Home Is Where The Art Is

 

Sharon Lowen shares memories of the first two visits to India that shaped her journey in dance, learning and aesthetics.

A desire to continue exploring the layers of aesthetics, literature, and spiritual transcendence through Odissi has motivated me to remain in India for 44 years, certainly not my plan when I arrived as a Fulbright scholar in 1973. A career as a classical dancer in India was never a consideration when I came to India to continue Manipuri dance training, simply hoping, the experience would enhance my creative vocabulary when I returned to the United States of America, an aesthetic exploration to add on to 17 years of training in western contemporary concert dance and ballet, puppetry and theatre.

Previously, I had convinced the University Of Michigan Board Of Governors to allow me to create my own four year B.A. Honours College course of study in Humanities, Fine Arts and Asian Studies, that allowed me to take classes across the various colleges. This gave me a foundation in ethnomusicology, Asian fine arts, history and philosophy while pursuing theatre, dance and literature studies. Visiting India as a Fulbright scholar was delayed by a year as India tightened its rules for international student visas after the Bangladesh Liberation War and frosty relations between the USA and India.

 

Sharon Lowen with Ranjani Maibi (fourth from left), Kumar Maibi (third from left) and other artistes.

 

I was accepted at the J.N. Manipuri Dance Akademi in Imphal, Manipur, however foreigners were not allowed to be in Manipur. I was placed at Triveni Kala Sangam under Guru Singhajit Singh in Delhi. I had opted for a paying guest accommodation in Vakil Lane, behind the Fulbright office. My life revolved around daily private classes, watching Triveni Manipuri Ballet rehearsals morning and evening, and attending every dance, theatre and visual arts event in Delhi. I knew no dancers and could not speak with any members of the Manipuri troupe until introduced after more than a year to dear M.K. Dani Singh, a distinguished elder dancer of the troupe, by the son, eminent writer M.K. Binodini Devi, after meeting them in Manipur, when I studied Maibi, Raslila and Kartal Cholom.

 

 

Fortunately, I did have four “uncles” from the art world: Shanko Chaudhry, Shanti Dave, G.R. Santosh and Himmat Shah, courtesy Baroda artist Narendra Patel, who was, and is, close to my family since I was 10. I swam like a fish in the world of arts, sharing creative conversations and cultural evenings with my uncles and their friends, Gaitonde, Biren De, Ravi Jain, Paramjit and Arpita Singh and others.

When I first saw Odissi Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra teach a workshop during my first year in India, in 1973-74, at Triveni Kala Sangam, where I was studing Manipuri, the congenial atmosphere and his personalised attention to each student impressed me. When I took permission from my Manipuri guru to attend Kelubabu’s workshop the following year, my only plan was to get an academic understanding of a few basics of Odissi, for comparison purposes, to enhance my lecture demonstrations on my return to the United States.

Guruji was incredibly generous from the beginning, teaching me Namami Mangalacharan, Batu Nritya, and Savari Pallavi, within three months, insisting and facilitating a music recording and sending Kavita Shridharani (dancer and daughter of Sundari K. Shridharani) to help me select a suitable Oriya sari for making a costume, and to see that the tailor made it correctly. When I protested that I only wanted to learn a little about the dance, he insisted that I should learn the dance to perform, and he was bighearted enough to help make this possible for a student that was fundamentally “a stranger in a strange land”.

Without family or community networks for advice and assistance, it would have been a Herculean task to accomplish things like a music recording, let alone understanding the nuances of the dance costumes, ornaments and makeup, without his generous guidance.

 

 

Though I had already studied Manipuri abroad and two years in India, I had no idea of how to obtain or wear a Manipuri phanek or Ras costume at the time Guruji had me make my first costume. More than the externals of music and costume, his willingness to teach me so much, right from the beginning, was generous beyond my belief. The talented teenaged elder daughter of Guru Surendranath Jena came to him to learn Savari Pallavi and he insisted that since he was teaching it to her, I should learn it at the same time, along with everything else. In later years, I often saw a similar willingness of encouraging students to challenge themselves to attempt repertoire that he painstakingly taught in his many workshops around the country.

The first summer that I studied with Guruji in Orissa, 1974, turned out to be his last year with Kala Vikas Kendra. He saw to it that Natabar Maharana (now an eminent guru himself) cycled to the market for my tiffin each day and accompanied me in a covered rickshaw to his home for afternoon classes after morning dance sessions. I also remember Guruma inviting me for a wonderful meal that nearly killed me, as I didn’t know then how to stop my plate from being constantly refilled.

For the Kala Vikas Kendra summer student performance, Guruji insisted that I present some Manipuri dance so that the Cuttack audience could be exposed to another classical dance tradition. He was always open and interested in every arts tradition. He was never defensive about his art being better than that of others, and was always open to seeing and trying to understand different aesthetic traditions, though he never could see what was aesthetic about some avant-garde modern dance companies that performed in India.

In the summer of 1974, after study and performing Odissi in Odisha, I traveled to Manipur for an incredible experience attending several pre-Vaisnavite Lai Haroba festivals on bicycle, accompanied by a brilliant young scholar, R.K. Achoubi Sana, who explained traditions and translated at my 7 a.m. Maibi Jagoi dance classes with Ranjani Maibi and her assistant, Kumar Maibi.  Twenty nine years later, when Kumar Maibi retired from heading the Maibi dance department of the J.N. Manipur Dance Akademi, he said he knew it had to be me when I finally returned and he heard that an American was coming to perform.

In Manipur, I also had the opportunity for classes in the classical Raslila repertoire, two years later, and was blessed to study Kartal Cholom, traditionally performed by men, under Guru Thangjam Chaoba Singh. When I gave a brief demonstration of what I had learned at the Akademi after a talk of the Labannotation system of writing down dances, there was a strong suggestion to add training in Kartal Cholom for women.

The first time I danced in a temple was in Manipur, performing a repetitive ritual dance, Bhangi Pareng. Also, during my first visit to India, (July 1973 to June 1975), I also had the opportunity to discover the martial arts based Mayurbhanj Chhau when Guru Krushna Chandra Naik was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and sponsored to teach and choreograph ballets for the Bharatiya Kala Kendra in New Delhi. I was more than reluctant to study any other dance style when I was already committed to Manipuri, but I saw several actors from abroad ecstatic over a few rudimentary classes and decided at least get an introductory knowledge.

 

Gurus Madan Mohan Lenka, Krushna Chand Naik, Srihari and Sharon Lowen.

 

Guru Krushna Chand Naik was generous and his clarity in teaching inspired me to a lifelong commitment. He lived and breathed Chhau. I always think of him with the same affection I feel for my beloved maternal grandfather. At the end of my two years as a Fulbright scholar, I returned to the University of Michigan as a guest lecturer for the summer to teach Manipuri in the Dance Department and give a performance of Manipuri and Odissi. I was also married in the gardens of a dear friend who chaired the Dance Department. My fiancé had patiently waited an extra year for me to return from India and now gave up a college teaching position to return to India with me where we would teach at the American Embassy School, New Delhi. I continued with Manipuri, Chhau and Odissi, while he worked on translating obscure manuscripts for his theatre history research.

I feel privileged to have been embraced by rasikas over the decades. It has allowed me to share this art nationally and internationally, and play a part in moving tradition forward. I measure the success of my career by the public’s response to the transcendental magic of these great art traditions that I can share in every nook and cranny of the country through live performances, film and television. Coming from outside these traditions, it is thrilling to me to be able to present the arts taught by great gurus. It always seemed to me that being a part of carrying the tradition forward was a more unique achievement than writing about it, creating fusion or teaching about it in the West, though I have done some of this as well. With no expectations or sense of entitlement, I was delighted with every positive reaction by individual audience members who dropped their stereotyped expectation when they experienced my performance.

 

 

Sharon Lowen is a renowned dancer based in New Delhi. She has dedicated her life to the performing and promotion of  Odissi, Chhau and Manipuri. 

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