In Hindu custom, the art of dance transcends the common interpretation of being merely a physical form rooted in entertainment. The origins of South Asian dance can be traced back thousands of years, where dancers are pictured on caves praising to gods with their dramatic representations of religious themes. To this day, sculptures depicting dance reside in temples, attesting to the spirituality and importance of the art form.
As part of the MetLiveArts programming, The Metropolitan Museum of Art put on a performance of Hindu dance entitled Nrityagram: Samhara Revisited, on Oct. 27 and 28.
To curate a performance that maintains the level of ancient spirituality that it deserves, The Met laid a stage beneath the towering columns of The Temple of Dendur. The temple is part of the world-famous Egyptian exhibit, placing a historically rich ensemble in the midst of ancient walls, rather than subjecting the performance to a concert hall. This was a tasteful touch, transporting the audience to a setting that escaped the confines of conventional New York entertainment.
Adding another layer to the Samhara program, the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, hailing from India, graced The MET with the prestigious Sri Lankan Chitrasena Dance Company. The audience was treated to a fusion of two different styles, united by vivid color and raw expression in every step. In Sanskrit, samhara means drawing together or a braid; a fitting title for an event aiming to highlight a relationship between two ancient dance traditions.
Odissi, showcased by the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, originated in Orissa, India, as a sacred ritual fit only for dedication to the gods, typically performed exclusively by women.
The members of Nrityagram live together in a village devoted to spirituality and dance, awaking to the practice of yoga every morning to balance themselves mentally and physically before they undertake their long day of dance.
Kandyan, a style of dance championed by the Chitrasena Dance Company, was founded in the north of their native country, Sri Lanka. Traditionally practiced by males, its percussive nature was invented by shamans as an exorcism ritual, but at The Met, women took the stage, their colorful, flowing saris whipping through the air, possessed by the rhythms of the beating tabla.
“Grant us the vision to behold you from within,” said the chanter, and the first act, titled Arpanam continued with a prayer to invoke the benevolence of goddess Parvati — the Hindu goddess of fertility, love and devotion; as well as of divine strength and power — and seek her blessings.
Without hesitation, melodious chants filled the air as women dressed in vibrant color gravitated to the stage for a movement incorporating the five elements: earth, water, fire, air and aether.
Immediately, their expertise was evident. With every foot movement, bell anklets rung in lockstep with the musicians seated to the right of the stage. Along with their bells, foot stomps and slaps forced the audience to re-evaluate their understanding of the human form.
It appeared in this moment that these graceful moving figures were also musical instruments, adding to the depth and range of the accompanying quartet, and challenging how dance could be interpreted.
The second act, Shivashtakam, or An Ode to Shiva, was introduced with a poem recited about Shavasana, the peaceful, meditative practice of yoga that unites mind and body. A calm approach was taken to the stage as Bijayini Satpathy, Surupa Sen and Pavithra Reddy devoted their offering to Shiva.
Demonstrating complex tempos, the band provided a pedestal for the dancers to shine on as they effortlessly executed masterful yoga-inspired movements.
Always lined up in geometric positions, the dancers struck different balancing poses all simultaneously, heightening the tension and overwhelming the emotion and eyes of the viewer. Then suddenly, at its peak, a dancer was removed, establishing an incredible range in dynamic as the chaos returned to normalcy.
The third act, Krishna’s Lament, was a poem from the Gita Govinda, interpreted through facial expressions and gestures — ghava and mudra, respectively — in solo performance by Sen, Nrityagram’s artistic director.
Written in Sanskrit in the 12th century by the poet-saint Jayadeva, the Gita Govinda is a romantic ballad about the immortal love of Radha and Krishna. It is a song of love and longing that reflects the Vaishnava belief that all human kind is feminine energy, Radha, constantly seeking union with the one male godhead, Krishna.
Radha sees the eternally charming and uncommitted Krishna frolicking with a multitude of women, and is, once more, broken-hearted.
Due to the intimate setting — only four rows of spectators — Sen lured the audience with her dense eyes, saturated with intensity, as if her pupils had taken on a life of their own, and appeared to dance for the audience. Whether Sen was on the verge of tears, or in a state of confusion, the focus of her expression delivered her emotions to whoever locked onto her eyes, proving the dancer a master storyteller as she drew the audience into the experience with her.
Alap, the fourth and final act, was a riveting finale highlighting both Odissi and Kandyan dance. A direct contrast to the solitude of the previous act, all the dancers stormed the stage, while the raging drums ignited a controlled fury of build up.
As dancers leaped and twirled, the stomps grew louder and heavier, vibrating the chests of the audience; the excitement onstage was climbing.
Dancers shared smiles to their partners while they spun around each other, as if they were taken back to a period of youth, where the social implications of The Met never existed and they were free to dance for themselves.
The synchrony — rather than that of a rigid Radio City Rockette — seemed to be bound in the most natural, effortless way: through mind and spirit. The physical differences between Sri Lankan and Indian approaches became more obvious as the companies shared the stage.
Instead of division, it created a sense of unity between each of the performers, as a wild fusion of colors mixed in front of the audience. Harmony in its essence was on display.