|© 2017 Jane Lambert: all rights reserved|
In Bayadère – The Ninth Life Shobana Jayasingh traces the origins of Petipa's ballet to a visit by temple dancers from Pondicherry to Paris in 1838. The dancers were observed by Théophile Gautier who described them in less than flattering terms (see my review of 28 March 2015). It is not clear how Gautier's encounter in Paris inspired Petipa's ballet in St Petersburg nearly 40 years later but that is another story. The point is that Jayasingh's story fascinated me. When I got a chance to see Indian classical dance in a temple, I seized it with both hands.
My opportunity arose on the festival of Durga Puja. This year it took place between the 26 and 30 September. It celebrates the victory of the goddess Durga over the buffalo demon Mahishasura which symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. It is celebrated all over India but different regions celebrate it in different ways. I saw two traditions on the last night of the festival: a ceremony at Liverpool Ganesh Temple which included some gorgeous dancing by a dance company from India and a communal celebration at Merchant Taylors' Boys' School in Crosby, another district of Liverpool.
The worshippers at the Ganesh Temple seemed to be of Tamil heritage and dance was just one part of the ceremony. There were processions one of which led the barefooted worshippers outside the temple into the Liverpool drizzle, incantations which I believe to have been prayers and purifications. We were made very welcome by the priest and worshippers. Although much of the worship was in Tamil (or possibly Sanskrit) the important announcements were made in English.
After space had been cleared for the dancers we were invited to sit on some matting. The priest introduced the dancers several of whom were blind and at least one of the others was without speech or hearing. I have to say that had I not been given that information I would never have guessed that any of them was challenged in that way because they were so beautifully poised. In one of my ballet classes, the teacher had asked us to close our eyes once we had found our balance on demi. I was quite unable to hold my position even for a few microseconds. They certainly did not have that problem.
A gentleman who acted as their spokesman explained that they came from India and that they raised money from their performances to train other young people suffering from disabilities in other skills. The scenes that they were to dance were three episodes from the Hindu scriptures. There about 8 dancers all but one of whom were female. They were clad in beautiful green costumes. They were coifed immaculately and wore the most exquisite makeup.
This was my first experience of this style of dance in a religious setting and I cannot begin to do justice to everything I saw. There was a recorded commentary in English on each of the performances. Though their movements were very different from ballet I noticed a few similarities. They seemed to turn out their legs from their thighs as we do and some of their gestures and arm movements were similar. Small hand and finger movements which would be almost undetectable in a theatre seemed to be significant.
I would have loved to have spoken to the dancers and asked them about their training but there was just not enough time. We had time only to exchange greetings as we wanted to catch the last few houses of the celebrations in Crosby. Ganesh, with his elephant's head, is my favourite Indian deity. He is a patron of the arts and sciences and solver of problems. The story of how he acquired his elephant's head is delightful. When I was in Geneva last week for the WIPO domain name panellists' meeting, an Indian colleague gave me an image of Ganesh to me as a talisman and it now occupies a place of honour in my home.
Merchant Taylors' School is one of the leading schools in Liverpool and it has produced some distinguished old boys including a former Archbishop of Canterbury. It reminded me a bit of my old school when it was in West Kensington. A large hall which had been converted into a shrine. A band was on the stage and a sort of altar of religious symbols was in the centre of the floor. Folk were dancing around the altar and seemed to be enjoying themselves though I was told that their dance was an act of worship too. Vegetarian food and soft drinks were on sale in an anteroom and an ice cream van at the entrance seemed to be doing a roaring trade despite the dismal weather.
I learned that most of the worshippers at this event were from Gujarat in the Northwest of India. I spoke to several of them all of whom were professional men and women with practices in Liverpool. About 22:00 we each procured a pair of brightly decorated sticks about 18 inches long. Mine are in the photograph that appears above. Dancers arrange themselves in pairs and strike each other's sticks in a specified sequence and then change places. I regret that I never quite mastered that choreography but I did have fun. I also managed to participate in a group dance that involved three steps to the right, three to the left and then some short jumps back before the set changes direction. That reminded me a little bit of American square dancing which I tried when I was a graduate student at UCLA,.
The crowd continued dancing with their sticks until well after midnight. The band played a tune which I understood to be the equivalent of the Lord's Prayer. There were speeches from the organizers and votes of thanks. It had been a splendid climax to a magnificent festival.