"To sing well and to dance well is to be well educated," said Plato (427-347 BC).
But even before the 4th century BC, dance was an integral part of being human. Its powerful effect was deployed by primitive cultures for celebratory and magic practices, and as it evolved it became incorporated into worship and religious rituals.
In many ancient temples, priests exercised dance as part of their offerings to God. And in several Asian traditions, even now, the classical dance cultures are driven by religious fervour, not secular pleasure. Among the oldest and most developed dance traditions in the world are those born in India.
On 6 May in Alexandria and 9 May in Cairo, the audience were offered a true gem: the Odissi dance, performed by three dancers from India’s renowned Nrityagram Dance Village, located outside Bangalore.
According to the programme notes, "at Nrityagram, dance is a way of life. Reminiscent of ancient ashrams (spiritual hermitages) where gurus imparted not only technique but also a philosophy of being, this is a creative space where dancers, musicians and choreographers live together, sharing their skills and developing their art."
Odissi can be performed solo, as a duet, as a trio or in a group with dozens of dancers. Three women from the Nrityagram Dance Village came to Egypt: Surupa Sen, the troupe's artistic director, choreographer and soloist (among the first students at Nrityagram, where she began her Odissi training in 1990 upon the establishment of the village); Bijayini Satpathy, director and dancer, who made Nrityagram her home in 1993; and Pavithra Reddy, a dancer from a nearby village who joined Nrityagram’s outreach programme in 1990. The show included music by Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi, with rhythms composed by Dhaneswar Swai and Surupa Sen.
The recorded music was a combination of harmonium, bamboo flute, violin, percussion and vocals.
Born in East India in the 2nd century BC, Odissi is one of the eight recognised classical dance forms of the country. Its history is strongly linked to the state of Odisha where the temple city is decorated with bas-reliefs that serve as archaeological evidence of the dance as form of worship. In those temples, Odissi was performed by a group of women, the Maharis. Their dance and music were part of a sacred ritual dance representing offering and worship.
In the 6th century AD, young boys – Godipuas – dressed up as girls and taught by Maharis would perform to the public in front of the temple to Oriya songs. Accordingly, today's Odissi is a revival of the dance of the Godipua and the Mahari.
A number of great gurus contributed to the 20th century's resurrection of Odissi, among them the notable Kelucharan Mohapatra (1926-2004), Indian classical dancer and choreographer, who gave Odissi new dimensions, enriching Indian culture with its own heritage and allowing it to cross the country's borders.
"Odissi is not a mere dance form to entertain people but to inspire and elevate. I don't actually dance but pray in compassion and the spectators say that this 'form' is dancing," Kelucharan Mohapatra is known to have said.
Though today audiences always look forward to an Odissi performance, according to the ancient Indian tradition, the gurus' and dancers' aim is not to reach the limelight. Graceful, powerful and meditative, Odissi is not only a technically refined art form created from a need to worship, it is equally a lesson in humility, love, patience and the continuous pursuit of perfection in one's life.
Odissi captivates the viewer with its very distinctive postures (bhangas), scrupulously designed hand gestures (mudras) and intense facial expressions (bhava). Inspired by the ancient heritage, today Odissi is a wonderful visual channel to the cultural depth of India.
The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble's performance in Egypt, titled Sriyah, was a compilation of the best works of the troupe created over a whole decade. From Nrityagram's Ansh, "Ode to Shiva" (Shiva being a major Hindu deity) opened the evening. Each of the dances is preceded by the narrator introducing the theme.
"In the dark of the night, on the banks of the Yamuna river… adorned with wildflowers and jewels, Krishna waits," the narrator tells the audience before "Dheera Sameerey" from Sacred Space. Here comes a love story of Radha and Krishna expressed by visual vocabulary soaked in mudras and bhava. One of the numbers, "Vibhakta" from Pratima, reveals the power of yoga.
The viewer attending the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble is overwhelmed with the evocative skills of the performers. And even if in a foreign culture, the meanings transferred through the choreography are not understood. What keeps the viewer on the edge of the seat are the various forms or stances (bhangas) - striking postures and stamping of the foot - as well as the costumes, the performers' energy and concentration and, above all, the impeccable aesthetic precision.
Sriyah is where belief joins visual magic, where enchanting stories are told, and where transcendent artistic values testify to the greatness of human culture, so little seen in today's world. Odissi is an important lesson and an aesthetic cleansing: one carries it within oneself on leaving the performance hall.
In 2008, The New Yorker listed one of the Nrityagram's shows – "Vibhakta" – among the top ten dance performances of the year. It will not be an exaggeration to say that for the Egyptian audiences, this was, by far, the most interesting and artistically captivating dance performance since January 2011.
Photo: Sherif Sonbol
The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble was the last artistic item on the month-long programme of the India by the Nile festival (13 April - 13 May).
Among many events, the festival included Bollywood fusion, Shubha Mudgal classical music performance, Mrigya band, an exhibition of India crafts, and an exhibition of works produced in the international competition, "Did you sense the spirit of Gandhi in Tahrir Square?".
The latter showed posters by artists from Egypt, India and Africa reflecting the philosophy of Gandhi and the peaceful protests marking the January 2011 revolution. Apart from their theme, the posters were an interesting reflection of the differing artistic perceptions of various artists, who chose to present the topic in either a very straightforward way – as was the case with most of the posters from Egypt – or enveloped it in simple but profound symbolism, found in many works by artists from India and Ethiopia.
The festival included many highlights besides, including "Words on Water," a platform for the exchange of thoughts between three Indian authors (Mushirul Hasan, Namita Gokhale and Amish Tripathi) and their Egyptian counterparts.
This was the first festival of its kind in Egypt and the organisers promise to come back with a second edition next year. The festival must be applauded for the programming – which included active exchanges between artists from India and Egypt.
One hopes the second edition will bring an even larger number of items and/or performances: both the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble and Shubha Mudgal performed to a packed Cairo Opera House Small Hall, something that does not happen often, testifying to effective advertising.
The organisers also provided comprehensive printed material – in English and Arabic – covering the many aspects of the festival, an important procedure especially for audiences unfamiliar with Indian culture.
With such logistical and artistic excellence, and seemingly strong financial support, India by the Nile is definitely the new star on the Egypt's festival scene. As its elements were gradually revealed, it was clear the organisers remained dedicated to their vision: initiating a strong interest in their country by bringing the best of India to Egypt and developing artistic exchange.
Photo: Sherif Sonbol