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Gajamukha Dance Ballet - a spiritual journey...
by Febina Mathew, North Dakota

July 26, 2004
"In heaven Lord Ganesha will establish the predominance of gods, on earth that of people,
in the nether world that of serpents and anti-gods”
~A Hymn from Sri Bhagavat-Tathva~

Ancient Puranas (Sanskrit writings about primordial times) is replete with stories on the divine qualities of Lord Ganesha, the fountainhead of wisdom and courage. He is one of the most popular deities considered to be the embodiment of auspiciousness and remover of obstacles. Dr. Jayanthi Raman, dancer and choreographer, and the recipient of the prestigious National Dance Project award, explores the glory of Lord Ganesha in all his infinite forms in her latest dance ballet - 'Gajamukha'.

RASIKA, India Arts and Culture Council presents the national tour of this ballet in US from early September to November 2004. Gajamukha dance ballet is being presented by premier Performing Art Centers and Indo-American organizers across the nation in one of the most successful coast to coast tour of 30 cities this Fall 2004! They are performing at prestigious venues including the World Music Institute Symphony Space-NY, Wortham Center- Houston, Flynn Center-Vermont, Lied Center- Nebraska, and Rialto Theater- Atlanta, Washington Performing art society- Washington DC, UW World Series -Meany Hall, Arlene Schnitzer concert hall, Portland etc. As part of this tightly packed schedule, the artists are also presenting workshops and lectures on Indian classical music and dance at various cities.

Researched and choreographed by Jayanthi Raman, the ballet features a twelve-member ensemble of India's illustrious dancers and musicians. Gajamukha showcases three classical dance styles (Mohiniattam, Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam) as well as folk and contemporary styles in a seamless fusion to present the mythological stories of Lord Ganesha. The compositions of Dr. M Balamurali Krishna, Lalgudi Jayaraman, have been adapted for this ballet. Bhagavatulu Seetharama Sharma, Ganesh (Ganesh Kumaresh), and Rajhesh Vaidhya have composed original musical score for this production. Raman is also fortunate to have the original lyrics composed by noted scholars- Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao (Sanskrit), and Professor VV Subramanian (Tamil).

The twelve -member ensemble cast of dancers and musicians are one of India's most illustrious cultural ambassadors, introducing international audiences to the power and magic of South Indian classical dances. Gajamukha debuts in the US as a new full-length ballet based on ancient texts that dates back 2,000 years. Classical yet accessible to Western audiences, Gajamukha is a spiritual, musical and theatrical drama.
Jayanthi Raman is a recognized persona in the art and cultural landscape in the US. She has been awarded individual artists grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Portland consistently for her annual ballet productions in recognition of her performing and choreographic abilities over the past ten years. As an educator, she is recognized as a 'Master Artist' by both the States of Oregon and Washington through their apprenticeship programs. Raman is the founder and artistic Director of the Natya Dance Academy, founded in 1993 based in Portland, Oregon.

Raman is the first Bharatanatyam artist-recipient of prestigious National Dance Project award, from NEFA, USA.

Below are the excerpts of a recent interview with Jayanthi Raman by Febina Mathew.

You are a National Dance Project grantee and first Bharatanatyam artist to receive the same. How do you feel?
I am honored and excited to having received the award. NDP award has helped me receive recognition among the nation's top performing art presenters. The award also helped me financially to approach the best of performing artists - musicians, dancers, composers, lyricists and other talents to work with me on creating this production. Further, having considered me alongside great dance personalities like Mark Morris, Paul Taylor and other dancers/dance companies across the globe brings me credit and added responsibility to produce a dance ballet showcasing India's rich legacy of classical, traditional and contemporary performing and visual arts.

What is the stand of Indian classical dance in American society today?
I feel the Indian classical dance is becoming more and more accepted among mainstream performances. Thanks to the many visiting artists and local dance teachers all over US for having propagated the same.

How did you start your dance career?
My mother was a great source of encouragement and support in my early years. My mother was influenced by Kalakshetra and wanted me to learn the art form in all its purity, richness and discipline. The inspiration, guidance and support of my husband, Raman Srinivasan has been primary reason for me to reach this point in my career. My life has been also greatly influenced by my mentor, Rukmini Devi Arundale, the doyen of Bharatanatyam.

Your guru?
I studied dance under renowned Gurus - Late J Venkatachalapathy and Adyar K Lakshman. Chalapathy anna had the advantage of being a performer and teacher and could admirably influence even the way the student walks.

Lakshman sir is one of the living legendary teachers and a Guru is every true sense. He imparts knowledge without any reservation and has the talent to bring the best out of every student. There is an expected standard for any disciple of Lakshman sir today all over the world.

What inspired you to perform a ballet on Lord Ganesha?
I am a Ganesha devotee. To me, He is the embodiment of simplicity and goodness in the world. I think of this ballet - Gajamukha as a spiritual journey - an offering to the elephant headed deity in the human spirit.

How would you describe your work?
I think it is quite expansive. Gajamukha is my overall vision. To accomplish this the hard work, dedication and support of talented dancers, musicians, singers, lyricists, photographers, artists, designers and technicians is essential. One person's vision and the talent and work of about 25 people—the dream team makes this aspiration a reality!

You have a 13-member troupe of world-class artists for this production. Was the team building process difficult? How did you go about doing it?
Yes, of course. Auditions, references, my own experience of working with some of the artists, all helped me to select the talented people involved in this project. It is indeed a rare honor to work with some of the members on this creative endeavor.

The concept of Gajamukha is my effort of two years. The theme had to be unique and at the same time, based on what people know. The music composers and lyricists were very co-operative and helped me create around the theme.

We have an orchestra of five musicians providing the musical score. The leading Carnatic vocalist, OS Arun will lead the orchestra with Veena artist Rajhesh Vaidhya, Flautist V K Raman, and two percussionists N Kesavan & N Ramakrishnan. The dancers were selected through audition and some of them who I have seen on stage before. Narendra Kumar, S. Shivakumar, Aadith Narayan, Aswini Viswanathan, Preethi Ramachandran, Sailaja Shivakumar are the talented co-dancers in the ballet. Murugan Krishnan is the talented and experienced stage manager on this tour. The effects are from Hollywood Lights based in the US.

I understand Gajamukha will showcase a fusion of three classical dance styles (Mohiniattam, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi) and folk idioms. Can you tell us what is special about adopting the blend?
Through Gajamukha, we wanted to present performing arts unique to South India. This will help people understand the similarities and differences; the style, elaborate costumes and jewelry; the intricacies involved in each of the dance styles. We are also utilizing contemporary and folk elements in the ballet, as the theme requires this.

Audiences, nowadays, are more open to different and contemporary dances than the same usual classical items. How do you see it?
Gajamukha will present classical dance styles unique from South India to a global audience. Each dancer/choreographer has a unique vision of their project. I have to appeal to an international and diverse audience. I am also very particular to showcase the classical dances in all its purity. So the ballet will feature pure classical items, as well as folk and one contemporary piece.

Your advice for young dance enthusiasts?
Believe in yourself, in what you do. Follow your heart. It takes a lot of time and effort to realize your dreams. But dance is something that gives on spiritual satisfaction. Always seek the guidance of your Gurus and the senior dancers in the field.

Febina Mathew is a Bharatanatyam dancer and writer based in North Dakota. She is also a volunteer for RASIKA.