Classical dance drew them to India

Perfect Synchronisation: Justin McCArthy

Perfect Synchronisation: Justin McCArthy  


Sharon Lowen, Justin McCarthy, Marie Elangovan and Carolina Prada on how they merged into the ocean of Indian classical dance

They were drawn to natya from different parts of the world. India, the source of classical dance and music, became their chosen destination. They arrived here like brave hearts, clueless about the country, its climate and its living conditions. Today, Delhi is home to them in more than ways than one. In the decades they have been here, they have enhanced themselves as artistes of calibre, set up their life, evolved into revered gurus and established an identity through their art.

Meet Odissi guru and a Manipuri and Chhau practitioner Sharon Lowen, Bharatanatyam exponents-gurus Justin McCarthy and Marie Elangovan and Mayurbhanj Chhau wizard Carolina Prada. Hailing from diverse backgrounds such as the US, French-Canada and Columbia, they converged here to merge into the ocean of Indian classical dance. All of them were naturally inclined towards performing arts, especially dance and they all did learn Western dance or ballet or music initially on their home turfs. In course of time, each one of them came across an Indian classical dance performance that set the ball rolling. Like Columbus, they steered towards Indian shores with a flame in heart to pursue Indian classical dance through whatever means was available, such as cultural exchange programmes or scholarships on offer.

Let’s rewind:

Sharon: Right from childhood in Michigan, that’s where I belong to, I’ve had this innate love for dance but could not come to terms with my ballet teacher when I was 7, because I was too scared of him. (laughs). By 13, a sort of realisation dawned on me that my multi-various interests in puppetry, theatre, literature, human rights had to be harnessed into pursuit of just one and that would be dance! I credit my mother for her active participation to further my passion.

Justin: Like Sharon, I’m from Michigan too. I initially loved music, especially the Baroque and Renaissance. I guess and began taking piano lessons like many others of my age there. I loved ballet music and dance too but then dance was a sort of anathema for a boy to pursue those days. I’m talking of the ‘70s in the US. So I had to be content watching ballet videos secretly and trying to emulate those movements. I could only envisage learning dance after college when I would be on my own.

Marie: I too was interested in dance and began learning ballet in Quebec at the age of seven.

Marie Elangovan

Marie Elangovan  

Carolina: I inherited this passion to learn dance from my mother but unlike Sharon or Marie, I didn’t start the ballet till I was all but 19.

All four of them were attracted to the Indian dance scene after watching a Indian dance performance.

Marie: My course on Religious Studies at the Universite de Montreal (1990) sowed the seed of interest in spirituality in relation to dance (Bharatanatyam). One thing led to another and I got closer to the Indian community in Montreal, attending Indian classical music and dance performances. And then the course of my life changed when I met Guru K. J.Govindarajan who was on a work visit to Kala Bharati (Montreal). His advice to me was simple: ‘it’s vital to immerse in the Indian ethos and culture in order to master the art form.’ Following my heart, with no strings attached, I set off to India on a five-year student visa to learn Bharatanatyam under his tutelage here in Delhi. To be honest, I did initially feel homesick, being cut off from my roots. I miss my loving family and my swimming pool (with a wink).

Carolina: With me, it was a more or less divinely-ordained thing. My interest in Eastern practises egged me on to learn Tai Chi Chuan, Aikido, Capoeira, and Colombian swordplay. But it was a video (of Gotipua, Odissi and Mayurbhanj Chhau) presented to me by a Mexican Odissi dancer with whom I was initially training in Odissi that put the map in place. I had a natural love and inclination for martial arts. It seemed impossible at the time (2005) to find dance scholarships to India, for South Americans. But somehow I managed to secure an ICCR scholarship by 2008, landed in Delhi to pursue Odissi dance in Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. There, I met my guru Janmeyjoy Saibabu who was also teaching Chhau from whom I began taking lessons simultaneously. It’s ten years now and I’m committed to my dance form and my guru. In Chhau, I find a perfect combination of a dance language and martial attitude with display of movement..

Sharon: I was pursuing my BA (Hons) with Fine Arts in ’69 as one of the subjects when I was learning Manipuri from Minati Roy there. Armed with a Fulbright scholarship, I joined Triveni Kala Sangam in 1973 to learn from Guru Singhajit Singh. During my second year of Fulbright study, I took an intensive workshop in Odissi offered at Triveni Kala Sangam with Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and studied Mayurbhanj Chhau with Guru Krishna Chandra Naik at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra.

Justin: Unlike them, I landed in India on impulse and that too in Chennai with no due diligence whatsoever. Earlier I had explored the Western dances but wasn’t happy. Then I joined Bharatanatyam classes under two American lady dancers who had learnt under the illustrious Balasaraswati on her US sojourn. In India, I went straight to Kalakshetra and then trained under Subbaraya Pillai, Alarmel Valli’s guru for a year at her place. He charged ₹.200 a month for classes every day. I would have continued but for multiple health issues that cropped up making it impossible for me to continue in the place. Then on better advice and sense, I came to Delhi and literally stood in front of Leela Samson’s door. She gave me everything a guru could to a shishya for more than a decade (1978-90). She got me an ICCR scholarship too when I ran out of money.

But Sharon couldn’t take a decision that fast to settle down for good as she was married and the couple had to make number of trips up and down, taking up teaching jobs in the US while the other three had lesser hassles. Marie went ahead to become the daughter-in-law of her guru by marrying his musician son Elangovan. Carolina decided to take her guru’s legacy forward by being here and making several trips to Odissa villages where different forms of Chhau was being practised. She picked these up with alacrity. Justin decided to forgo his American citizenship and become an Indian citizen for he “just wanted to be here all his life.”

Justin: My liking for dance and India is very irrational. Back home, my large family can make no sense of my decision. But they are all there for me. So I decided to forgo my American citizenship in 1997 and settle down here for good (chuckles).

Down the decades, how does it feel now?

Marie: More than the others, it’s me who has had a total makeover in personal life and I’m so happy for it. I’m into a South Indian Tamil joint family who are fourth generation Carnatic music practitioners and nattuvanars (dance gurus). My husband Elangovan’s grandmother is Kiranoor Jayalakshmi, the first woman flautist to play in public concerts. In our home here, we breathe music and dance all through the day. Being in such an environment, I’ve been able to imbibe more than I ever dreamed of. I have been moulded into a purist performer and a choreographer with ample sense of music and its nuances. Though I can read and write Tamil and cook South Indian dishes, I’m not confident in conversing (laughs). My mother-in-law tried to teach me and ended up learning to speak fluent English, much to the amazement of her sons. Now we all speak English!

Sharon: During the three winters from 1983-85, I travelled to India along with my little daughter Tara on tourist visas. I used to make the best of the time on hand performing on Doordarshan (national and regional), pick up new repertoire from guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, go back to the US and get busy with performances of Manipuri, Odissi, and Chhau. It was a perennial feat for my husband and me. During 1986-87, I was in India with my husband as accompanying spouse as I held an American Institute of Indian Studies Senior Faculty Fellowship, for research on “Medieval Text and Modern Context of Odissi Dance” which got published by the University of Heidelberg, Germany. I decided to stay back in India after that. Though I knew that in the US, there would be a more secure and economically comfortable life, I felt that my art would be tangential to the mainstream.

Justin: I’ve been here for four decades and I should say the going has been pretty good. Yes, there is little money in dance but then when you love something so deeply, the peripherals no longer matter. Thanks to the unquestioning support by art patron Sumitra Charatram and the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (now under Shoba Deepak Singh), I’ve been given a free hand to train students in my style of Bharatanatyam and unquestioning which I have developed on my own after the 10-year stint with my guru.

Carolina: I’m here for more than a decade. I have no plans to leave India for the time being. I need to be here alongside my guru . The driving point that keeps me here is the spiritual connection to dance, its complex isolation, its intricate technique, the mind-body connection through symbols, stories and the emotive quotient. Dance is not empty movements. I have visited many villages in Odissa where this dance abides in different styles. I have studied and researched on the existing gharanas and got a clear picture of the grammar and techniques of the dance form. My Kalaripayettu training has given me strength and flexibility.

They are confident about the road ahead

Sharon: My work expanded to setting up my own school to take my dance inheritance forward: Manasa-Art without Frontiers was born. Among the numerous festivals, choreographies, performances I did also a Telugu film ‘Swarna Kamalam’ for K. Vishwanath. I have overcome all obstacles by letting my dance lead me where it did. If the audiences admired my art without the ‘foreign’ tag, I owe it to my gurus who have groomed me to imbibe the art forms and project them as a part of myself. I’m constantly conducting workshops and giving exclusive performances as and when I’m being invited to other places.

Marie: The spiritual connect and the guru-shishya parampara is what makes Indian classical dances a heritage treasure trove vis-a-vis western dance forms. The mind opens up to the body and your creativity unfolds as you delve deeper into dance. And as the layers open up, you are able to establish a oneness with the spirit as they say immersing yourself in bliss.

Carolina: My path has just opened. It’s still a long way to go; in fact as I’m delving deeper, I feel it will take many more births to reach the ultimate in dance; it is so complex and so divine. I’m committed to this end, God-willing.

Not just this quartet; there are many more such as Ileana Citaristi, Nikolina Nikoleski and Liesbeth Pankaja Bennink to name a few who have chosen the art as their identity.

Ashish Mohan Khokar –dance historian& Culture critic:

When a non-Indian aspires to learn and perform dance, be it Bharatanatyam, Odissi or any other form, he/she gives their whole to it with dedicated discipline. Except pure love of the art form, there is no other hidden agenda like fame, name, money, etc. Further, most of them take to classical performing arts in its entirety, learning the tough Carnatic music and its idiom, since dance is so interlaced with music, which many Indian aspirants don’t. They are the most sincere, involved artistes giving their best in its purest form. Dance overtakes all other considerations and they willingly put up with material inconveniences, lead an uncomplicated life with just one goal in life which is to be admired.

I would like to quote an example: this year’s Padmashri awardee Milena Salvin embraced the Indian way back in the ’40s and trained in Bharatanatyam from my mother M K Saroj, Kathakali in Kerala and various other dance forms. She has done unending service of 60 years to the cause of dance and the crowning glory is her setting up her institution the Centre Mandapa in Paris which now is the hub of ICCR too.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 3:37:25 PM |

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