In Western culture, we like to categorize our art into neat, discrete forms, a hierarchy of creative expression. We have visual arts like painting and sculpture, and literary arts like prose and poetry, all of which are separate from the performing arts of music, theater and dance. Within each art form, we have sub-categories and classifications, everything neatly labeled and placed in its own conceptual box.
While Western artistic disciplines remain distinct - beautiful, varied and expressive, but separate from each other, and certainly separate from most spiritual practices - interconnectedness is the norm in other parts of the world. Gajamukha, presented by the Musical Temple Dance Ballet of India tomorrow at the Met, demonstrates the oneness of the Indian classical dance tradition, seamlessly weaving music, percussion, visual spectacle, drama and temple practices together into a single expression that is at once performance and prayer. The theatrical dance presentation uses the classical music and dance forms of southern India to tell the story of the Hindu deity, Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of knowledge and remover of obstacles.
"It is the story of Lord Ganesha, how he came to life, his powers, and why Hindus worship him," explains Sreedhani Nandagopal, president of the South Asia Cultural Association, the local group bringing Gajamukha to Spokane. Seven dancers and five musicians perform in a variety of styles; each section is preceded by an English introduction for those not familiar with the Hindu stories.
Gajamukha is the creation of Dr. Jayanthi Raman of Portland who spent two years researching the ancient texts, choreographing the dances and finding the dancers and musicians in India. The performance premiered in India in late August and the troupe has been touring the U.S. since mid-September. They'll wrap up the tour next week with shows in Seattle and Corvallis.
Dancer and choreographer Raman conceived of the ballet in three different classical styles, each from a different region of southern India, along with folk and contemporary dances and music. What's unique about Gajamukha, even within the context of Indian dance, is this blending of multiple dance styles.
The oldest of the dance forms, Bharatha Natyam, evolved thousands of years ago and relies on precise footwork, expressive eye movements and symbolic hand gestures to tell a story. The Kuchipudi dance form shares many of the same elements but may also include spoken dialogue. Mohini Attam, from the Indian state of Kerala, is called the "dance of the enchantress" for its swaying, mesmerizing motions meant to recall the feminine manifestations of the god, Vishnu.
Other than Raman, all of the musicians and dancers of Gajamukha come from India, where the traditional forms of music and dance are an integral part of daily life and Hindu worship.
"Studying dance is very common [in India], like here you take ballet or ice skating lessons," says Nandagopal. "Families are known for this generation after generation and they are the teachers. It teaches discipline for the students."
During the performance, the orchestra - playing the traditional Indian stringed veena, the bamboo flute and multiple percussion instruments - is seated on one side of the stage. Vocalist O. S. Arun chants the text of the story as the dancers enact episodes from the life of Lord Ganesha. The dancers wear bells on their ankles so their steps and movements become part of the rhythm and tone of the music as their heavily symbolic hand gestures and eye movements relate the story.
In Hindu tradition, Lord Ganesha is the eldest son of Shiva, the god who is also known as the cosmic dancer. Hindus invoke Ganesha to remove obstacles before starting a new task; he is often seen as the embodiment of education, knowledge and wisdom.
"To me, [Ganesha] is the embodiment of simplicity and goodness in the world," Raman told an interviewer this summer. "I think of this ballet as a spiritual journey, an offering to the elephant-headed deity in the human spirit."