Rhythms of our people

One of the rhythms of the Caribbean is that of classical Indian dance. Lisa Allen-Agostini is entranced by a kathak ballet

A scene from Hamare Taal. Photograph by Mark LyndersayCostumes hang in the Queen`s Hall dressing rooms before the show. Photograph by Mark LyndersayDancer Roma Johnny puts on gunguru bells before performing the concert`s opening piece, Vandana. Photograph by Mark LyndersaySat Balkaransingh and Puja Mulhotra perform an Asthapadi, a performance in praise of Lord Krishna. Photograph by Mark LyndersaySat Balkaransingh and Puja Mulhotra perform Drum of the Nation and Tatkan, a fusion experiment. Photograph by Mark LyndersaySat Balkaransingh with dancers from the Metamorphosis Dance Company perform Tarana, a work of fusion choreography. Photograph by Mark LyndersaySusan Mohip performing a classical kathak dance. Photograph courtesy Susan MohipTrinidad and Tobago`s Clico Shiv Shakti dancers performing. Photograph by Robert Taylor

They walk on stage in a tinkling, shimmering shower of bells, and then there is silence. The lights come up. “Ta-ta-ta-te-ta….” intones a dancer into the mic. The dance begins. Feet furiously slap the boards of the stage to the rhythm of the chanted syllables. The bells, called gungurus, meticulously tied to the dancers’ ankles, tinkle in unison, the slap-slap and ching-ching sometimes in time with, sometimes in counterpoint to the instruments played by an orchestra nestled stage left.

This is kathak, a dance style originally from India, and now part of the repertoire of classical Indian dance in Trinidad.

Satnarine Balkaransingh is its best-known proponent in the island, which has a population that is about 42 per cent Indian. On a warm night in April, he is staging his first full kathak recital in his 32-year dance career. It is called Hamare Taal (Rhythms of Our People) and incorporates elements of tap, folk and even chutney dance interwoven around the main body of the work. The audience at Queen’s Hall, Port of Spain, is enraptured.

Despite this, Balkaransingh is one of perhaps only five teachers of classical dance in Trinidad, through his Nrityanjali Theatre.

Rajesh Seenath, a classical dance teacher and founder of the Prem Jyoti Dance Academy in Curepe, despairs of the future of the art. A practitioner and teacher of kuchipudi, a South Indian dance form, he said in his experience, the reaction to classical dance is poor in Trinidad, compared to the warm reception given to chutney dance and Bollywood-style dancing.

Chutney, named after the spicy condiment served with Indian food, is a folk dance based on the tradition of eunuchs (hijiras) doing demonstrative dances at pre-wedding parties called maticors. The dances were to show the brides-to-be how to behave in bed; they were necessarily sexually explicit. That, however, has been taken out from behind purdah and put on stage, Balkaransingh explained in an interview after his show. “From the 1960s, on the TV show Mastana Bahar (‘Time for Enjoyment’), the Mohammed family started bringing out the dances to the public. It was also about developing a parallel culture to the Carnival.

“The classical dance couldn’t survive.”

The long-running Trinidadian television show, first hosted by Sham Mohammed, was one of the faces of Indian culture in Trinidad. From it, chutney gained wide acceptance.

Bollywood, the Indian film industry, is known for its syncretic styles of song and dance. Trinidad television and cinemas have been faithful to Bollywood, and the dances from these films have become just as popular as chutney. Performed to film music, these filmi dances feature moves from pop, hip hop and modern dance, with just a hint of Indian classical dance, and are usually done in Indian-influenced costumes, as is chutney dancing.

Seenath argues, “Because of the domination of chutney and lewd dancing on stage, the whole country thinks that is Indian dance. Government is not giving the chance to classical that it’s giving to the film dance.”

One of the pieces in Balkaransingh’s April show was called Our Eyes Are Wide Shut. The piece opens with a carefree dance about Phagwa—the Indian spring festival also known as Holi—in which dancers chased each other and sprayed each other with imaginary abeer (a brightly coloured liquid). Then it is interrupted by a succession of tap, belé (a Creole folk dance), calypso and chutney dancers who push the kathak dancers to the back of the stage. It ends in a mournful tone as the kathak dancers pick up placards that read, “Still waiting for government promises.” Balkaransingh explained that the dance was about the situation of former workers of Caroni (1975) Ltd, a sugar company that the predominantly Afro-Trinidadian PNM government closed down five years ago. The thousands of former workers, mostly Indo-Trinidadian, were promised livelihoods to replace the lost sugar industry, but some feel that instead Central Trinidad, where most of them lived, has fallen into decline because the promises weren’t kept.

But to someone watching the dance itself, seeing calypso dancers merrily dancing circles around the kathak performers may have left a different impression.

The Shiv Shakti Dancers, a well-known troupe of chutney and filmi dancers, often appear at government functions; they were one of the groups trotted out to greet the returning Soca Warriors at Trinidad’s airport when the 2006 Football World Cup ended. The troupe was formed in 1987 and has since become one of the most popular—Indian or otherwise—in Trinidad. It has toured the Caribbean and enjoys the sponsorship of a major financial group. It does not perform classical dance.

Seenath and “Baby” Susan Mohip, a kathak dancer, both teach folk, film and classical Indian dance. Seenath says he teaches non-classical dance because most people find it easier to learn and only a very few people are interested in learning classical dance.

“After two years, frustration. There are no avenues. You learning, learning, learning—for what? The love starts to deteriorate because in learning, learning, learning you’re not performing. As against chutney dance: every single day you have a performance.” Chutney and film are easier to learn, he said. “Anything without value is easy to learn. The devil’s range is wider.”

Mohip, like Seenath, has been dancing since she was a small child. She first started with folk and filmi dancing and continues to perform them; she was featured in a show at the National Museum in May doing both classical and folk dance and said the audience enjoyed both styles.

“Trinidad, they love dance. It doesn’t matter what kind of dance, once you do it properly. Trinidad has space for everyone in culture.”

Chutney is performed to locally composed folk songs. Sometimes they are religious songs at odds with the furiously sexual movements of the dance. This irks Seenath.

“Since this chutney business come out it destroy everything. It come like a plague. Even the songs. Where it going, more than rum, or your private parts, or desecrating some of your aunt or uncle? When a singer takes a holy song and puts a chutney song to it, what does the public know about Hindi? They don’t understand the song, they only understand the beat is to wine.”

He cited the example of the song Kanhaia, which is an ode to Lord Krishna, an important Hindu deity. Put to a chutney beat, it becomes unrecognisable as a hymn. As for other chutney hits, like Rum Till I Die and Bring the Rum, the titles speak for themselves.

“I would encourage the public to see the light of classical dance. They should channel children into any classical art form if they want the world to continue.”

A child prodigy, Seenath first learned dance from Balkaransingh, then went to India to study in Madras for four years under a guru. Balkaransingh himself studied dance in India, as did Mohip.

Today, the Indian High Commission brings in gurus in music and dance from India via the Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Cultural Co-operation in Trinidad. (Such cultural centres exist around the world, and there is also one in Georgetown, Guyana.) Members of the institute performed at Balkaransingh’s show, including Puja Malhotra, a kathak dancer who trained under the same Indian guru who taught Balkaransingh himself and who is now the institute’s dance teacher.

Watching the dancers  and musicians on stage during the dress rehearsal, a woman in the audience commented that since the institute had begun its programme of teaching classical Indian arts in Trinidad in 1998, the standard of performance had increased immeasurably.

Balkaransingh himself has between 40 and100 students at a time, Seenath about the same, and Mohip another 100. As Seenath commented, “Out of 1.5 million, there are five of us to challenge this country.”

Balkaransingh said the value of teaching classical dance was in the development of a higher aesthetic than the popular one.

“We revel in mediocrity and feel nothing of high quality can come from us. When mediocrity is held up as the bar of quality, we’re scared of quality. When you’re so used to junk food you can’t appreciate well-prepared food—as a culinary art, in writing or on stage. I am drawing a distinction between entertainment and serious artistic pursuit. Development comes from seeing where you are now and determining where you want to be in the future and pursuing that ethic to achieve. It needs thinkers, visionaries, serious artists. Artistic product identifies who you are. If your product is substandard or mediocre, that is what the world sees. What happened to Rome? It delved into the banal and it self-destructed. It didn’t reinvent itself.”

He admitted ruefully, “I came out of chutney as a little boy—until I got a beating and I stopped.” But he later added, “No cultural art form is mutually exclusive. Environment is going to play its role.”

Mohip’s less purist view is: “Classical dance doesn’t have a limit. It grows with you. Classical dance is the root of everything. Chutney is shades of film, Carnival dancing—you can tell there’s something very Trinidadian [about it]. It is anything it wants to be. I’m lucky to be dancing in Trinidad.”

Indian dance techniques

Kathak comes from northern India. Rapid footwork, spins and graceful hand and arm movements give it its distinctive character. The name means “story” and the dance is a narrative form. Dancers begin their warm-up on stage and so the dance gradually progresses from very slow to very fast. Performances often include bols, or rhythmic words that are integral to the dance. Dancers wear strings of bells on their ankles, called gungurus. Unlike most other dancers, kathak dancers uses single strings of bells, not rows of bells attached to a belt.

Kuchipudi, from southern India, uses fast, rhythmic footwork and sculptural body movements. Stylised mime, using hand gestures and subtle facial expressions, is combined with acting, occasionally including dialogue spoken by the dancers. Its themes are mostly taken from the scriptures and mythology. Historically it was performed as a dance drama, with dancers taking different roles. In its blend of performance techniques, Kuchipudi is unique among Indian classical dance styles.

Orissi (also called Odissi) is a style from eastern India. Its practice is ancient, with Orissi dancers found depicted in murals dating as early as 1 or 2 BC in India. The dance is very graceful and based on the bending of the legs, the waist and the head. Hand movements and facial expression are also very important. Its origins lie in temple dancing, and among the popular themes in today’s Orissi dance is the love between Radha and Krishna, two Hindu deities.