Srimathy Sumathi Kaushal is a choreographer, performer, and teacher of Kuchipudi dance. This form of dance comes from and is named for a small village in South India, in the state of Andhra Pradesh.
The dance form traditionally was practiced by village men and boys, but in modern times, it has become increasingly dominated by girls and women. Guru Kaushal says she first came to learn the form in the 1960s, and since then has taught hundreds of students in her Southern California school in Rancho Cucamonga.
This recital took place in a small auditorium in Duarte, California. The ensemble's costumes were wonderful, rich iridescent silk saris with gold sashes, and pleated aprons that spread like fans with the sweeping leg-work and arching steps. Each dancer's hands and feet were marked with red that emphasized the beautiful hand gestures, and they wore anklets of bells that jingled with their steps.
Photo by Daniel Neuman
The performance begins with short ritual pieces that are salutations to Lord Ganesha. Then, in a series of episodes or scenes, the ten descents of Vishnu are acted out onstage. The dancers mime the drama, which includes great powerful fishes and turtles, the disembowelment of a demon, fierce battles between armies, and the romantic idylls of Krishna. The dancing is expressive, athletic, and the principle dancers were almost constantly onstage, requiring considerable stamina.After the performance, Svetha, one of the lead dancers in the ensemble allowed me to take her photo.
She is a college student, about to go to grad school. She is interested in choreography, and in addition to her expertise in Indian classical dance, she also likes hip-hop.
Her skill and grace in Kuchipudi was unmatched. But what was even more interesting, and emblematic of Southern California's diverse culture, took place at the beginning of the show.
Then, Svetha, in her gorgeous pink and green sari, her kohl-rimmed eyes, her traditional headress, stepped to the mic and sang the national anthem of the United States, "The Star Spangled Banner."
Our national anthem sets a poem written about the War of 1812 to a popular British tavern song, and it was made the national anthem in 1931. Most nations' anthems are derived from European hymns, and most, when performed at official ceremonies, are pretty square.
But here in the U.S. - maybe because the song is now sung by celebrities at celebrated national events, it's no longer the thumping dull anthem it used to be. In 1968 Jose Feliciano famously sang a pop version of the anthem. Although Jimi Hendrix had performed a rock version at Woodstock, Feliciano's version was shocking because it was performed at a mainstream event, the World Series. Other artists followed, including Marvin Gaye in 1983 and Whitney Houston in 1991. They set the style of the modern pop version. We now have pop divas' voices soaring and trilling, with melismatic vocal elaboration derived from African-American gospel tradition and rhythm and blues styling.
So how did Svetha do?
It made me smile, and it also reminded me to avoid pre-judging people and situations. What, I wondered, had I expected? A classical hymn? Sing-song Bollywood intonation? It's easy to look at an ensemble of exotically costumed practitioners of a traditional discipline and dismiss them as precious, naive, and not part of the modern world.
Young performers like Svetha - as much an expert as Darci Kistler in a particular, venerated ancient classical art - are also polished young professionals, poised to enter the entertainment industry, able to compete in the mainstream, skilled in multiple performance genres.
This is the face of today's all-American entertainment star. And she's a powerhouse of talent. Best wishes, Svetha, I know you'll go far, whatever your choice of musical style.
But you know what was equally surprising to me?
As we drove back to West L.A. with our friends, I mentioned how disconcerting it was to hear a full-blown 2009 American-style pop rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" from a costumed Indian classical dancer.
And our friend Arundhati laughed, and said that what surprised her was how non-traditional the students' version of the Indian national anthem was. It is normally delivered in a very official, British hymnal square style. At this event, it was delivered in the style of South Indian carnatic music - with its own elaborations and unique vocal stylings. Very unusual, according to our friend, and very different from what you'd hear in India.
Don't you just love this place?
UPDATE: be sure to click on Dan's photos to enlarge them - they are really fantastic.