The film was of a duration of 104 minutes without an interval and from the opening scene to the final one it engages the audience’s attention.
SWORDS AND SCEPTRES: THE RANI OF JHANSI
After attending a dance conference at Charlotte, North Carolina University, I arrived in New York on May 6th. In the evening was a private screening of the film “Swords and Sceptres: The Rani of Jhansi”, produced, directed and scripted by Swati Bhise — renowned Bharatanatyam dancer and a disciple of Sonal Mansingh — at Asia Society, a cultural hub in New York. Since it was the opening night screening, there was a sizable crowd, practically the “who is who” of Indians settled in New York — the “culturalati” and leading corporate persons were in the courtyard where drinks were served. I was visiting New York after an interval of four years, so it was an excellent opportunity to meet so many friends. Rachel Cooper, the director of the Performing Arts Division of Asia Society received me with warm greetings.
Swati and her glamorous daughter Devika, who plays the lead role of Jhansi ki Rani Lakshmibai were being interviewed and photographed in the foyer. Before the screening, Rachel Cooper welcomed all and informed us that after the screening there would be a Q and A. The film was of a duration of 104 minutes without an interval and from the opening scene to the final one it engages the audience’s attention. The dialogues are in Hindi, Marathi and English. The production value is of high quality.
Devika had, when she was barely 16, made a documentary on hijras, the third-gender people. Studying in Johns Hopkins University, she took part in a play as Janaki ,wife of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the mathematician, which later on was turned into the film The Man Who Knew Infinity with Dev Patel in the lead role. Recently, Devika also appeared in the film The Rest of Us. Early on she had acted in the romantic comedy The Accidental Husband with an international cast — Uma Thurman, Colin Firth and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
As the young queen Lakshmibai who singlehandedly fought with the British and the pernicious East India Company which ruled India in the 1850s, Devika lives up to expectations of a brave young woman who does not yield to British shenanigans. She seeks in Jhansi peaceful solutions but to no avail. Queen Victoria seeks a resolution to the escalating situation with minimal force. But after a bloody siege at Jhansi Fort, during which many lives were lost, the rani became a growing symbol of Indian resistance. Gathering alliances, she led her people into a battle that ultimately changed the shape of history.
Well edited, scripted, crafted and directed by Swati, the film is a tribute to women power. Says Swati, “Lakshmibai, the queen of Jhansi is a character not seeped in myth but in the dairies of British officers who called her either Joan of Arc or Jezbel. Like a cross many powerful women bear, being characterised as one or the other, I wanted to highlight the intricacies and complexities of such a woman, and her struggle in the world of corporate powerplay, greed, and imperialist control over territories. Her story was of a woman who was never dictated to and who made a mark in history where she still lives on in the hearts and minds of every child and person today. Her name is synonymous with valour, freedom and independence. My vision was to share this ordinary, yet extraordinary woman’s life worldwide.”
Swati and Devika have done intense research and it shows as the film unfolds. It is to the credit of Swati, a classical dancer who has proved that as a determined woman she can produce the script and direct the film. A dancer has to do all single-handedly — practice, get ready putting on costumes, arrange for the accompanying musicians, her own publicity, invite the audience and perform. This experience has helped Swati to muster up courage to be a film producer and a director. Having known her for more than 35 years and after following her career in New York, Europe and India, I was amazed at her ability to undertake such a task. She has succeeded beyond any doubt. I met her in her office, Cayenne Pepper Productions, 445, Park Avenue on the 20th floor when I gathered more information about how Swati went ahead to convince the Maharaja of Mehrangarh to let them shoot the film, the authentic ornaments and period costumes were studied, the women were trained in Kalari, martial arts and swordfighting and within eight weeks the shooting was over. Bravo!
Swati has been a name to reckon with in the fields of Indian culture and classical arts in New York for the past 35 years. She wears many hats — runs the Sanskriti Centre, has trained several American children, has graduated in Indian and Chinese history, had brought Unesco heritage artform Kuncqu Opera — the oldest Chinese theatre — to India for the first time, established an annual Sadir Theatre Festival in Goa, organised and conducted her first jazz and Carnatic music symphony at Jazz at Lincoln Centre and as CEO of her production company, served as Indian associate producer of the film The Man who knew Infinity, premiering at the Toronto Film Festival and screening it at the White House to critical acclaim and opening festivals in Zurich, India, Dubai, and Singapore among others. She is an outspoken advocate for women’s empowerment with a focus on Southeast Asia and is adviser for the Asia Foundation which serves to empower women and girls in Asia through education.
JONATHAN HOLLANDER: SCREENINGS OF FILMS ON RAM GOPAL AND MRINALINI SARABHAI
Jonathan Hollander, director of Battery Dance Company, a brilliant dancer and choreographer, a lover of India and much decorated by the US government and other countries, having performed in five continents, has been organising for the past 38 years the Annual Battery Dance Festival, the longest-running free public dance festival every year which draws a combined audience of over 12,000 people. From August 11th to 16th at Robert F. Wagner Park: Battery Park City. One of the strongest attractions is its setting at the bottom tip of Manhattan with a glorious sunset backdrop of water, sky, and the Statue of Liberty — no theatrical backdrop whose open-air stage looks out over New York Harbour and the line-up reflects the cross-cultural focus of Battery Dance Company; and also my friend — dancer, choreographer, curator — as narrator, Rajika Puri, when she opens up new vistas of Indian classical danceforms, which audiences love. The “Erasing Borders Festival” has created a platform for Indian classical dances to rub shoulders with international danceforms. Carefully curated, after screening several videos, both Rajika and Uttara Asha Coorlawala — dancer, choreographer, scholar and a disciple of Martha Graham and now an adjunct Professor at Barnard at Columbia University — the festival which Jonathan Hollander co-founded with the Indo-American Arts Council with Arun Shivadasani has become an important landmark event in New York. More about Jonathan and Rajika later on.
Jonathan had invited me to give illustrated talks and screenings of rare films on legendary dancer Ram Gopal and Mrinalini Sarabhai on May 7th at the New York Public Library on 53rd Street opposite MoMa from 3.30 pm till 5.30 pm. Both Jonathan and Rajika had invited the dance aficionados, dancers, dance critics and a cross-section of interested persons. I was overwhelmed at the response when the doyen of dance critics, Alastair Macaulay, the former chief dance critic of the New York Times and Robert Johnson, former critic of Dance Magazine, The star attended my talk. Sattriya dancers Madhusmita Bora and Prerona Bhuyan came all the way from Philadelphia, Shila Mehta, Kathak dancer from East Windsor, painter Natvar Bhavsar and his wife Janet, Shala — a former Kathak dancer who had worked with Ram Gopal — brought photos of myself with Ram Gopal, Bhaskar Roy Chaudhary, Raja and herself, Nan Melville, photographer and filmmaker who has made an excellent film on Nrityagram, Joe Daly, set designer, musician, working for the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Centre, a disciple of Tanjore Kittappa Pillai and many more came and expressed joy at my anecdotes of having travelled with Ram Gopal in Europe and India while Claude La Morris, a French filmmaker, made the film Om Shiva on Ram Gopal visiting Kerala.
Mrinalini Sarabhai’s film made by Yadavan Chandran and Mallika Sarabhai covers her life with the re-choreographed works of Mrinalini by Mallika. It is an all-embracing tribute to the legendary dancer whose social concerns and innovations speak volumes. Both the films were well received. Jonathan wanted more from me to speak about and Rajika had introduced me with my background of travels and attempts to understand the dances of the West. I can go on and on, but must say that I felt rewarded and my morale was boosted up to give similar talks in India, as many in India have also forgotten Ram Gopal.
PEPPERLAND DANCE WORK CHOREOGRAPHED BY MARK MORRIS
When in New York, I invariably visit Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and meet its director Joe Milello who is a dear friend and has presented Ratan Thyiam’s plays Uttar Priyadarshi and Nine Hills and One Valley to critical success. On May 8th was the opening of the choreographic work — the dance bonanza of Mark Morris — Pepperland based upon Sgt. Pepper inspired by the music of Beatles with mode styles of the 1960s. Choreographed by Mark Morris for his Mark Morris Dance Group, it features a classic from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, including the title track, With a Little Help From My Friends, A Day in the Life, When I am Sixty-Four and Within You, Without You along with Penny Lane, originally slated for the album, but released separately. Those songs were matched by an equal number of original Pepper-inspired tunes crafted by jazz composer Ethan Iverson, all performed live by a quirky ensemble featuring the sax, trombone, keyboard, vocals and a theremin — a psychedelic electronic instrument played without any physical contact.
The show started with the city of Liverpool, home of the Beatles, with the contracted choreographer, Mark Morris, founder of Fort Greene’s Mark Morris Dance Group, to create a dance piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1967 album. The show premiered at Liverpool’s “Sgt. Pepper at 50 Festival” in 2017 and has since toured the world. The May 8 opening was its first appearance in New York. I was lucky to attend it.
Morris’s choreography incorporates an eclectic variety of dance styles, which reflects the inspiration the Beatles found in music throughout the world. There is a pop dance feel in some of this, there is ballet, and Indian dance, especially during the Within You, Without You section, which has some basis in Indian music.
Interesting notes were found in Playbill. With a little help from my friends, when Ringo sang it, he was on top of the world. The version Mark has is more vulnerable. George Harrison’s sincere study of Indian music aligns easily with another Harrison. Interested in bringing the East to the West — the great composer Lou Harrison, one of the Mark Morris’ most significant collaborators. The hippy-era sentiment of the lyric remains startlingly fresh and relevant today.
After the show, as is my practice, I had sent my visiting card to the backstage door and assistant of Mark Morris, who invited me and my photographer, artist friend Pradeep Dalal backstage and greeted us warmly. Last year Mark had come as a chief guest at the Music Academy of Madras in Chennai when Bharatanatyam dancer Lakshmi Vishwanathan received the Nritya Kalanidhi award. Mark has been regularly visiting Chennai during the “season” and enjoys Carnatic music. He told me that he will be visiting Chennai in January 2020.
GUJARATI LITERARY GATHERING AT EDISON
No visit to New York is complete without meeting the Gujarati poets, poetesses, writers and dramatists. I was staying with Gujarati playwright Madhu Thaker Rye at Jurnal Square in Jersey City. In Edison under the Gujarati Literary Society there was a gathering of poetesses titled “Jui Melo” — after the fragrant flower called Jui. It was indeed a pleasure to meet the poets and poetesses, including celebrated poetess, Panna Naik, who was my classmate when I was studying in Mumbai for my MA in the subjects Gujarati and Sanskrit. On this occasion, a book with reminiscences of the author Tarak Mehta of the most popular TV serial “Tarak Mehta na undha chashma” was released. It is indeed amazing that this TV serial has broken all records and is still going on. I knew him personally. I was asked to speak on this occasion after the leading litterateurs had spoken. I used the hasta mudras — hand gestures — and asked all to follow me when I enacted the movement: “Today we all have got together here when poetesses are reciting their poems, listening to which our hearts are overjoyed. We wish to express thanks and Namaskar to them.” The elderly audience followed my instructions and we all had a good laugh.
Shila Mehta, who runs her Nupur Zankar Kathak Foundation in East Windsor and also in London, Belgium and Mumbai, had organised my lecture and screenings of the films at Jersey City at Swathi Alturi’s spacious basement theatre where some 50 people came. We had a good interaction with them and us. It was interesting to learn that a minimum of 15 to 20 young dancers are studying Kathak and Kuchipudi regularly. Over the years, dancers settled in New York and elsewhere have established their dance academies using the basement as classical Indian dance uses lots of footwork, which neighbours object to on account of the noise it makes. I often used to call it as a “basement movement of Indian classical dance forms”. It has now taken roots and institutions like Hema Rajgopalan’s Natya Dance Theatre for Bharatanatyam in Chicago, Anjani Ambegaonkar’s Sunder Kala Kendra for Kathak in Los Angeles, Viji Prakash’s Shakti Dance Academy for Bharatanatyam also in Los Angeles and Ramya Harishankar’s Bharatanatyam Academy in Irvine to name a few have spread classical Indian dance forms in the United States and now they are on par with classical ballet and are no more considered ethnic.
The writer is an eminent dance historian