Rosary beads and the tinkling of anklets, a priest's habit and the angavasthram – seeming contradictions. Yet they fit perfectly well in the persona of Reverend .Dr. Saju George. For, Dr. Saju, the ‘Dancing Jesuit,' is a Jesuit priest who also simultaneously dons the role of a rich and versatile Bharatanatyam dancer. From a hamlet in Central Kerala to Kolkata Calcutta, it has been a fascinating journey and Rev. Dr. Saju Georgeretraces the steps he took – quite literally - in dance as well as in his calling as a priest.
On early years and interest in dance
I was always interested in the arts and in dance in particular. My sisters used to learn dance and my early attempts were in mimicking what they did. In those days, formal training in dance for a boy from a semi-rural area and a Christian background at that was unheard of. But family and acquaintances did turn a kindly, though not too serious eye, upon my artistic ventures. Soon I was performing at school functions, learning dance pieces from my sisters and friends. Youth festivals broadened my canvas, underscoring my interest to take up dance seriously.
On training to preach and to dance
Schooling was over and it was time to take up a career. Internally I was turning towards spiritualism and a desire to serve. I was also deeply inspired by the life and work of Mother Theresa and studying to be a priest was the natural answer to what I had sought for. Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda were influences too and this also propelled my decision to go to Kolkata to join the Society of Jesus.
When it came to studying dance formally, my mentors at the Society were encouraging and open-minded to the idea. Thus, along with my graduation I took up training in Kuchipudi under Natyacharya M.C. Vedantakrishna. While in Chennai, studying philosophy, I came into contact with Kalakshetra gurus and switched over to Bharatanatyam – I am at home with this dance form. Bharatanatyam was my main subject for my M.A degree too, which I did at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata. Over the years I got myself trained in Carnatic music and mridangam and familiarised myself with all the South Indian languages, Sanskrit and Bengali. This has helped me immensely in my work as a choreographer and composer. There is not a lot written in Christian literature that is amenable to Bharatanatyam and very often I pen a new item. Thus a repertoire has been built and presented on themes such as the life, passion and resurrection of Christ, Mother Mary, the Old Testament and creation and so on.
Training under various gurus
In the course of my close involvement with Bharatanatyam I have been fortunate to have trained under and shared the rich experiences of great gurus such as K. Rajkumar, Khagendra Nath Barman, Nadabrahmam C.V. Chandrasekhar, Padmabhushan Narayanan and Kalaimamani Priyadarshini Govind. While studying theology in Delhi, I also studied dance from Padmasri Leela Samson and performed with her on various stages. My gurus still contribute actively to what I do today – I go over each new project with Chandrasekhar sir and wait for the green signal from him.
Research, teaching and performing
My doctoral thesis was on ‘The religio-philosophical foundations of Indian classical dance' with special reference to Shaivism, and my main reference was the work called ‘Thiru Manthiram' by Sage Thirumoolar. One of its chapters is Thirukoothu Darsanam, detailing the dance of Shiva and I have concentrated on the iconography of Lord Nataraja and the symbolism it presents. My research also helped me delve deeper into the soul of Hinduism. I see myself as upholding the best and highest of both the Hindu and the Christian religions. I have performed in temples and before Christian audiences in countries across the world and at every stage, themes from the Hindu tradition find place alongside Biblical themes. Well, if you ask me how the priest and the dancer in me reconcile with each other, I would say that priesthood is service and in our Indian tradition, dance is a spiritual activity where one surrenders oneself totally to God.
Work and service
Currently I work as a research adviser at the Kalai Kaviri College of Fine Arts in the Bharathidasan University. I enjoy teaching dance, lecturing on Indian aesthetics, literature, religion, culture and yoga. In fact, yoga is an essential part of my sessions in the counselling programmes that I take up, especially for youth. I am also deeply committed to my work as director of a few art, cultural and social development centres such as Shanti Nir (Nest of peace), Kalahrdaya and Art Peace Foundation. Shanti Nir is a social welfare and humanitarian centre of the Calcutta Jesuit Province, while Kalahrdaya imparts intense training in the performing arts to the less fortunate amongst us. Art Peace Foundation provides the atmosphere to experience peace and harmony through the medium of art. All these ventures ultimately aim at holistic human development.
Dream and aim
The essential purpose of my work would be inter-religious understanding and dialogue based on spirituality whose inherent quality is true love for God and service for the people. I believe that art could be the medium for this purpose. Dance, especially Indian dance as an art, has a universal language that knows no barriers, just like the limitless love of God. Dance, thus for me, is a sadhana and a prayer.
Keywords: Saju George