Sunday, March 15, 2009

Venue vs. venue: The Desi dance community in the Washington area

With several partially completed "reviews" of recent concerts still waiting in draft, I ask myself why I'm irresistably moved, on a Sunday (i.e., non-work day) morning, to blog. Well, the life of music and art never ends . . . .

Last night we attended a solo dance performance by Sujata Mohapatra, one of India's leading practitioners in the Odissi style (yes, I know this is a music blog, but bear with me--you'll see my motive soon), at the very modest auditorium of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, MD. The program was organized by the Mayur Dance Academy, one of many local classical Indian dance schools in the Washington, DC area.

A day or two earlier, both my wife and I received notifications, on our private musical e-mail accounts, from the magnificent Strathmore Art Center about an upcoming program in the same genre--Odissi Dance--by the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, an entire company, as opposed to last night's soloist. The e-mails offered substantial discounts to us and our students (Shubha teaches Hindustani instrumental and vocal music to a range of students from five to 40, and I currently have one sitar student myself).

Strathmore apparently tracked down our personal music e-mail addresses from one of the several national databases listing teachers of Indian music in various cities. This move showed admirable initiative in reaching out to the community, since a quick check of the Strathmore box office online confirmed that ticket sales were already going well five days before the event.

I plan to attend the Strathmore program, to contrast the effect of venue on performance--in this case dance; but many of the same observations can relate to musical presentations as well.

As background for my entry to come later in the week, let me note now that the teaching of dance, almost exclusively to young women (predominantly Indian-Americans, but also with Bangladeshi-American and Anglo participants as well), is a staple of the local Desi community for two major reasons, with a tertiary motive not far behind.

The first motive lies in the fact that like most communities outside their homeland, South Asians strive in a number of ways to maintain as many aspects as possible of their original culture in the American setting, be it language, or artistic expression such as dance and, to a lesser extent music.

Secondly, training in dance in particular is a popular medium for young girls (usually Hindu, as is also true in India), in that such education not only enables them to learn grace, poise, and physical discipline, but adds to their desirability as a bride in what, even now, are frequently at least partially arranged marriages.

Finally, in the current highly competitive American pre-college educational environment, a significant accomplishment in Indian dance can stand as a healthy addition to the applicant's resume, in which extracurricular activities are seen to prove a prospective student as "well-rounded."

It is against this background that Indian dance performances in particular, whether in a modest community-center (or high school auditorium), or a splendid concert hall such as Strathmore, have a an interested clientele--i.e., dance students and their families and friends--that is significantly greater than that of Indian music. But more of this after the second performance.

In the meantime, those of you who understand Bangla (Bengali) can hear an interview of Silvee Jamil, a young Bangladeshi-American dance student of the Mayur Dance Academy, by Anis Ahmed of VOA's Bangla Service.

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