Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Matt giving his impressions of Orissa to a reporter from a local TV station
Lauren and Liz
On 31st December 2009, we visited the famous tomb of Saint Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi. Nizamuddin was a Sufi (the inner, mystical element of Islam) Muslim saint of the 14th century. Side by side his tomb is the tomb of Amir Khusru, one of India's greatest Muslim poets. It was a transformational experience. The Pir (chief warden) of the tomb, a direct descendant of Saint Nizamuddin, personally received us and took us inside the tombs. He allowed us to touch the tombs, which were covered with flowers and scarfs. He picked up some scarfs that had been gifted by worshippers and wrapped it around our necks. We prayed together inside the tombs. Outside, Kawali music (a local form) was being played and then the loudspeakers called the noon prayers.
The shrine gets visitors from all faiths, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians. It feeds hundreds of poor people from different faiths every day, and several thousands per day during the holy month of Ramadan. We ended our tour with a sit down snack meal with the Pir. Many of us had never been to an Islamic shrine before and none of us had entered a Sufi shrine. In an era when media reports keep stressing the radical extremist face of Islam, one wishes more people would visit the Nizamuddin Shrine and learn about Sufism. It can dispel lots of myths about Islam. I was reminded of a couple of lines from Gandhi's favourite hymn: "Ishwar, Allah Tere Nam: Subko Sanmati de Bhagwan". Translated roughly as: "Your name is Ishwar (Hindi for god/lord) or Allah, Oh Lord, please bless everyone with this wisdom."
A leading daily newspaper of Orissa, Dharitri (the Earth), carried three stories about the visit of the American University (SIS Intersession Study Abroad India) students to India. Here are brief summaries:
The main story headlined: “American Students Visit Ravenshaw”, says that the Registrar of Ravenshaw University (Mr Malay Mohanty, fifth from left, the photo also shows Mr Subrat Singhdeo - who was the India coordinator- to the extreme left) received a delegation of students from American University who are in India as part of a course on human security. They first spent a week in Delhi and then visited several places in Orissa: including Bhubaneswar, Puri, Konark before coming to Ravenshaw University. The delegation is guided by American University Prefessor Amitav Acharya and includes seven students (all the names in Oriya language are given). 50% of the assessment of this course will be based on interactions and site visits.
The next story (to the right) is headlined “Acharya Chamber Very Attractive”. It describes the donation of some 330 books on international relations made by Prof Acharya, an alumnus of Ravenshaw and currently professor at American University, since 2007 to the Kanika Library of Ravenshaw University. These books are part of a special collection which the newspaper calls Acharya Chamber of International Relations Book, which is housed inside the Library. According to students, from this collection of books on international relations, one can get much information about other countries of the world. On this visit, Prof Acharya made a further donation of 20 books which included Barak Obama’s bestseller, “Dreams of My Father”, as well as Prof Acharya’s own recent book, “Asia Rising”.
The inset news item quotes American University students saying that Orissa is very calm and quiet compared to Delhi. It is very hard to do research in Delhi because it’s so crowded. There is no such problem in Orissa.
As background, Ravenshaw University (www.ravenshawuniversity.com) traces its origins to 1868. It was founded as a college by the then British Commissioner of Orissa, T.E. Ravenshaw, who was concerned about Orissa’s development after a major famine struck the region, killing hundreds of thousands of people. It has since evolved into one of the oldest and most famous educational institutions in India. The University is where almost all the political, academic and administrative leaders of Orissa were, and still are, educated.
What a fitting backdrop for educating ourselves on human security! Famine, education, achievement, all come together at this institution.
P.S.: Professor Acharya studied here for his BA from 1976 to 1980 and lived in the East Hostel, which is adjacent to the main building.
Monday, January 11, 2010
Saturday, January 9, 2010
One of the most fascinating aspects of the culture of the state of Orissa, besides its long-standing, well-preserved historic temples, its distinct culinary flavor, the hospitality of the people, is its dance. The traditional dance of Orissa is a language as well as it is an embodiment of religious stories. We were fortunate enough to attend, on this short trip, two fantastic acts: the Odissi dance performance of the Orissa Dance Academy, and the Gotipua acrobatic dance performed by the young boys from the artisan village. Both were captivating, exhilarating and inspirational in their own ways.
We went to visit the Orissa Dance Academy at around 7pm on Wednesday, when night dance classes were still taking place. On walking through the gate, I got a peak at a group of young dancers rehearsing their routine. They stepped in unison as the teacher clapped his hand to keep rhythm. Our interaction with the Dance Academy allowed us to learn about the single stances and dance moves in each act and what they represent. With regards to content, there are two main types: the one that tells the stories from religious tales and the pure act that focuses more on the ensemble of moves. In religious dances, three principal and most common steps are: the tribhanga (derived from the pose of Lord Jagannath, patron lord of Orissa), the bhramari, and the khandi. Each of them has multiple variations that were singly demonstrated to us by the dancers. A sense of continuity and perfection was felt throughout each act because there is one move that connects all: whether it be the flute-holding posture of Lord Krishna, the mirror-holding in the hands of the female dancer, or peacock pose.
The technicality requires not only stamina but also a great deal of full-body coordination and balance. The eyes and their movement play an important part in the dance, for the emotions they reflect and exude. Another aspect that kept me watching was the sparkling and delicate outfit of the dance crew, which helped enhance the visual effect greatly. We watched the dancers with much admiration and excitement, camera flashing, eyes wide open and smiles lingering. I pondered upon how amazing it is for the people to be able to preserve such a beautiful cultural element, which has taken and will take generations for its continuation.
It is a tradition that has resisted the powerful absorption power of globalization. It is for the pride, the respect and the endearment for this culture from each dancer that keeps Odissi dance from being essentially commercialized, lost or forgotten. Had money been the motivator, the dance masters would be putting its tradition at the mercy of market preference, which will not stand the test of time. Instead, these dance masters certainly has a long-term vision in mind. These days, dance groups like the Orissa Dance Academy travel the world to introduce their culture and tell their stories. The younger dancers will dance until around thirty years old, when they become a dance teacher and continue the cycle, passing down their knowledge and passion for Odissi dance.
The six Gotipua boys came to us at our resort in Puri showcasing their talents for acrobatic dance. Most of them are 5-12 of age, but the level of discipline, concentration and resilience they display were quite respectable. Their act spanned 45 minutes, with remarkable coordination, leaving us all at awe. Each has a role to play in marking it a successful performance, but you could spot out a couple that really anchored the act. They did tumbling, body-staggering, and everything in between. Once again, the full-body coordination and the articulate eye movement still characterize and distinguish these Indian dances to any others in the world. What I found interesting, as my first impression told me, was that these boys dressed like girls; and I felt guilty of mistaking them for being girls. Upon my inquiry, it turned out that the dance is a boy-only given this traditionally patriarchic society, not for the reason that the girls’ body cannot handle the movements. These boys have also traveled to Europe and California to perform and have had some stage experience. At the end of the act, we gave them some a couple hundred rupees to “encourage” them in their effort, but as told, the money would be evenly shared among them. Indeed, the dance wouldn’t have been as good without any single one of them.