Crossing Cultures through Drums, Drama or Dance

[Several segments told here also appear in the India section of Web under “Culture.”]

People often cross cultures, at times resulting in severe shock, on other occasions without notice. Crowds might gather for a local Diversity Day. An event to celebrate distinctions of culture, Diversity Day in hometown Goshen provides opportunity to try a new game or dish from another country; it affords time to look more closely at what might at first appear to be strange. It bridges between differences. It attempts to diminish prejudice. It enables people to reach out, to invite others to reveal their treasured arts or point-of-view. Whether through face painting, cultural dances, drinking mango shakes, or hearing an auto-harp, people increase trust. Activities offer occasion to ask questions and therefore learn. They prompt smiles if not words, when language divides. Planners hope for positive vibes, for new appreciation to avoid future, careless judgments of the less familiar.

Fears of the unknown affect daily encounters. On meeting a strange dog, a person’s shoulders might curl inward. On seeing an accident involving an African American adult, some Caucasians hesitate before offering help. Seeing a religious ritual in process, an uninformed person might wince or describe it as frenzied confusion. But, a person loyal to the rite will claim its sacred truth. Following a basketball game between arch rival teams, players might not shake hands with opponents who bullied them. Self-image takes shape through confidence or its absence. Prejudice stems from partial or skewed information. Diversity calls people to stretch their feelings of safety, their limits to what is common.

I have lived in or visited India eight times, for as short as a month or as long as three years at one time. Each return to the subcontinent confronts assumptions previously held. Culture shock hits me with each stay as a foreigner; it affects each return to Goshen also because of local and personal changes. In India, cultural exposure may vary due to location, rapport between the Indian and United States governments, features of climate, or friendships with new neighbors. Questions of “Who am I” and “Who are you” toss each other cross-court, realigning borders.

A person need not leave Goshen or northern Indiana in order to meet ethnic Indians of South Asia. They attend and teach at local schools. Hundreds gather at Hindu religious festivals in South Bend. They buy houses and groceries, find employment, and celebrate marriage events. On Goshen’s streets, their skin color may resemble that of the more populous Latinos. Most Indians in the States have spoken English since childhood, along with one or two of India’s sixteen major languages.

How then, does living in another country open cross-cultural eyes? One avenue is through the interplay of arts and religion; India is noted for both. When first in India in the early 1960s, I was drawn to the prevalence and diversity of living faiths. The complex Hindu thought and worship both confused and attracted me. Being open to difference from my heritage, I grew in sensitivity. I expected, yet was surprised to find truths of art and religion so deeply linked. The Himalayan foothills, with their artistic shadows and rising mist, became ‘home’ for the first, formative years in India. My 1998 experience centered in Chennai, formerly called Madras, a coastal city of six million people, a city proud of its classical Indian features.

[I initially created two separate dialogues for content that follows. The first imagined Joy, a North American who lived in Chennai for six months, meeting Anand, whose family had absorbed India’s classical arts for generations. The second found a Teacher speaking in lengthy paragraphs while a Student mainly asked questions. Neither satisfied me. Here, after a more interactive, brief excerpt from the second draft, the format returns to essay with paragraphs that describe cross-cultural events that I experienced.]

Teacher: We return to Indian classical music with its three basic parts. First the raga—the repeating melodies that merge within a person’s being.
Student: Are there really seventy thousand?
Teacher: Who could use them all, in order to know? Second, the tala, or rhythm, whether clapped or played on drums.
Student: Plus, there’s the drone, that constant tone played by the stringed tanpura.
Teacher: I earlier mentioned dance.
Student: Have you watched some renowned artists?
Teacher: Think of Shiva, “Lord of the dance.” Devotees see the great Cosmic Dance in Shiva.
Student: Human dancers’ facial expressions and hand gestures are what intrigue me.
Teacher: They convey a profound language in classical dance. Do you watch for the thirteen ways to move the head? There are fewer, distinct movements for the eyes, feet, and waist.
Student: How about the ears?
Teacher: They primarily listen. Physical strength and sacred meaning intersect in dance.
Student: One group that I saw in Jaipur included a woman who danced atop double tumblers until they broke. She kept dancing, crushing the glass. What was sacred about that?
Teacher: Did you ask her? Jean Filliozat says that people who have not studied dance forms and ritual cannot expect to understand the art.1 Two, key classical styles still practiced are the Bharatanatya and Manipuri. Certain poses in dance indicate distinct feelings. Rooted in religious ceremonies, dancers impersonate Hindu gods and goddesses. Forces of good and evil often engage in combat, with the former finally winning.
Student: Footwork, with ankle bells thumping a rhythm, amazes me. Have you seen mask dancers too?
Teacher: They perform during festivals and often become ecstatic. Before an ascetic devotee dons the wooden mask to represent a deity, he gives the mask to a priest. The priest performs a rite to bring life into the mask. After consecrating it, the god’s voice speaks.2 The audience understands that the mask either shields inner reality from the outer world, or ‘speaks’ to link the superhuman with those who need it.

As the Teacher above knew, many loyal Hindus experience the god Shiva as “lord of the dance.” During the third century BCE, a Brahmin sage named Bharata Muni wrote a book of treatises from scriptures (called Natya Sastra). It details techniques of theatre and dance performance. Hindus believe that the god Shiva taught Bharata to dance. Part of that teaching, the sacred Bharatanayam dance is often performed at South Indian temples. Several of its segments will be detailed shortly.

One verse (of five) of a Christian hymn with Chorus, by Sydney Carter, states:

I danced in the morning when the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun,
And I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth,
At Bethlehem I had my birth…
Dance then wherever you may be.
I am the Lord of the Dance said He….

The reference to Jesus as the Lord of the Dance parallels the imagery of Shiva as “lord of the dance.” Noting common features helps people to respectfully cross cultures.

Chennai, formerly called Madras, is noted for classical concerts including a main festival season. Beginning dates and duration of season events differ, depending on the concert hall. The fete began in 1927 at the historic hall called The Music Academy. For more than two weeks of December, five slots of daily events may pack the schedule at the Academy. At least twenty venues offer programs in this city, proud of its festivals and recitals. From a “flamboyant flautist” with a bamboo flute to a concert of fifty violins to mark India’s Golden Jubilee of Independence, Chennai welcomes and honors native or visiting artists. A sovereign consulate or organizations often sponsor these events; free tickets are available on request.

Appearing in another fine concert hall, the Museum Theatre, Galina Heifetz, Russian-born but later of the United States, stood to perform. She exuded senior vigor near her youthful accompanist. Feet firmly planted, Heifetz offered a stage presence of extraordinary power and boundless technique. With the violin’s rounded base tucked near her chin, her left fingering arm extended away from and to the left of her face. By contrast, Indian violinists most often position the violin in front of them. Seated on the floor, players extend the instrument from the chin down, its narrow neck shielded near bare feet.

A German pianist performing at The Music Academy began with a request—that all machines, including air conditioning, be turned off. Never mind the day’s heat of a hundred degrees. He wanted the audience to hear each note with total clarity. “He needed the sound of silence.” And what a pleasant shock the resounding silence created compared to T.T.K. Road outside. Mr. Ocker expressed Chopin’s Scherzo through rich, refined color and subtleties, yet without excess. He performed Schumann’s Carnival—its twenty-one sections descriptively named—with both polish and charm.

Yet, fewer Indians resonate with the sound and scales from the instrument westerners call ‘grand.’ Indians long for intimacy, like warmth conveyed when an artist nestles the tabla or mridangam (drums) near his knees. Although a stringed instrument, the piano fails to offer the plucked, haunting sound of a sitar’s seasoned gourd or the stringed sarangi played with a bow. No pedal provides the constancy of drone like that from the stringed tanpura. For many Hindus, those sacred vibrations of the gods add verve to inner being. The person free to cross cultures strives to discern those deeper quivers.

With an invitation in hand to “Search for my Tongue,” we waited with the growing crowd packed onto the outer, circular walkway of the Museum Theatre. Sujata Bhatt’s poem stood at the heart of the production—focusing the quandary of a bilingual background. The stage set included short, stark trees with mounds and scattered clumps of autumn leaves. The dance scene opened with puffs of early morning, gray smoke. Dancers gracefully swept dry leaves together. Suddenly, an arm followed by its stealthy body stretched and danced out from the largest pile of leaves.

Daksha Sheth’s ‘chorus’ of six performers combined abstract images with silent, ‘spoken’ messages. The syncretism of roles and patterns made by dancers gliding across the stage enamored the audience. Indians saw noises of their Motherland and heard its color. Memories of torrential rains zoomed in as Rajastan’s parched, northwestern desert blew off the stage. Even foreigners could imagine the vim of childhood games, could ‘hear’ the hawkers on busy streets plus the incessant, barking, nighttime hounds. Dancers gracefully conveyed energy. Leaps seemed barely to touch ground before rising again, to higher heights. “The mood of the moment in movement.” As South Indian classical dance speaks ancient wisdom, so this event expressed modernity. Each conveys its tempered beauty.

A bilingual dilemma faces Asian youth raised in the west and caught between two cultures. Their search for identity includes the search for a mother tongue left dormant. Or, for resident Indians the search may grapple with culture in transition. Feeling dislocated, people can neither return to nor be freed from the “womb of the past.” Bhatt’s poem pleads:

. . . I ask you, What would you do
if you had two tongues in your mouth,
and lost the first one, the mother tongue,
and could not really know the other,
the foreign tongue? . . .

The plea can haunt an audience alert to crossing cultures, in Chennai or Goshen. The dilemma occurs in diverse art forms, as with the book followed by movie titled The Namesake.

Multiple segments of the Bharatanayam dance, mentioned above, were performed in Chicago by Indian sisters who grew up in the States. Watching, I failed to absorb much that a Hindu would. For example, the Rasa theory failed on me. In that theory, a spectator becomes momentarily identified with the character or theme being danced. Something about the Indian genius—their range of emotions, their being spellbound by what they see—triggers their mental capacity for aesthetic enjoyment. For a dancer, not how many hours she dances but how much “she puts herself into her work” matters. Each rehearsal serves as a performance. Her assurance—through leaps or glides, via gestures or intensity—determines her ability to project essential ideas.

More obvious features come to mind. Dancers’ eyes pose with fierce attention or plead with calm compassion. They roll and flit and yearn. Other features of the head to note: a tight headband, decked with multiple layers of white and orange flowers; facial expressions ever-engaged; and prominent jewelry that shimmers at the neck, nose, and below the ears. A braid of black hair snakes down the dancer’s erect back, tied at the end with a strip of cloth. A dozen to fifteen bangles may decorate each arm. Red henna paint on the thumb and fingertips make dramatic, elongated motions, or on occasion circle the face left exposed.

Larger motions also express cultural details. Sweeping arm movements or conscious bending at the elbow grace formal bends at the knees, as sari pleats spread to squat or horizontal stripes stretch out. Painted slippers on the lower edge of bare feet contrast with four rows of constantly jingling, metal ankle bracelets. Marked by occasional thumping, the bottom of a foot rarely comes into full view. The precision and speed with which motions change force fleeting observations. I felt teased when a dancer held a position for more than a few seconds. A pause could precede a sustained position hold or almost martial gait. For spectators, like photographers with a speed-driven lens, quick reflexes were required.

Keep in mind the surface quality of my remarks. I have limited awareness of traditions linked to Hindu sacred stories and tales. But, intent to more freely cross cultures, I choose to absorb and learn. An informed Indian knows that length of religious exposure causes a person to overlook, take for granted, or penetrate the mystery of sacred dance. More than gestures, scripture, rhythm, or costume, the medley performed engages a Hindu’s mental, emotional, and spiritual being.

A second dance segment, the Shiva Shabdam, had a strong communicative aspect (Nritya). The dancer, acting as devotee, displays devotional love to the powerful Shiva. She divulges to her confidante (her sakhi) her deep yearning to achieve union with Shiva, the beloved. Describing “the unfathomable power of his cosmic dance,” she laments how overwhelmed she feels because separated from Shiva. Then dreaming that she is wedded to her Lord, she asks the sakhi to bring her Lord Shiva near. Not that the dancer becomes the channel for imagined connection, the ambience she creates makes connection more or less tangible. However, not all depends on the artist. An observer’s state of being enhances or hinders spiritual ecstasy.

The first dance segment invoked five deities or forms of the One God—those named Ganesh, Kartikeya, Shiva, Devi, and Krishna. Devotional love for elusive, playful Krishna came in complex, rhythmic footwork and elaborate movements in the longest, thirty-minute dance, the Varnam. In the Padam piece, Krishna took center stage, as a child and as one who conquers. Krishna the child pleads with his mother for freshly churned butter, and his divine strength unwinds as he kills the snake that had poisoned a lake. Inviting Krishna to come in “tiny, tiny steps”—whose feet astonish, inspire, and bring tears of joy—the dancer portrays both the devotee and the mother. To know basic story details, like when Devi Maheshwar slays a demon figure, helps a North American understand this major work of art. Then, why the goddess is praised for her energy, or how she combines compassion with power over evil, become clear. Learning to cross cultures takes time.

The intensity of the prescribed final segment, the Thillana, almost annoyed me. Perhaps because solo dancers had performed all but the opening piece, I felt confused by the return of two. Uncertain which dancer to follow, I lost concentration. Then too, the intense drumming of the mridrangist produced a fierce quality. With his double-faced drum lying flat and directly in front of the microphone, he executed wizardry with rhythms. Through technical skill, he intends to hold an audience engrossed or spellbound, enhanced by his interplay with the tonal quality of the vocalist. Uncomfortable with the loudness of sound or the perpetual pressure, I succumbed. Yielding to the surrounding powers, I nevertheless admired the synchronized movements, with dancers either side-by-side or one slightly ahead of the other. Unable to comprehend the depth of spiritual pleasure in the dance, I still valued the exposure to an art form that is important to the Hindu culture.

Felicitations earmark Indian dance events. First, the guest of honor, noted violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam, was gifted. Called “Emperor among Violinists,” his unpretentious tone and precise control of the violin are unmatched, I’m told. A composer, his score appears in the notable film Mississippi Masala. The dancers then bowed to their guru (teacher), also one of the four musicians. To revere the Shiva form surrounded by lighted candles near the front of the stage concluded an event gifted by the gods.

Whether in Chennai or Chicago, Goshen or Jaipur, the boundaries of artistic and religious cultures intersect as people receive each other’s rhythms, costumes, and stories, as performance links with the Divine.


“Bharatanatyam, the Art,” Program notes of Classical Dance Performance, Siri & Sita Sonty, Wilmette, IL, June 19, 1999.

Correspondent, The Hindu. “An enjoyable fare,” Aug. 14, 1998, 28; SVK “Deep trust in God,” July 19, 1998; “Making music,” Nov. 21, 1998, 11; “Music Festival, a Feature,” Dec., 1, 1998, A-H (11 articles/writers); “Perfect blend of philosophy and music,” Oct. 30, 1998.

Filliozat, Jean. India The Country and its Traditions. Englewood Cliffs, NY: Prentice-Hall, 1961.

n.a. “India’s cultural ambassador Ravi Shankar,” Indian Reporter, Feb 5, 1999.

Kalidas, S. “Eternal Enchantress,” Sept. 7, 1998, 83; “Flamboyant Flautist,” July 6, 1998, 66-67, India Today.

Miller, Barbara Stoler. Exploring India’s Sacred Art. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Pr., 1983.

n.a. “Search for my Tongue,” Program notes, Oct. 30, 1998.