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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the

May 9, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

From India, Dance Diplomacy

Here in Central New Jersey, we don’t need a 10-year

census to tell us about changing demographics. The arts and music

calendar is a ready indicator that some of the most highly-regarded

artists from other continents now live, work, and perform in the

region.

"Losing Geography, Finding Self" is an ongoing series at the

Princeton Public Library that explores how artistic identity is

changed

when artists cross national borders. This week Indian-born dancer,

choreographer, and scholar Uttara Asha Coorlawala presents

"Dancing

Indianess: India and the USA," at the library on Wednesday, May

16, at 7:30 p.m.

Joining her program are California-based dancers Sandra Chatterjee

and Shyamala Moorty. Chatterjee is trained in Kuchipudi (as well as

ballet, modern, and Tahitian dance) and Moorty is trained in

Baratanatyam.

Both are in the graduate program of UCLA’s department of World Arts

and Cultures.

Chatterjee and Moorty will each perform samplings of their traditional

dances, and then together perform part of a contemporary dance piece

that includes biographical references to their own experiences living

in and between two cultures.

A generation ahead of these dancers, Coorlawala was born in Hyderabad

and later moved with her family to Bombay. She came to the United

States as an undergraduate at Smith College where she earned her

degree

in theater and dance. Beginning with her college experience, she

trained

in Baratanatyam, a classical Indian temple dance form, as well as

in American modern dance. She danced in Pearl Lang’s company and other

contemporary American companies.

As a dancer-choreographer, Coorlawala pioneered what is now a growing

trend on the Indian dance scene towards innovation. Her choreographic

style and performances brought her three disciplines — modern

dance, Bharatanatyam and yoga — to the dance stage. During her

20-year performing career she danced throughout India, Europe, and

the United States, and as a designated cultural representative of

India. Married to Haresh Lalvani, a member of the faculty of the Pratt

Institute’s School of Architecture, she lives in New York.

Her talk focuses on the 20th century background of the discovery of

"Indianness" through Indian dance, showing how dance helped

create a sense of identity in 20th-century India, and how that

identity

has been changed by Indians living in the United States.

"I had to run away from home to become a dancer," says

Coorlawala

cheerfully from her home in New York. Although "Uttara" is

an ancient Sanskrit word name for a dancer, she says "At that

time you couldn’t do it. What bothered my parents was that they had

never known anyone who had made a career in dance." Her father

was an officer in the British Indian Army who moved into industry

and became director of a cement company.

"When I was growing up, we were coming out of World War II and

independence, little was known about Indian cultural history.

Bharatanatyam

— originally a temple dance form — we didn’t know about when

I was growing up." In 1965, Coorlawala transferred to Smith

College

where she found dance was part of the liberal arts curriculum. After

majoring in theater and dance, she established her performing career.

Later she went on to earn her Ph.D. in choreography and performance

from New York University. She is currently a visiting lecturer in

World Dance at Princeton University.

"India didn’t exist before the British," she says. "There

was no one place, no one concept, it was many, many kingdoms,

languages,

and cultures. India was born out of resisting the British."

"Dance was one very strong carrier of the differences between

Colonial British culture and the cultures that we were born to and

had neglected. It’s like a long series of cultural exchanges and

cultural

misreadings of the situation. Indian dance was not debased by the

British, because the British simply were not interested in Indian

dance. Nobody knew it existed, nobody knew about the real stuff, or

where to find it."

With Indian independence came the rediscovery of traditional forms

which had endured in pockets throughout the continent. At a time when

insurarity and issues of foreign exchange allowed few Indians to

travel

abroad, cultural exchange became a key element of diplomatic contacts

in the post-Independence period. "Indian dancers and musicians

were sent as cultural emissaries. Suddenly anybody who had any

experience

in dance became important and valuable for diplomatic purposes,"

she explains.

Now schools of Indian dance are found throughout the United States.

"As it exists today, classical dance forms are considered high

culture, and offer a way for young person to learn about their culture

and mythology through music and movement. When you’re learning the

dance, you’re connecting with the culture, you’re experiencing a way

of thinking — a kind of linguistic structure of its own."

— Nicole Plett

Dancing Across Cultures, Princeton Public Library,

65 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-9529. Uttara Asha Coorlawala presents

"Dancing Indianess: India and the USA." Wednesday, May

16, 7:30 p.m.


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