Classical Indian dancing frequently tells stories about Hindu legends, and the upcoming performance tomorrow at Art House Productions by Surati for Performing Arts will be no exception.
The Jersey City-based ensemble, under the direction of choreographer Rimli Roy, will showcase the playful spirit of Holi, the Indian festival of colors.
Holi is an annual festival celebrated on the day after the full moon in March. It celebrates spring and is a time of casting aside social norms, and indulging in childlike mischief.
I recently caught up with Roy, the founder and director of Surati, to discuss this performance, classical Indian dance, the art of flirting, and the mass appeal of Bollywood and Bhangra.
BC: Hi Rimli. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. Surati is celebrating Holi, the festival of colors, at Art House Productions. For people unfamiliar with the celebration, what is Holi, and why is it important?
RR: Holi is the Indian festival of colors and is one of the most popular celebrations in India. On the day of the festival, people lovingly smear color on each other as a sign of celebration. The history of this festival is deeply rooted in Indian culture and legend that highlights the victory of good over evil. Bonfires are lit to ward away the evil.
Holi is celebrated usually in the month of March. The Hindu God Krishna is supposed to have popularized the festivities that take place today on Holi – playing with colored powder and colored water. Food and drink are a part of the celebrations.
Holi is important to our community. It is a part of Indian culture and tradition. It helps to preserve and showcase Indian cultural heritage. This event will also educate the community on this festival and trace its history. Such celebrations are important to spread cultural awareness especially amongst the newer generation.
BC: Can children come to the performance?
RR: Children are an integral part of this Holi celebration and are encouraged to attend this festival. This Holi festival has been designed to be family-friendly. There are a lot of children participating in this year’s event, in the cultural program and in the art exhibition.
Children ten years and under enter for free and get free pizza at the event before 1 p.m. Students of Hamilton Park Montessori and Hudson Montessori Schools will create and display art and craft work on Holi. There are also several educational and fun activities for children at the festival.
I am narrating the story of Holi to the audience at the beginning of the cultural program. This is primarily to educate the children and community about this festival. There will also be henna tattoos for children at the festival.
BC: I have seen Surati perform the festivals of India on dozens and dozens of occasions. Your Holi-inspired performances always struck me as playful, flirtatious, and even mischievous. What role, if any, do these types of human behavior play in the celebration?
RR: Holi is a celebration of fun, frolic and playfulness. The celebration of Holi today has been popularized by the loved Hindu God Krishna who is considered to have been a mischievous prankster, flirtatious in his ways. Lord Krishna is supposed to have played with colored water and powder on Holi with his beloved Radha and her companions in legendary Vrindavan, a tradition followed even today throughout India. There are countless pictures and artwork created and recreated over time that depicts Radha and Krishna playing Holi. Holi brings the community together, where the young and old celebrate together in this joyful occasion.
BC:When I think of flirting, playfulness, and loving indulgence, I think of Valentine’s Day. Is Valentine’s Day comparable to Holi? Or is there another Western festival, celebration, or holiday that is closer in spirit?
RR: Ha! Ha! Valentine’s Day could still be compared to a celebration of the love story between Lord Krishna and his beloved Radha, but not in essence the spirit of Holi. Holi has years and years of tradition and culture in celebrating it. Its history telling the usual story of good over evil, celebrating with bonfires which have significance, smearing colors, music, dance, good food and drink are all a part of the festival. I could compare the traditions with that of Thanksgiving (from the perspective that it is an age-old tradition), but then there are similarities with the spirit of sharing and giving during Christmas and the merry-making of any joyful occasion.
BC:If Surati has groupies, I may be one of them. I love the dancing, music, costumes, and props. For the uninitiated, what can the audience expect to see and hear in this performance?
RR: The performance will have a wide variety of cultural display. This year we wanted to showcase other forms of dance and music from around the world (apart from Indian dance and music forms), which could pay homage to the Indian festival. I wanted the Holi celebration this year to showcase the many cultures of the world.
Surati instructors and students will be performing a variety of traditional classical, folk and contemporary Bollywood styles of dance and music. We also have special performances by students of Next Step Broadway who will be performing tap and jazz dance forms. There will be a dance performance by Karina Khalifa, who will be performing a Shamadan (Egyptian) dance fusing it with Yoga and Indian moves. Band Tantric will be performing a fusion of popular Indian and Western melodies. In fact, the Mayor of Jersey City is also supposed to sing a song at the festival!
BC: I can already hear Mayor Healy humming the opening bars of Danny Boy. Is Classical Indian music capable of handling an Irish-American crooner?
RR: Mayor Healy is not scheduled to sing with Indian musicians (though one day I’m sure we can come up with something like that.) We have band Tantric who will possibly be accompanying the Mayor if need be. The band is made of Indian and Western musicians and is a fusion band. Tantric band members will play Indian tunes from popular movies as well as some western tracks.
BC: Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, the nuts and bolts of the performance. How many dancers and musicians have you enlisted for the show?
RR: There are about seventy-five students and children participating in the cultural program and art exhibition. There are more than twenty-five professional dancers and musicians performing at this event including myself.
BC: What about the stage design and props: What’s on order?
RR: Surati is not presenting a staged production for Holi on the lines of what you have seen in the past. There will be some stage and hand props that will be used and backdrop projections instead of sets. There are some elements of surprise that I would not like to give away at this point.
BC: One of the central characteristics of Holi is brilliant colored powder (called “gulal”) that revelers throw at everyone, even the anonymous passers-by. Is Surati’s performance going to be messy?
RR: The Holi performances are not going to be messy. The performance has been designed from the perspective of cultural diversity. Though we will use some symbols and motifs of the Holi colors, the playing of Holi is scheduled to be downstairs in the open lot between 8th and 9th Streets, where only dry, safe colors or gulal will be used. Colors will only be used on those participating in the festival, and those that want to play with colors. We will have security at the event that will ensure that the playing of colors is done in a safe manner.
BC: Where do the colored powders come from?
RR: Colored powders are available here in the Indian markets that may have been imported from India or made here. Only safe colored powders will be used. We will try to restrict the usage of colored powder to what is supplied by us at the event.
BC: I’m from Jersey, Irish-Catholic. We dance, but we don’t touch. At first, I was intimidated by Indian dancing-too much exuberance, too much joy, too many bright colors. I’m a convert now. I love it. Indian dancing seems capable of embodying the entire range of human emotions-from agony to ecstasy, melancholy to glee. Can you discuss Indian dancing from a formal, aesthetic, and conceptual point of view?
RR: Indian dancing is a wide spectrum topic consisting of seven classical dance forms, hundreds of folk dance forms, several creative genres of dance forms that have evolved from the classical and folk dance forms (one such that I innovate and teach) and of course not to forget the most popular Bollywood style dance that has evolved over the years to drift away from Indian cultural forms today and adopt the more Westernized look and feel.
While traditional Indian dance forms, especially classical, takes years of formal training to master, is rooted in dramatic/dance theory and text and is a vast subject on its own with very specific guidelines, Indian folk is more a way of life and culture, bringing societies and communities together. Though some folk dance forms require a great level of skill to perform, folk dances usually have been performed as a social custom or as a mark of celebration.
Pure dance or “Nritta” as understood in classical theory, is dance in its pure form, without expression or story telling. “Nritya” on the other hand involves expressions and meaningful hand gestures. “Natya” includes drama and the story-telling aspects of dance. Many Indian dance forms have taken from this classical theory involving these interesting aspects of dance.
I think Indian dance owes its dramatization and expressions to these aspects of dance-drama theory. Even Bollywood dances that are choreographed to more traditional Indian music today use a lot of traditional dance movements, expressions and hand gestures.
BC: When Surati performs, everyone looks happy. Why is everyone happy?
RR: Indian dance is performed as a sign of joy and exuberance (unless there is a more grim or solemn dance-drama portion being enacted). Most dances are performed to signify happiness. Hence the dancers are usually smiling or showing happiness.
BC: You are a classically trained dancer. What do you think about Bollywood and basement Bhrangra? Is folk dancing a perversion or misrepresentation of classical traditions? Why or why not?
RR: I think Bollywood and Bhangra dance forms are great fun styles to be experimenting and learning Indian dance with. It is also a great way of exercising and working out today. There is a certain level of skill required to perform both these dance styles well.
Bhangra is a more popular, energetic folk dance form from the state of Punjab. Bollywood today is more a mix of hip-hop, modern, jazz, bhangra and other Indian dance forms.
However, Bollywood and Bhangra dancing cannot be compared to classical Indian dancing. It is not a misrepresentation unless Bollywood or Bhangra is addressed with the name Indian classical dance, which it is not.
BC: Indian music is fluid, adaptable. I remember the students loved your improvisational riff on hip-hop during the Festivals of India at Jersey City Museum. The performance was a revelation. Why do you think Indian dance and music is capable of incorporating such a diversity of musical genres?
RR: Thank you Brendan for your compliments and kind words about our performance!
Indian dance and music is very diverse and may be broadly classified as classical and folk. Just like the dance, Indian music and musical instruments are varied and very distinct depending on the regions they come from. Usually classical musical instruments accompany classical dance forms, folk music accompanies folk dances and the genres are very distinct in style.
Music from North India is very different from South Indian music in general. However, I think that contemporary, creative and music used in Indian films today, have taken the best from this entire spectrum of dance and music forms existent in Indian culture, thus producing sounds very attractive to the ear. This, together with the latest in sound technology has created sounds and music that have today become very popular in the global music market.
In any case, I think dance and music are of universal appeal once the language factor is eliminated, and with the wide variety existing in Indian dance and music, I think a fusion with practically any genre in World Cultures is possible.
BC: What do you think is the biggest misconception of traditional Indian music and dance?
RR: I think traditional Indian dance and music has failed to gain the level of importance and appreciation it deserves from the common folk. The potential of traditional Indian dance and music forms is huge. These forms are yet to attain visibility on a global platform, the way today Bollywood has gained importance.
I think a part of this could be achieved when something on the lines of a Broadway or Opera would be running as a regular show around the world that uses Indian traditional forms of dance and music. I believe that the magnificent and intricate costumes, sets, lights and stage that one would think of designing, to recreate possibly one of the Indian epic or legendary stories on stage featuring traditional Indian dance and music would be no less attractive than an Opera or Broadway show, if produced well.
BC: Rumor on the street is Surati is interested in showcasing Bollywood films in Jersey City. Is there any truth to this assertion?
RR: Surati would definitely be interested in partnering with other organizations to bring good Indian films to Jersey City. Not only Bollywood, but there are many very good Indian films out there which could do with more attention from viewers. It would be interesting to bring such films to Jersey City too.
BC: What would Jersey City gain attending Bollywood film festivals?
RR: Bollywood has gained great visibility in the global market especially in recent times. Many Indian films showcase our culture apart from being a mere source of entertainment. The Jersey City community could foster a greater understanding of the Indian community and culture through these films.
BC: My family was born in Jersey City. What brought you here, and how long have you lived in the city.
RR: I moved to Jersey City with my husband Jayanta in year 1999 (October) and started working as an IT professional in New York City. I also started dancing and performing along with my full time job during that time. I organized several concerts and performances during that first year where other members of my family (who are also performing artists) also participated. Though I founded Surati formally in 2002, I was already performing and teaching by that time.
BC: Where is the best place to get Indian food in Jersey City?
RR: There are several places to get good Indian food in Jersey City but the one I am going to mention is the relatively new “Spirit of Laxmi” restaurant that has recently opened on Morris Street. They are catering the food for the Holi event on March 19th and are the new talk of the town.
BC: Where is the best venue to enjoy Indian dancing?
RR: Obviously at Surati! And currently at the Holi festival. People will have a great time dancing to the live band Tantric and DJ music. Also FYI we teach Indian classical, folk and Bollywood dance classes at Surati.
BC: Any last words?
RR: I would like to thank Paul Silverman, New York Life, Spirit of Laxmi, Indus American Bank and Gotham City Orthopedics for making this possible.
I urge the people of Jersey City and beyond to come out and support this one of a kind Holi festival on March 19th. We want to make it an annual event. This is one event that will bring together culture, good food and community spirit.
If you go
WHAT: Holi Festival
WHERE: Art House Productions, 1 McWilliams Place, Jersey City
DETAILS: PART ONE: Indoors from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. tomorrow (doors open at 11 a.m.). Holi themed art exhibition by the children of Hamilton Park Montessori School and Hudson Montessori School. Dance and musical performances by students and instructors of Surati. Special guest performances. Dance performance by students of Next Step Broadway. Delicious munchies by Spirit of Laxmi. Pizza for children between noon and 1 p.m. Admission: $15 online, $20 cash at the door. Children under 10 are free.
PART TWO: Outdoors on McWilliams Place, from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. tomorrow. Play holi with safe dry colors. DJ and dancing to Bollywood songs. Live Band (Tantric) and Bollywood karaoke performance. Bhangra demo. Traditional Henna tattoos for all. Full traditional Indian buffet lunch. Thandai. Admission: $25 online or $35 cash at the event. Children under 10 are free.
If you can’t get enough Holi fun, make sure to attend the Holi Parade in Jersey City on Sunday.
Original post may be found here.