Moved by sacred beauty-in-motion
- Dr. Michelle Lelwica
November 28, 2017
The Odissi Dance Company's (ODC) performance on October 28, 2017, at the Barbara B Mann Performing Arts Center, Fort Myers, Florida, organized by Raaga FL, moved me because of its enchanting aesthetics: the lovely dancers dressed in gorgeous saris, feet and hands artfully painted, bells clanking as their bodies moved rhythmically, sometimes emphatically, to mesmerizing Indian classical music. Witnessing such beauty-in-motion felt transformative.
The eight dances were directed by Dr. Aparupa Chatterjee, the artistic director and leading disciple of Guru Ratikant Mohapatra. After receiving her PhD from Texas A&M University, Dr. Chatterjee founded ODC with the aim of fostering appreciation for Odissi while promoting international cultural exchange by encouraging America-born/resident Indians to bring Odissi following the Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra gharana back to the Indian community, following the guru-shishya parampara.
The recital began with "Vande Mataram," an invocation, choreographed by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. In this humble tribute to Mother India, the dance embodied India's unapologetic appreciation for plurality—an approach to differences that embraces diversity not as a threat but as enriching and necessary. The explorations of movement in this choreography were imbued with a feeling of prayer, while the subsequent dances evoked a range of emotions—from fear and awe, to chaos and compassion, to longing and appreciation.
The central theme, "Dashavatar," an abhinaya in Sanskrit by Jayadeva, choreographed by Chatterjee, seemed complete through the meticulous and meaningful hand/body gestures and facial expressions. In praise of Lord Krishna, the devotees wove a web of magical storytelling. The characters under an intense spotlight brought trepidation and wonder. Watching, I sensed my own body's energy shifting, intensifying in tandem with the dancers' dramatic movements.
In 'Batu,' by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, a pure Odissi nritta, a humble offering to Lord Batuk Bhairav involving drums, veena, flute, and cymbals, the dancers' fluid movements expressed finesse and echoed a resultant joy, from enjoying the beautiful rhythm. 'Natangi' choreographed by Guru Ratikant Mohapatra, a pure Odissi elaboration, was exquisitely performed. In the next two pallavis, both choreographed by Guru Ratikant Mohapatra, set to ragas Patdeep and Megh, the dancers reflected their virtuosity through the swinging torso, their bodies' grace reflecting a solid foundation in their training.
"Ye Ho Vithala," a Marathi abhang by Sant Namdev, an experimental neo-classical in praise of Lord Krishna, choreographed by Dr. Chatterjee (inspired by similar choreographic works of her guru Ratikant Mohapatra), by youths of the Indian diaspora, led the audience gently into the choreographer's creative potential. The intricacies of the vibrant, energetic movements, with the fast paced vocal rose to a crescendo and won the hearts of the audience. Something about this choreography stirred feelings of longing in me for more world peace, compassionate understanding, and deep appreciation for the gift of life. Fittingly, the finale, "Mokshya," signaling the dancers' surrender to divine source, felt like an invitation to join in what may be the penultimate gift of dance: to witness the freedom of letting go, which is perhaps the creative process in which an individual's energy harmonizes with that of the cosmos.
In a world that so often encourages us to be "in control," it's a genuine relief to experience a different kind of power, based not on domination, isolation, and repressive restriction, but on connection, fluidity, and creative movement. In addition, the gracious demeanor/humility of the dancers moved me. This was clearly a community of dancers committed to developing and performing their art at the highest level, challenging audiences to contemplate beauty, to appreciate diversity, to look for complexity, and to be willing to be changed through an encounter with embodied transcendence.
ODC's performance moved me intellectually, for I am a scholar of religion, focusing extensively on the role of the body in spirituality. I teach a class at Concordia College called "Religion and the Body," which explores three ideas that the performance illustrated beautifully. The first is the idea that religion is not exclusively (or even primarily) a matter of what you believe. While the insight may seem obvious to many, most of my students come from white Protestant families, where they learned that faith is what you believe in your head, rather than an experience you feel deeply in your self/body and express through your actions and gestures.
A second idea that ODC's performance illustrated is that, contrary to popular beliefs, the body is not the enemy of spirituality. Rather, like Odissi, a variety of spiritual practices from different traditions illustrate how human bodies are instruments for cultivating virtue through service to others and for expressing gratitude to the divine by creating and perceiving beauty. This is the same sacred energy that the dancers' movements so diversely and exquisitely expressed.
The idea that bodies can support spiritual exploration segues with a third insight that connects the ODC's performance and my class, namely, that human bodies can be seen as manifestations of sacred energy, as concrete expressions of the dynamic source of life that propels all living things. This vision of the sacred energy of life that animates and interconnects our bodies and all life forms stands in sharp contrast to the image of God I was taught to believe in when I was young (who looked like Santa Claus—without the red suit).
Ultimately, the ODC's performance suggests an embodied understanding of divine presence. One of my students, who attended the performance, captured this notion in a paper she wrote in response to the event: "When the girls were dancing, I could feel the holy and respect they had for each step they made. Especially when they worshiped the mother Earth, they kneeled down and swept their hands on the floor and put them on their heads, like receiving the special and holy energy from the Earth." Like my student, I could "feel the holy" moving me, just as it moved the dancers' bodies, enabling them to share with all of us an experience of the sacred through beauty-in-motion.
The performers were: Dr. Aparupa Chatterjee, Yashaswini Raghuram, Divya Chowdhary, Divya Srinivasa, Sivakami Sreenivasan, Tanvi Prasad, Ramyani Roy, Swati Yarlagadda, Lisa Santhanam and Sadrita Mondal.
Dr.Michelle Lelwica is Professor of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where she teaches courses on the intersection of religion, gender, culture, and the body.