Si Se Puede Mexican Heritage Plaza, March 3rd – India Currents, Pavani Kaushik

On the evening of Sunday, March 3rd 2019, The School of Arts and Culture at the Mexican Heritage Plaza, San Jose, was the venue for an interesting portrayal of the life of one of America’s famous civil rights leaders, Cesar Chavez. What set this production apart was not only the object of the story, but the medium of storytelling. Cesar Chavez and his celebrated struggle on behalf of migrant farmworkers in California, was conveyed through the traditional Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam.
Presented by the Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose, “Si Se Puede!”brought to light not only the echoes of those long ago struggles, but also placed today’s issues front and center for us to examine. In the current political environment, with the subject of Immigration – illegal or otherwise – taking centerstage; spotlighting Chavez’s struggles and successes seemed especially appropriate. Beneath the layers of music and movement, poetry and lyrics, the stage lights lit up an immigrant narrative made up of two separate cultures. And weaving through it all were the universal tenets of human rights, freedom and social justice. Abhinaya School of Dance, founded in 1980, is well known for originality in creative exploration. The recipient of several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, state and city agencies, the dance company has deservedly earned a leading name for itself in the SF Bay area. Helmed by an accomplished dancer, teacher and choreographer Mythili Kumar, the company has until date staged over 50 original productions. Offering classes in San Jose and Monte Sereno, the school has 130 students who have graduated with their solo debut (arangetram) performances. Abhinaya has staged socially relevant productions in years past. “Gandhi the Mahatma in 1995 was the first of such projects that we staged. Our 2018 production ‘Stories of Justice’ featured the legacy of Martin Luther King. Jr – which included a 6 minute piece on Cesar Chavez,” says Artistic director Mythili Kumar. Her research revealed the fact that Chavez was greatly influenced by Gandhi’s successful non-violent resistance which helped India gain independence from British rule in 1947. She felt the time was ripe for delving deeper into Chavez’s life given the recent upheaval in the lives of immigrant workers all over America, Her goal is to educate and inspire the diverse Bay Area community about Cesar Chavez’s pioneering work, while also highlighting ongoing struggles that continue to be part of the lives of those who strive so hard to provide us with the very lifestyle that is denied them. Cesar Chavez’s quote from the 1960s is relevant even today – “It is ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves!”
Si Se Puede! – Yes, You Can! Abhinaya Dance Company’s first production in 2019, titled “Si, Se Puede” – which translates to mean “Yes, You Can!” – pays homage to the slogan made famous by the farmworkers under the leadership of Cesar Chavez in 1962. The program opened with dancers outfitted in traditional Bharatanatyam attire, dancing to a beautiful rendition of verses from the Bhagavad Gita. Stories of the demon king Kumbhakarna, Ravana and King Midas highlighted the central idea of greed as being the downfall of the human condition. Lord Krishna’s twin messages of Universal Love – “Vishwaprema”, and the victory of Truth – “Satyameva Jayate,” set the tone for the story of the man, the visionary, and the leader – Cesar Chavez. Cesar’s humble beginnings working the fields with his family showed him the harsher truths of life. He was forced to bear witness to abject poverty, hunger, mistreatment, ill health and poor living conditions while working as a migrant farm worker. Abhinaya’s dancers deftly led us through scene after scene showing families of itinerant farm laborers struggling under sweltering temperatures, facing immense hardship, leaving children with no opportunity to enjoy their childhoods. The soulful voice of Bay Area’s notable Carnatic music vocalists, Asha Ramesh, was ably supported by respected instrumentalists – Ravi Gutala (bols & tabla), Amit Ranganathan (mridangam & kanjira), Lakshmi Balasubramanya (violin), Ashwin Krishnakumar (flute) and Prasant Radhakrishnan (saxophone). Lending counterpoint were Ignacio Alvarez (guitar & vocals) and Gil Cruz (guitar) from the Trio Igalva group. Ignacio’s rendition of ‘De colores’ was especially poignant. Originally a traditional Spanish song sung during happy occasions, ‘De colores’ was adopted by the striking farm workers at their meetings, and it eventually became a symbol of hope for their resistance movement. Mr. Alvarez’s soft, gentle rendition brought to mind a thirst for beauty and kindness that all human beings yearn and strive for. Malavika Kumar Walia’s crisp nattuvangam added the perfect vigor to the famed UFW (United Farm Workers) march from Delano to Sacramento, bearing the distinctive flag of resistance. Likewise, Ravi Gutala’s sprightly rendition of bolsenhanced the scene where the striking workers were brutalized by law enforcers. Rasika Kumar’s narration provided continuity along with a backdrop of slides from that period in history.The final scene brought home the fact that the struggles of immigrants is not over yet. Mythili Kumar portrayed a Hispanic woman’s story as she lives with the constant fear of deportation. A normal day in her life with her children shadowed by fear, every time there is a knock on the door. Finally, the law comes calling and she is taken away. The twist came at the end of the scene where the woman wakes and realizes it is a nightmare. This is the reality that untold numbers face today.Abhinaya’s production shows us that fear lives among us and holds us in its clutches in today’s world, as it did in Cesar Chavez’s day. Will we have the courage to shed ourselves of the manacles of fear? Will we have the courage to say – Yes We Can? .

Abhinaya’s Dream, Asian Cultural Center, Oakland, April 27 Wooly Western eye

It was a sunny Saturday afternoon emerging from Oakland’s 12th Street BART Station en route to see Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose in their new production “I Have A Dream” at Oakland’s Asian Cultural Center. Not a long walk, past some glass-dominated facades, I found myself in Old Oakland with its beautifully kept facades of late 19th century buildings where you could stare through the windows to the back wall. On the side streets intersecting Broadway, a few of the edifices had shops below street level, some already occupied. These handsome relics of history ache for occupancy.

Cheek by jowl and opposite a Marriott Hotel, Oakland’s Chinatown starts its buildings and enterprises; two blocks eastward in this East Bay pocket stands the Asian Renaissance Building with Oakland’s Asian Cultural Center, adjoining a substantial apartment building. An escalator takes you to the second floor with the Center [Suite 200] in the middle of the second floor construction, its circular architecture featuring a plaza and fountain on the ground floor. Upon asking, I was told the complex was constructed in 1994.

That was not the end of the surprises. To the left of the Center’s entrance along the corridor leading to the rest rooms are exhibits of children’s accomplishments in the Korean art of bojagi, the Korean wrapping cloth on view until June, the result of San Francisco’s Claire Lillenthal School’s Korean immersion program. The fliers in the lobby also invite one to learn Mongolian Traditional Dances at the Ger Academy, their results Carlos Carvajal said made such an impression at the Ethnic Dance Festival auditions.

The auditorium itself uses black and chromium movable chairs for its seating. One can imagine dances and banquets as regular offerings at the Center. But on this particular afternoon it was the remarkable Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose dancing “I Have a Dream.”

Utilizing images and texts on a screen at vital moments, Abhinaya covered the early life of Martin Luther King in the context of African-American experience of segregation, violence and the historic Montgomery bus strike. Rasika Kumar essayed the role of Rosa Parks with eloquence, Mythili Kumar, M.L. King, and five young skilled exponents of Bharata Natyam undertook with gestures, bell-emphasized footwork and their eyes, outlined in black, the roles of African Americans, members of the Klu Lux Klan, and the police.

This is not the first time Abhinaya has undertaken social commentary using the South Indian classical dance form Bharata Natyam as its expressive vehicle. It has portrayed women in history and the life of Gandhi. It is logical that King’s life and career, inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent campaign against the British, be another subject for artistic comment.

Rasika Kumar was responsible for the choreography and the application of abhinaya, the gesture language, in conveying the story. While many gestures were self-explanatory, the few not understood did not deter from the strength and understanding of the exposition, reinforced with the bells and the eloquence of the eyes. The timing of the gestures, the movements and the expressiveness of eyes and face to the historic progression of the civil rights struggle were amazing, the caliber of dancing simply first rate.

Abhinaya Dance Company and the Kumar trio occupy a special place in the San
Francisco Bay Area’s artistic life, reinforced by the skilled devotion of Mr. Kumar’s technical support. Several dozen Bravos are in order.

Review by Renee Renouf

Unfiltered- August 11 Drive East 2019. Wooly Western eye

After the surpassing experience of Satpathy and Khan on Thursday evening,  what Drive East’s 2019 second program in San Francisco would provide? The two offerings did not pretend to classical format, if schooled in solid classical foundations.

Of the two Unfiltered with the Bharata Natyam-trained trio Rasika Kumar, Suhasra Sambarmoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek was the more intriguing to me; young professional women in differing settings, dealing with the overactive hormones and advances of men.

The trio are depicted rising in the morning, accomplishing their ablutions and then headed to their differing activities. For Rasika Kumar, she was seated behind a desk using a computer, the strike of her heel emphasizing the technical activity. Two or three times, she rises to greet visitors and direct them upstairs or into a special office. She also was called into the special office, apparently complimented, to which she smiles delightedly until the interaction becomes close by and intrusive.

Here the Bharata Natyam tradition of abhinaya and the expressive possibilities inherent in the padam format provided Kumar with all she needed to express the range of pleasure to surprise, disappointment, alarm, departure from the scene of the scene of advances, and the shaking realization of superior-inferior working consequences.

Suhasra Sambarmoorthi’s character appeared domestic, purchasing food and kitchen supplies for the home. One observed her returning and storing items from her grocery bags before preparing something for someone, whether an employer or a relative or husband unclear. Something missing from the offering;  Sambarmoorthi’s face as she flinched from a tirade made one realize just how arbitrary this unseen creature was. So extreme, it found her locked out, turning the house key futilely, knocking on the door for entry, her foot and bells marking the desperate effort.

Nadhi Thekkek came across as the most flirtatious of the three; it was not clear whether she had been invited by some long-time friend or relative to choose a dress to attend a special event. Nadhi sorted through several gowns on a rack, choosing one which pleased her enormously, although it was uncertain his reaction. She also tried on what seemed to be a pair of extreme shoes, clearly feeling she was smart as paint. Nadhi seemed predestined for trouble.

A party ensued, whether an event or a bar was uncertain. But she accepted one drink and became quite merry. After some equivocation, a second drink was offered, and it became clear it was a mickey. Nadhi awoke to find herself on the floor opposite where she had imbibed her mistake; she was misery personified. It did not seem she had been abducted, but she had been violated. I don’t know whether it is the medium or the skill of the exponent, but abhinaya and the Indian dance tradition can together magnify and convey misery like few styles of dance, abetted, of course, by the quality of the dancer.  One or two of the gestures might have been explained to us Western dullards to help heighten our appreciation of the dramatic events.

At one point, their backs to the audience, the trio looked at each other and touched gently. It was a brief, archetypal gesture of support, to me more touching than the assertions which followed.

The successive declarations, “I don’t deserve this; It’s not my fault,” each coming forward, and then inter-weaving, gave the trio space to move in Bharata Natyam style with punch and energy.

Rasika Kumar has been responsible for a number of choreographic innovations within the Bharata Natyam idiom. I reviewed earlier a solo performance  on Courage, exploring traditional Hindu myths and epics on the women in such tales and their responses; later on Gandhi, most recently on Martin Luther King.

Here, however, the three exponents schooled by three differing teachers, collaborated on the all too prevalent theme of women exploited in current society.

Their music was supplied them by Roopa Mahadevan who became the lead performer in the evening’s second half, appearing with the percussion whiz
Rohan Krishnamurthy plus two talented local artists, pianist and flutist Erica  Oda and violinist Sruti Sarawathy.

Review by Renee Renouf