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One of the amazing things about the vast demographic changes in the Triangle area is the still-burgeoning growth of South Asian populations — which bring with them an array of cultural expressions. You can now worship at a beautiful temple, buy saris and attend recent Bollywood films in Cary, and listen to an Indian music show on Sundays mornings on WKNC, as well as getting good food and live music from the subcontinent all over the Triangle. At UNC-Chapel Hill, South Asian studies is a fast-growing major, and Carolina Performing Arts supports it with regular programming. This week’s offering was the ravishing Indo-Parisian Kuchipudi dancer, Shantala Shivalingappa, who is one of a number of brilliant, classically trained, Indian dancer-choreographers stamping their ancient art with modern sensibility on international concert stages.
Kuchipudi style originated in the Andhra Pradesh area of southern India (20 degrees of latitude south from us, and 10 time zones east: literally, the other side of the world). Like all the major Indian classical dance styles, it branched from a 2000-year-old aesthetic treatise on the lively arts. Also like the others, Kuchipudi adds to rhythmic patterning an elaborately evolved language of gesture, facial expression, make-up and costuming to communicate stories and their emotions. Of the major forms, Kuchipudi is the most sprightly, even dainty, in its movement style.
Shantala Shivalingappa and her four accompanying musicians gave a delightful performance. It opened in the traditional manner with a prayer, and a veneration of the sun, before Shivalingappa frolicked through a dance about Ganesha, the beloved elephant-god, remover of obstacles. Slim and sleek, attired in gorgeous silk, her hair sleekly bound and crowned with pearls, she drolly mimicked the ponderous playfulness of an elephant dancing.
The following dance told the well-known tale of Radha and the Gopis waiting on the riverbank for Lord Krishna to appear with his flute to fill the night with music and love. In it, Shivalingappa gave full play to all of Radha’s charms, her ankle bells shimmering as her decorated feet patted the stage and she leapt lightly about. Her hands are extraordinarily expressive; it was thrilling to see them flash and flutter, the red-tipped fingers as fast as flying birds. (Vermillion paste was traditionally used to decorate the feet and hands, but today some dancers use red markers). The third dance fell on the abstract side of the abstract-expressive dance coalition — it was a playful rhythm game culminating in the dancer showcasing a Kuchipudi specialty, dancing — rocking and travelling — on a brass plate (although we weren’t treated to the full spectacle, which includes burning oil lamps held aloft, and a pot of water balanced on the head).
The evening concluded with a tripartite dance choreographed by Shivalingappa herself (2004). Shiva Ganga tells how Bhagiratha, chosen by the people, meditates on Shiva, lord of the dance, among other things, and prays that he will allow Ganga, the sacred goddess manifested by the River Ganga (Ganges), to flow onto his head, so that her force does not destroy the earth. The dance’s second section, depicting Shiva, was most effective. Again, Shivalingappa portrayed something very different from her feminine self, showing Shiva’s ferocious, virile power in a brilliant series of body-pictures that made use of the angular postures in which Shiva is traditionally represented. The final section belongs to Ganga, and is all sinuous, unceasing, unstoppable flow. Shiva and Ganga, the great forces, are united in a restless dancing harmony, their complementary rhythms interlocking for all time.