Historic Indian Dance Drama Festival
- Sushma Mohan
Photos courtesy: Soorya Dance

May 18, 2017

Arts and culture have always been a symbol of a vigorous community and represent joy and celebration among community members. Dance being an integral part of such a community is indulged when it appears in a myriad form - in a 'natya' or a 'dance-drama' template. Such dance dramas demand a big story, a huge cast and enormous logistics both from the hosting organizer and the performing artists.

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One such mammoth event occurred in St. Louis, MO, a first ever 'Indian dance drama festival', a concept visualized by Guru Prasanna Kasthuri of Soorya Performing Arts, for several years now. This envisioned into reality from April 28th - 30th in St. Louis, Missouri as the 9th American Natya Festival. Conducting such an event is a herculean task and the art lovers, patrons, businesses and art agencies of St. Louis pitched in to make this a practical reality. The city of St. Louis also proclaimed April 29 as the "Day of Indian Dance Dramas" in St. Louis city and made it a permanent document in its archives for historical purposes. More than 160 dancers participated in this three-day dance festival attended by more than 1100 people. The lifetime achievement award was awarded to senior dance gurus Rathna Kumar (Houston) and Sudha Chandrashekar (Michigan). The award included a plaque, a shawl and $1000 cash prize.

The festival featured 12 full length dance productions from dance companies across the USA - New Jersey, Chicago, Indianapolis, San Antonio, Baltimore, Washington DC, Detroit, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Houston, Dallas, and St. Louis. The festival also played host to American Natya Idol dance competition with 46 participants in various Indian classical dance styles of Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi and Odissi coming from across the country.

Day 1
The dance festival began with 'Subhadra Parinaya' choreographed by Prasanna Kasthuri from St. Louis in Bharatanatyam style. Originally created in 1992, this dance production already performed at various dance festivals was the first to grace the stage of Natya Festival 2017 performed by the home team, Soorya Dance Company. The story of Pandava prince Arjuna falling in love with Subhadra (Krishna and Balarama's sister) against the wishes of Balarama, and Arjuna finally marrying his beloved princess in the end was the main story. The energetic team of dancers presented a highly entertaining piece of work. Prasanna Kasthuri's commanding abhinaya as a nata and a majestic Balarama, Samanvita as Arjuna, showcasing the moods of a lovelorn hero and Priya Patel as Subhadra, heroine suffering from pains of love were very impressive. Seema Kasthuri as nati and Revati; Nithya Venky, Sadhana Baktavachalam as Sakhis; Jayashree Anand, Nivvi Prabhu, Hansika Sakshi as Poorva Rangi and soldiers; Sanjana Anand, Sanjana Betnag, Samhita Betnag, Niharika Sanjeeva, Anushka Ramgounda, Mounica Gandi, Sansita Palakollu, Roshni Ramesh, Jahnavi Vishnu Bhotla as Holi dancers ; Arna Gowda as Daaruka; Sara Parikh, Aarini Pareek, Mansi Mamidi, Ananya Aurora, Henna Sonata, Riya Parikh as Kathak Holi girls; Sirisha Muddu, Sunita Balaji, Sona Mukesh, Bindu Bhakta, Muskan Bhakta as soldiers presented a lively show. Sri Lakshmi managed the lights and stage effects efficiently.

Subhadra Parinaya


'Geeta Govindam,' the legendary ashtapadi poems by the famous 13th century poet Jayadeva received an interesting take by the talented dancer from Maryland, Deepti Mukund. The dancers, extremely mellifluous in their abhinaya used a complex subject of Radha and Krishna's love and depicted it wonderfully. The understated and brilliant abhinaya of the dancers, depicting Radha (Nirupa Balendran) and Krishna (Shreya Navile) set the high standards of the festival as expected. Deepthi Mukund Navile and Shruti Mukund had an interesting cameo while the outstanding team of Netra Subramanyan, Tanvi Navile, Varuna Shree Hemanthkumar enthralled the audience.

'Shakuntala,' a brilliant choreographic work by Shobha Subramanian from Baltimore was the last dance drama of first day. Using the 5th century work of poet Kalidasa, Shobha juxtaposed it with a contemporary problem of an unmarried pregnant mother in the present day to the plight of Shakuntala, the heroine of the dance drama who is forgotten by the king, the father of her child due to a curse. Stimulating music by Ashwin Subramanian supplemented the contemporary nature of the dance drama. Ashwin Subramanian as King Dushyant, Lakshmi Chandrashekar as Shakuntala, Surya Radhakrishnan as Priyamvada, Aishwarya Subramania as Shakti, Vandana Sathiyamoorthy as John, Geetika Reichmann and Nehal Shah as sakhis, Sangeetha Menon as mother Gautami and fisherwoman, Shobha Subramanian as Rishi Durvasa and fisherman, Sunayana as child Bharath impressed the audience.

Day 2
'Murugan' dance drama choreographed by Guru Sudha Chandrasekhar from Detroit presented the stories of God Muruga or Karthikeya and included the stories of his birth, episodes associated with various holy places in South India and interesting legends allied with the divine being. The dance drama depicted the six Holy Abodes of Murugan - Palani, Swamimalai, Pazhamudircholai, Tiruchendur, Tiruparankundram, Tiruttani - very effectively. Using simplistic music and dialogues and minimal dance movements, the students delivered the message of Karthikeya's life and teachings. The dancers were Malini Sarma as Lord Shiva; Anandini Sekhar as goddess Parvathi; Tarini Srinivasan as baby Murugan; Divya Narayan as Ganesha; Ananya Pandy as young Karthikeya; Arodyuti Dutta as Mayura; Asita Dutta as Narada; Charanya Rengarajan as Rati and Lord Murugan; Sumanjali Reddy as Manmatha; Vidya Chandrasekhar as Avvaiyyar; Vishwa Srinivasan as cowherd Murugan; Hari Sarma as Shurapadman; Arathi Arunachalam as Deivayanai; Ananda Pandy as Indra; Chitra Narayan as Lord Brahma; Ashwati Chennat as Valli; other artists were Krithika, Eswari Pandy, Aarrthy Arunachalam. Dialogues were created by Guru Sudha Chandrasekhar and Gopal Venkatraman; Audio/ Video by Vasanthi Rengarajan, Sheela Reddy, and Ananda Pandy.



'Gandhi,' a dance drama by Guru Mythili Kumar (San Jose) was a stimulating routine to a contemporary subject. The life of Mahatma Gandhi was depicted impressively by the dancers of the group. Mythili who also appeared as the anchor during the show had interesting roles to play in the whole production. Mahatma Gandhi, who was pivotal in the freedom struggle of Indian independence, used the nonviolence and ahimsa tools to win freedom against the British while fighting for Independence of colonial India. The cast included Mythili Kumar as Manubhen (narrator), Aishwarya Venkat as Gandhi, Pooja Akella as little Gandhi, Nitya Narasimhan as school master, NynaVelamuri as inspector. Others in various roles were Viba Subramaniam, Pooja Sohoni, Gayatri Venkatesan, Shreya Ganapathy. The program had effective sounds and lights by B. Kumar. Gandhi was an impressive modern dance drama presented in the dance festival.


'Dhruva' (an Indian re-work of Lion King) choreographed by Chitra Ramaswamy from New Jersey in Bharatanatyam style was an outstanding dance production. The well trained dancers, captivating music and choreography and brilliant costumes added to a flawless presentation. The Indian classical dance treatment of a blockbuster Hollywood movie was refreshing. The use of traditional Indian mantras, the transformation of little lion to young lion, killing of the father lion scenes were captivating. The exceptional Chitra Ramaswamy appeared pertinent in her role as Mufasa (father of the lion king), Mathuchena Karthikeyan as Scar; Shruthi Suresh Krishnan as Simba; Shreya Vinjamuri as Nala; Varnita Prakash as young Sima; Shanmatee Satish as young Nala; Anusha Narayan as Pumba; Siddhi Sundaram as Timon; Sripriya Karthikeyan as Sarabhi entertained an overcrowded auditorium.

'Shyaama,' a dance production of national poet Rabindranatha Tagore, was brought out emotionally by Guru Nandini Mandal of Pittsburgh. Nandini is known to present tough subjects very efficiently and artistically. In this she brought out the soul of Tagore's work through her flawless abhinaya and intricate choreography. Music by Pramita Mullick was very effective in depicting the moods. The role of Bajrasen was enacted by Harikishen S. Nair very effectively. Uttiyo's role was enacted by Anika Sinha; Kumudini Venkata as Kotaal; Nivedha Suresh as Bondhu; Ashwini Walavalkar, Aditi Srivastava, Hiral Shah, Mythri Sundar, Surili Patani as sakhis; Nivedha Suresh, Anoushka Sinha, Sonali Sheth as sentries and village ladies were the other dancers of the group.

Day 3
The most popular story in India, 'Krishna Parijatham' choreographed by Guru Rathna Kumar from Houston in Kuchipudi style was a hit among the crowds on the second day of the festival. The popular story of Satyabhama seeking to own the celestial tree of Parijata is very well choreographed and presented many times since its inception in 1950's by Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam. Rathna maintained the originality of the production to the core. The role of Narada was played by veteran dancer Venugopal Josyula; Rukmini by Isha Parupudi; Satyabhama by Rohini Kambhamtati; Krishna by Amulya Teri. It was a visual treat to watch this classic piece of Indian dancing.

Sometimes, historical themes provide great subjects with substantial intensity to present a good production. 'Amrapali' choreographed by Guru Madhushree was one such production. Her work recreated the events of city of Vaishali, and left a great effect on audience, who watched it. The story of Amrapali brought out the saga of politics, art, love, philosophy in a balanced package. It was the wisdom of the director/ choreographer to use several props very wisely to communicate the story line effectively. Madhushree Sethuraman gave a majestic act of older Amrapali. Others included Shilpa Sethuraman as young Amrapali and court dancer, Vijayashree Ramesh as father of Amrapali and as Buddha; Ranjini Rajendran as King Ajathashastru gave an impressive performance.


Rama Eshwara

'Purandaradasa,' a choreography in Bharatanatyam style featuring one of South India's greatest composers was the subject of the next dance production by Akhila Rao from New Jersey. She teamed up with senior dancer Sridhar Akkihebbalu from San Antonio, Texas. With no stage props, both dancers effectively performed selective songs and compositions of the great composer using the traditional routine - sanchaari technique to portray the story line. However, it seemed an arduous effort to sustain the attention of a crowd that was otherwise pampered with huge sets and theatrical element. The theme of the whole festival being that of a dance drama, some dramatic elements of stage props, group dances, and drama could have complemented the modest production.

Garba dance
Guru Asha Adiga presented 'Rama Eshwara' with non-stop cheers and claps from the audience as she and her energetic team featured the story of Ravana, and included episodes like Atmalinga. The production's highlight was Ramayana. Instantly appealing to the crowd were episodes of Ramayana, Rama marrying Sita after stringing the divine bow, Sita's kidnapping, Shurpanakha's episodes and the legendary battle of Rama and Ravana. The cast also had an interesting racial mix - of Caucasian, African American and Indian artists and added the much-needed diversity to the dance festival. Asha Adiga's histrionics provided a lighter air of entertainment and kept the tempo of the production at a good pace. Excellent coordination of stage props and lighting brought more cheers from audience. Cast included Egle Kritopulos as Rama, Khristi Blocton as Shurpanaka, Hanuman, Ganesha, Parvathi; Megha Singh as Sumali (Ravana's grandfather), deer, Ravana's army, Kousalya; Madhavilatha Gali as Kaikesi, Sita and Rama's army; Sharmila Chelladurai as Jatayu, King in the Swayamvara and Ravana's army; KousalyaVelagapudi as Lakshmana; Apurva Reddy as Sage Vaishrava, Ravana's army; Indira Reddy as Janaka, Dasharatha, Marich and Vibhishana; Adithi Acharya as young Ravana; Abhirama Acharya as young Rama and Srinivasa Acharya as Lord Siva. All in all, 'Rama Eshwara' was one huge entertainer that needs to be performed in many more platforms.

The last presentation of the festival was "Stories through Indian Folk Dances" presented by Neelima Bhavsaar of St. Louis, MO. She presented authentic stories from Gujarat and Punjab. It was fascinating to see the young and adults dancing in unison. A historic dance festival came to a close, with beautiful folk dances.

The festival concluded with a positive note by the convener Guru Prasanna Kasthuri, who thanked the sponsors - Missouri Arts Council, Regional Arts Commission, US Wide Financials, Soorya Performing Arts, Brightway Financials, Stoneland Granite and Marbles and promised to return next year to celebrate the 10th year of Natya festival.