Indian Arts Organization Showcases Classical Dance Dramas and Music in a Three-Day Festival
When he was 8 years old, Prasanna Kasthuri would take his 5-year-old brother, Puli, to classical Indian dance lessons in his native city of Bengaluru, in southern India.
“He would learn and I would sit and watch him,” says Kasthuri, executive director of St. Louis-based Soorya Performing Arts. “One day when I came home, he was practicing and I started correcting him. I was telling him, ‘This is not right. Do this differently.’ My father watched me, and he said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to learn to dance?’ So he put me in dance classes.”
Kasthuri remained committed to the craft, training in classical Indian dances for more than 20 years and even opening his own dance studio in India, where he taught for more than 10 years. Kasthuri came to St. Louis in 1996 to pursuit a career in IT, but it wasn’t his true passion.
“I got tired of IT because my true love was in dancing,” Kasthuri says. In 2003, with the help of family and friends, Kasthuri opened Soorya Performing Arts, a nonprofit performing arts organization “dedicated to bring an awareness, passion and interest for dance, music and theater of Indian origin.”
This weekend, Soorya Performing Arts will conduct its 11th Annual American Natya Festival. On April 19, 20 and 21, more than 150 artists from across the United States and from India will bring intricate Indian classical dance and music to audiences at the Clayton High School Auditorium.
Guided: St. Louis sat down with Kasthuri, who directs the Natya Festival, for a Q&A to learn more about its significance, its roots and what attendees can expect from this three-day dance extravaganza.
Guided: How did the Natya Festival start?
When we started the festival in 2008, we wanted to get a few more dance opportunities for people from India. We have a deep tradition of dancers that goes back thousands of years. We have many immigrants [from India], but we didn’t have any opportunity to perform. I practiced for more than 20 years in India, then I started a dance class here, but there weren’t many opportunities. Maybe we would dance a three-minute piece here and there, but we were never able to do a full performance.
That was the main idea behind starting this dance festival, so we could see more people and organizations that would teach Indian classical dances and who could present their work. There is a lot of talented artists who immigrated here, and we are just giving them a platform where they can showcase their skills and culture.
Guided: What is the dance like?
We believe our dancing came from Shiva and was brought down to the human race. The ultimate goal of dancing was to reach salvation. The dance was developed not only as entertainment dance, which was also there, but originally it was related to reaching God through your soul, through music and dance. The musical tradition was built up from there.
Since it’s thousands of years old, it isn’t just dancing, but many techniques are involved. The stories are told through enormous amounts of movement, which are very unique. It’s very structured. When someone teaches one thing for thousands of years, it builds up a structure.
Guided: What is the significance of the dance?
Each day, students will present dance pieces rooted in Hindu culture and tradition. When you learn the dance, everybody follows a textbook called “Natya Shastra.” That textbook, although it starts very religiously, it is also technical.
There are 36 chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of dancing: how to perform a dance, how to perform a drama, what are the costumes like. Most importantly, however, the book teaches how to look at the dance from the perspective of emotions and feelings. Without that, nothing can happen.
Sometimes it is easy to learn the physical aspect of dancing. You can see the hand moving. You can see the legs moving. We can combine that with an instrument. But teaching the human feelings and emotions—the psychological part of it—that’s hard.
Guided: How did you fall in love with this dance?
When I was a student, we were challenged to do our first full show, called a dance tribute. You won’t fall in love with anything unless you really work on it. You get attracted, but you don’t love something until you go deep.
When I was on the stage, I danced so hard, I totally forgot where I was. These days it happens regularly. I enjoy it so much. I love that.
Guided: What will people learn from attending this event?
They will get an experience of a different way of thinking. It’s an experience you have to go through. When you see our dance performance, you will see how we express the themes of love, the themes of anger, the themes of courage. These are very human elements, performed in a different way, but still we explore the same human qualities. They can expect a beautiful narration of stories, colorful pictures, costumes, a lot of movements set to beautiful music.
Guided: What are some tips about the best way to enjoy the performances?
This is a little deeper dancing. Calmly sit and watch them because you may not know the language, you may not know the culture, you may not know the music, but you definitely know the human qualities they are trying to express and all the sentiments and emotions expressed through hand gestures and facial expressions. Our movements also use a lot of mathematical equations. Focus on the rhythms because you will be amazed to see the variations we do on the rhythms.
Guided: What do you think people will feel during the performances?
They will get excited. A lot of people don’t understand the meaning of it, but they understand in a macro way the overall structure of the music, the dance, the facial expressions and the feelings. Those things are very universal but presented in a new way for them.
Guided: Why is the Natya Festival important?
St. Louis needs it more than anything else. If you go east or west, there is a lot of ethnic diversity, which is coming to St. Louis slowly, but especially when it comes to the Indian community, we are trying to show that this city can hold and host big ideas.
The 11th American Natya Festival runs April 19-21 at the Clayton High School Auditorium. Tickets are $30 for each day, with dinner included. For a full schedule, tickets and more information, visit www.natya.org.