South Asian Dance Retreat returns with a bang to Columbus, Ohio
- Sudha Ganesh & Fenella Kennedy

July 18, 2016

Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala
The South Asian Dance Retreat (SADR) supported by the Barnett Center for Integrated Arts and Enterprise in collaboration with the Department of Dance, The Ohio State University and Chennai’s dance academy, Kala Pradarshini returned to Columbus, Ohio with a bang. When dedication, artistry, and community come together, the world listens. This summer, the world’s ear has been unexpectedly caught by the explosive growth of the South Asian Dance Retreat, now in its third year at the Ohio State University, Columbus. This two-week intensive, led by young Odissi exponent Kaustavi Sarkar and experienced Bharatanatyam artiste Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala, brought together masters of Indian classical dance and music from all over the world to collaborate, to teach, and to 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 dance along with their historical, cultural and socio-political context. The two-week dance intensive culminated through two showcases of the participants and the choreographers.

Sarkar is perhaps uniquely qualified to bring this enterprise to fruition, and her years of experience as an Odissi dancer are amply displayed in the grace and clarity she brings to teaching and performing. Sarkar 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 outstanding interdisciplinary work on Odissi dance, Critical Theory, and Motion Capture Technology. Who better, therefore, to unite a Mid-Western city, a large academic institution, and a global community of dancers?

Sarkar’s co-organiser, Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala, brought a similar pioneering spirit to the art of Bharatanatyam, and has guided the field through over three decades of her devoted work. Ghantasala aims to create an intelligent synthesis of classical culture and contemporary resources, collaborating with distinguished musicians and making innovative use of multimedia in performance. Her leadership was recognised as an “extraordinary blessing” and an inspiration by students and teachers alike.

The university Dance Department’s decision to co-sponsor this year’s retreat is a testament to Sarkar and Ghantasala’s efforts, 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 celebrated the patient serenity of Sita in a luxuriously textured embodiment of love, endurance and dignity; while Sarkar’s presentation of Draupadi and Radha, with dancer Sriradha Paul, was utterly engaging in its conspiratorial scheming, which culminated in a breathtaking group thillana jugalbandi of Bharatanatyam and Odissi choreographed specifically for the event by Parvathi and Kaustavi. Both Sarkar and Ghantasala acknowledged that the teacher’s worth is by the way a student performs, and this showcase received a standing ovation.

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.”

While the first part of the showcase was the students of the SADR, the second was to highlight the guru-shishya 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 unique tribute that brought together gurus and their shishya from three different dance legacies of the two different Indian classical dance forms of Bharatanatyam and Odissi. It featured senior Bharatanatyam exponents / gurus Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala (Director of Kalapradharshini, Chennai) and Priya Gajaananan (Kalabhavanam, Columbus, Ohio), and Odissi guru Kaustavi Sarkar (Odissi at Ohio State and Kaustavi Movement Company), with shishya, Shreyah Mohanselvan (a fifteen-year old dance prodigy and high school junior at Columbus Academy, Gahanna, Ohio). Shreyah completed her Bharatanatyam arangetram in Columbus, Ohio at the age of 12 under the tutelage of Priya Gajaananan; her Odissi Manchapravesh 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.

With Lord Shiva, Lord Jagannath and Lord Ganesha gracing the stage, the program was a visual delight in the harmonious sequencing of the different pieces. Invocation to Lord Ganesha in Bharatanatyam and Goddess Durga in Odissi, depiction of the love of Lord Krishna and Radha in Bharatanatyam and the playful interactions of Radha’s friend, Sakhi and Radha 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 vote of thanks, “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.” Shreyah Mohanselvan was truly honored and blessed to have the opportunity to perform with her gurus and made them proud. The performance ended to a resounding standing ovation and concluded the annual South Asian Dance Retreat hosted by the Department of Dance.

Clearly Indian classical dance has found a passionate champion in the Mid-West, and Columbus will look forward to Kaustavi Sarkar and Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala future collaborations and the return of the SADR next year as a voice of progress for the world to listen to.