Indian dance festival brings joy to American Midwest 
- Sumati Sai Krishnan & Shubha Subbarao

September 21, 2008 
 
The Clayton High School Auditorium in St. Louis became a special, cultural heartland on September 12th, 13th and 14th 2008.  More than 10 dance troupes from across the US and India converged in the City of the Gateway Arch to participate in the first ever 'St. Louis Indian Dance Festival' which was hosted by Soorya Performing Arts and ably supported by the Missouri Arts Council (MAC). 

The 3-day festival commenced with an invocation to Lord Ganesha, by the tiny tots of Soorya Performing Arts. The elegant portrayal tinged with their beaming smiles and sweet innocence, wooed the audience.  The next recital by Dr. Seshadri Iyengar from India, brought to stage two reverential pieces, a Purandaradasa composition on Shiva and a Tulsidas bhajan on the life of Rama and the glory brought about by his name. These dramatic solo pieces required long, arduous performance and Dr. Iyengar accomplished that with graceful ease. Following the solo, was a group recital by the Jayamangala School of Dance from Washington DC.  They treated the audience to a thematic dance Om Sharavanabhava, an ensemble piece on Lord Muruga, portraying his birth and life, grace and compassion, including an explanation of the profound Pranava Mantra, OM and a thillana that had intricate footwork. The synchronization of the dancers was indeed beautiful. The program for Friday evening concluded with yet another graceful recital, Shubashitam by Monica Mahadevan, from Nashville, Tennessee. The solo dance drama about human values based on parables and folklore from India - Thirukural, Jataka and Panchatantra tales was awesome. The graceful gestures, step sequences, captivating facial expressions, liveliness and subtle eloquence made it a soul-lifting personal conversation. 

Although the lyrics for all these dance numbers were set in different Indian languages and may not have been easily understood by all, the mood of each piece was successfully conveyed through the dancers' movements and timely narration. The live music featured accomplished accompanists such as Naren Budhkar (tabla), Ramesh Ramalingappa (mrudangam), Jayaprakash (flute) and Jaishree Prasad (veena) who with their able support enhanced the music and rhythm for the various dance numbers presented throughout the evening.  Through this orchestral ensemble, the audience also got a preview of some of the traditional instruments used in an Indian classical dance recital. 

Saturday evening started off with a Kathak dance by the students of Soorya Performing Arts. The piece emphasized fast footwork, decorative poses and whirling passages. The next two dance dramas 'Dwiveni' were presented by Prasanna Kasthuri's students.  'Punyakoti' by Anisha Gururaj portrayed a popular folk story of truth, promise and humbleness that would shatter the ego of the most egoistic individual; 'Dokka Seethamma' by Vidya Mantrala was an inspiring story of a legendary lady, who had fed the hungry for forty years in times of severe drought. 
 

Pulikeshi Kasthuri and Anisha Gururaj in Dance Drama 'Punyakoti'
Arathi School in 'Femina - Story of Women'

'Femina,' the story of famous women of India and the US, La Meri, Indira Gandhi, and Amelia Earnhardt was beautifully performed by students of Arathi School of San Antonio. This dance drama was followed by an exhilarating treat of Kathak, a dance style from Northern India, by Shila Mehta, from Mumbai. The dancer in her shimmering white costume seemed to effortlessly float across the stage, as if wafted by a gentle rhythmic breeze. Each of the pieces on Ardhanareeshwar, Krishna Radha, and the closing one the Tarana (similar to the Thillana of the Bharatanatyam style), held the audience absolutely spell-bound and mesmerized. The audience bid her adieu after several rounds of thundering applause. 

Following the Kathak dance was 'Gokula Nirgamana,' USA's first Indian opera which lived up to the mighty challenge posed by the eternal performance of Shila Mehta. Having been performed recently to a full house of over 3000 people at the World Kannada Conference in Chicago, this opera was an emotional enactment of the mythological story of Krishna leaving Radha, the Gopis and Gopalas (cowherds) of Vrindavan, to fight the mighty demon king, Kamsa. Prasanna as Krishna and Seema as Radha along with their troupe of visiting artistes from India, and students of the Soorya Dance School, rendered a very convincing and energized portrayal of the story that is so popular in Indian myth.  This opera was the brain child of Guru Prasanna Kasthuri, the artistic director of Soorya Performing Arts and was based on the literary works of one of the greatest literary geniuses of India, Pu. Ti. Narasimhachar.  The concluding fast paced 'dandia-raas,' the dance with sticks kept the audience at the edge of their seats!!
 

Seema Kasthuri from St. Louis as Radha and 
Vijayashri Ashok as Sakhi in 'Gokula Nirgamana' 
Seema Kasthuri and Vijayashree Ashok 
in 'Gokula Nirgamana'

The concluding number for the evening was a dance drama, 'Rules of Life' based on the Vedas, the sacred scriptures that originated in the Indian subcontinent.  Presented by the Kuchipudi dance exponent Sujatha Vinjamuri and her team, the performance was stunning, a beautiful example of Kuchipudi's range of moods, curving sculptural postures, engaging use of eyes and gestures, precise and rhythmic footwork. There was not a moment of doubt, or uncomfortable pause, not a beat missed, which speaks volumes about their dedication and commitment to the art form.  Sujatha donated a part of the proceeds from ticket sales of the evening to the noble cause of SAWERAA (South Asian Women empowerment Regional Association). 
 

Students of Sujatha Vinjamuri in 'Rules of Life' 
Kuchipudi dance drama
Prasanna Kasthuri and Prof. Reed in MILAN, 
Tap and Indian Dance fusion
 

The third day of the festival started with a beautiful invocation dance by the budding artistes of Soorya Performing Arts Academy. Next, was a hour-long performance by Mrunal Desai of St. Louis. 'Krishna Tulabhara' narrated the story of Rukmini placing a single tulasi leaf on the scale, which weighs Krishna and balances the scale. The dancers skillfully demonstrated that even a small object offered with devotion means more to the Lord than the weight of all the wealth in the world. This was followed by a dance recital by Akhila of New Jersey, the mythological themes of Mahavishnu, the Dashavatars, and the dance of joy, on obtaining the grace of the Lord. Accompanied by their colorful costumes and adornments, the dancers themselves were moving works of art. 

The next dance drama 'Shringara Naradiyam' was a rib-tickling comedy that sent the audience into splits. The performance of Pulikeshi Kasturi, from Bangalore, in the dual role of a man (as sage Narada) and a woman deserves special mention. Yet another dance style that was presented was Odissi on the life of Vishnu, the Dashavatars, destruction of Kalia and Ravana by Aditi Bandhopadyay, from Columbia, MO, was amazing.  Through her elegant portrayal, the dancer brought to life a performance that was graceful yet quick, displaying the flickering animation of the eyes and brows and the deftly expressive mudras. 

Mohini Aattam by Smitha Rajan was a truly delightful aesthetic treat to the audience. The fantastic demeanor, with spontaneous expression of varied moods and eloquent gestures were so astounding that one felt no words would do justice to her elegance and perfection. 

In a fitting finale, Prof. Robert Reed and Prasanna Kasturi presented a ground-breaking collaborative complement of Tap and classical Indian dance, titled 'Milan-East meets West.' Prof. Reed from Oklahoma gave a stunning tap dance performance set to Indian music and rhythm, while Prasanna Kasturi simultaneously beamed his impeccable finesse in two forms of Indian dance, Kathak and Bharatanatyam. Reed's ease and humor made the performance more lively and engaging. 

The applause, the feedback and the consensus of the audience said it all. Guru Prasanna Kasthuri of Soorya Performing Arts had indeed brought a magnificent weekend of dance, across different styles, to St. Louis; a foretaste of subtle and sublime entertainment, embodying religion, philosophy, mythology, beauty, humor and human values.