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Gandhi Foundation of USA Showcases Chandalika

September 2005
Gandhi Foundation of USA Showcases Chandalika

On July 30th, almost 40 performers (dancers and singers) brought to life a spectacular telling of Chandalika at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts in Atlanta. The dance-drama was based on a story by novel laureate and founder of Shanti Niketan, Sri Rabindranath Tagore and was choreographed and directed by Sasikala Penumarthi, the founder and executive director of Academy of Kuchipudi Dance in Atlanta.

Chandalika, as presented in the Kuchipudi based dance-drama, is a story of a young girl who after being jeered by upper-caste women for trying to buy flowers, milk, or bangles from the bangle seller questions God for her being born into the lowest, untouchable caste. She is humiliated and feels sorry for herself. Until she chances upon Ananda, a Buddhist monk, who asks her for water to quench his thirst.

At first Chandalika refuses and explains to him that an untouchable cannot give him water to drink. What is interesting to note here is that earlier the same girl was attempting to buy flowers, milk without much awareness of her untouchability and questioning the discrimination. But because of everyone's insistence of her untouchability, she has now internalized the insults and is asserting it by refusing to give water to the monk.

The monk, Ananda, explains to her that all human beings are equal. He insists that she give him water, blesses her when she complies and leaves. She immediately falls in love with Ananda and is consumed by the desire to possess him. Her mother is conveniently skilled in conjuring spirits who are unleashed on this unsuspecting monk. The result is a torture and struggle for the monk, which the young woman, Chandalika, cannot bare to witness. She asks her mother to release the poor monk from the spell.

Ananda forgives Chandalika since she has already realized her own mistakes and pronounces her reborn. At Chandalika's request he also takes her as her disciple on the path to Buddha as she renounces her "untouchability."���

Sasikala's performance was moving. She managed to express different aspects and personalities of Chandalika effortlessly - her initial curiosity, followed by confusion, anguish, rage at God, and ultimately exhilaration. Her students were also impressive with their vigor, colorful costumes and timing that moved the dance-drama with a perfect pace. Nisha Nair who danced the challenging role of the mother is an impressive and confident dancer. She performed very well and held her own next to a seasoned dancer like Sasikala.���

The set was minimal but colorful and kept the focus on the dancers. Lighting was used dramatically with red, blue, orange backlighting for certain crucial scenes. It was wonderful to have a live orchestra and the talented musicians added to the energy and the dramatic effects. The vocalists were strong and varied their tempo per the scene and character.���

The original choreography of Chandalika was done by Sasikala Penumarthi's guru, Padmabhushan Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam. The Telugu lyrics were by Sri S.V. Bhujangaraya Sarma and music composition by Sri Kandula Mallikarjun Rao.

The dance-drama was a delight to watch with the minor inconvenience brought on by some of the audience members. The organizers struggled and tried to get parents with wailing children to politely take their children outside during the performance till they were calm. There were also a few audience members using flash photography and distracting dancers and attendees even after the organizers had specifically asked everyone to restrain from it. Thankfully the performance was strong enough so that such distractions did not detract from the overall enjoyment of the program.

The dance-drama was presented in Atlanta as the Gandhi Foundation USA (GFUSA)'s first fundraiser for establishing a Gandhi Center in the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic District in Atlanta. This district currently houses the Gandhi Room and a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Its theme of social justice was championed by both Gandhi and King, and is one of the primary goals of GFUSA.���

The program also included a welcome address by Giriraj Rao, Executive Director of the Gandhi Foundation of USA and special notes by Chandalika task force coordinators Dr. Ravi Sarma and Dr. Sujatha Reddy; and Dr. Uma Majmudar, a lecturer in religion at Emory University and author of the book Gandhi's Pilgrimage of Faith: From Darkness to Light. Also addressing the audience were Dr. Joy Berry, Ravi Penumarthi, Anthony Thaliath and Subash Razdan, Acting Chair of Gandhi Foundation USA.

- Alka Roy

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