Friday, March 10, 2006
Glimpses of India: a feast for the senses
"Namaste," said a small girl dressed all in green and gold, bowing her head, hands held in prayer position, and then meeting my gaze with a wide smile playing on her mouth and dancing in her eyes. "Namaste," I bowed and smiled in return. Further along toward Corey Auditorium, more smiling people arrayed in sumptuous silk and cotton garments embroidered with beads and metallic thread were bidding everyone "Namaste," (hello) and welcome to "Glimpses of India." Last Sunday afternoon's presentation by Carlisle's Indian-American community was sponsored by the Carlisle Cultural Council.
The stage was decked with sparkling, colorful cloths and red pillars studded with mirror fragments, and as the lights went down, Mistress of Ceremonies Anjli Trehan, in a graceful sari-like garment called a lahenga, glided to center stage to introduce an afternoon described modestly in the program as, "a look into India's history, geography, culture and cuisine."
It was far more than that. The audience, almost a full house, was treated first to a production of Indian classical dance, Bharatnatyam, performed by students of Jasmine Shah at the Aangikam Dance Academy. The traditional dance in praise of Lord Shiva was quick and joyful, involving intricate and expressive gestures of the head, eyes, arms, and especially hands and fingers, and precise balance and timing. Ankle bells jingled rhythmically, and the dance was an impressive display of controlled energy and grace.
An overview of India
Seema Peterson followed the opening dance with a computerized slide presentation called, "An Overview of India," which, in less than ten minutes, elucidated the main points of India's geography, history, politics, religions, languages, architecture, scenery and culture.
The subcontinent of 1.1 billion people is the largest democracy in the world, with 28 states and seven union territories. It is the product of the cultural and religious influences of many invaders over its 3,500-year recorded history, resulting in 14 official languages, 24 major languages, and over 800 dialects other than the national language, Hindi, and the language of business and politics, English. The famous Taj Mahal is the flagship of the country's architecture, but it is joined by no less spectacular temples, mosques, and palaces, elaborately carved and painted or finished with gold. Slides of its people revealed a huge variety of cultures and religions; views of its scenery contrasted the icy Himalayan peaks to rain forests, deserts and lush valleys.
Another dance followed Peterson's opulent slide show; this time, a Bollywood dance, featuring young women in bright blue and orange costumes, moving in a freer, faster style to music that included technology and full orchestration. Like Bharatnatyam, this dance appeared to tell a story through movement and gesture, but it was less stylized and seemed designed, like American musicals, for popular culture.
Travels through India
Jay Luby contributed a short slide program of his travels through the National Wildlife Parks in India with the World Wildlife Fund. With Luby, the audience traveled out of the city roads and their "hodgepodge of animals, people and vehicles," into remote villages and back country, where gorgeously plumed birds, (including India's national bird, the peacock), elephants, monkeys of all shapes and sizes, antelope and deer, wild oxen and dogs, and magnificent tigers roam in their natural habitats. He returned to civilization by way of Rajghat and the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, and into cities where the red stoplights say, "Relax."
Nutan Chandra conducted the next virtual tour, through the rising industry of information technology (IT) and Indian education. There are thousands of colleges and universities in India, of which the most prestigious is the highly competitive Indian Institute of Technology. Students trained there are India's best and brightest, but there is such an emphasis on education nationwide that even training at the call centers with which many Americans are now familiar meets high standards of cultural sophistication. The IT culture, however, is creating changes in Indian life: job insecurity, more late-night work, children in daycare, elders in old age homes and a widening of the gap between urban rich and rural poor. India has enjoyed an economic boom since it opened its doors to global trade in 1991, and must learn to manage these consequences.
Sounds from the tabla
Boston University student Akshaya Navalad returned the audience to music with a bravura performance on the tabla, a set of drums with a rich, deep timbre and the graceful shape of very large coconuts. Fussy babies quieted, and squirmy children responded to the flapping and dripping-water sounds he created with his fingers and the heels of his hands. He played a "train song," imitating the quickening rhythms of the train wheels, and supplementing the drumbeats vocally with what can only be described as an Indian version of scat that would rival our best jazz legends. He segued into the next musical presentation by accompanying Guru Swati Panda and her students Abha Singhal and Asha Raghupati in their performance of haunting Hindustani vocal classical music. Panda both sang and played the harmonium, a keyboard instrument that sounds a little like a bagpipe, but far gentler, and it was not hard to hear in the voices and rhythms the strains of music thousands of years old. The singers manipulated both nasal and open-throated techniques to create a kind of whirling movement in the music. It spun up to a cry and then ended with a decrescendo to a single note on the harmonium.
The final musical performance of the day was a third kind of dance: this time, a folk dance. Girls and boys resplendent in green, yellow, red and orange cotton costumes danced the lively western Indian Garba dance, whirling and weaving faster and faster, but maintaining strict rhythm by hitting pairs of sticks together between the steps.
The presentation part of the afternoon ended with a splendid fashion show of regional apparel that spanned the four corners of India and included western business wear, saris, salwar kameezes, lahenga cholis, kurta pajamas, sherwanis Nehru jackets, and colorful jeweled and embroidered shoes and fabrics of all kinds.
And the afternoon was not over yet; from the auditorium, everyone processed into the cafeteria where vegetarian and non-vegetarian platters of Indian food, catered by Gourmet India, were available. Conversations around the refreshment tables were lively and excited, and after sampling Malai chicken kebab, samosas, onion bhaji, dhokla and sweet gulah jamun, people milled around demonstration tables to learn about yoga, leaf through reference materials and current Indian journals, and watch children have their hands painted with henna.
The memorable afternoon has been preserved on a professionally videotaped DVD. Those who wish to order one should send to Anjli Trehan at 1200 Westford Street, Carlisle, MA 01741, their names, addresses, phone numbers and a check for $15 made out to Brandon Eang.
On the back of the afternoon's program appeared a quotation from Mark Twain: "So far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds. Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing overlooked." Surely that is an apt description of "Glimpses of India" last Sunday afternoon. To all those in Carlisle's Indian-American community who worked so hard to produce this extraordinary afternoon, "Dhanayawad." Thank you.
All Photos by Midge Eliassen
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito