narrated stories' (Sutradhari Natyam), and also lectures at festivals on Indian dance and theatre. She is co-curator at several major dance festivals in New York.

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