In a Festival of Lights, Emeryville youth dance with Indian legend

on October 22, 2009

Eighth-grader Willie Lewis used to be one of the stars of the show, but tonight he was here as a spectator and critic. Sitting in the back row of the performance room at the Golden Gate Public Library, the round-faced boy watched the stage intently as his younger brother, Joseph, dressed in a blue printed Indian gown, wrapped a string of tiny bells around his thin ankles in preparation for the night’s performance.

The bells, Willie explained, are for marking the beats of the dance. The better a dancer you are, the more bells–or ghunghroos, as they are known in India–you wear. Professional Indian dancers will sometimes have hundreds of ghunghroos around their ankles. “The most I got to have was 50 on each foot,” Willie said, a hint of pride in his voice.

The dance performance took place this Tuesday night, in celebration of the Indian holy day Diwali, or Festival of Lights, the biggest of all Indian holy days that marks a new cycle in the Hindu calendar. In the East Bay, celebrations of Diwali take place in a variety of settings, from private homes and Indian temples in Oakland, Fremont and Berkeley to, in this case, the Golden Gate Public Library on San Pablo Avenue.

Up on the stage, the troupe of dancers performing that evening – four students from Emeryville’s Anna Yates Elementary School who take Indian dance classes in an after school program – were stretching their limbs.

Joseph, who like his older brother Willie is half Salvadorian and half African-American, was practicing a spin on his right heel, accompanied by two spritely African-American girls.

“Those are real hard.” Willie said about his brother’s move. “The big thing about Indian dancing is the footstep. There’s a lot of different footsteps.”  On stage left, the dance teacher nodded approvingly at her disciple, while her deft, ringed hands kept the rhythm on the Tabla drums.

Indian dance first came to the Golden Gate Library about ten years ago, librarian Sharon Vaughn said, when the library staff noticed a surge of Indian kids who would stop by after school and wanted to know more about their culture. The librarians learned about Diwali, and decided that celebrating the holy day was something the library should do to recognition of the Indian presence in the area. Around the same time, the library also received a grant to buy a collection of books, DVDs and CDs related to Indian culture.  At first there was a large concentration of Indian immigrants and their families, Vaughn said, but lately it’s “becoming more mixed.”

And six years ago, the young dancers from Anna Yates became a fixed attraction for the annual Diwali celebration.

“It helps bring people together who normally wouldn’t be together,” Vaughn said.

Arvind Kumar, an accountant from Northern India who has lived in the Bay Area for 15 years, said he regularly attends the Diwali celebration at Golden Gate Library, and it is “very exciting” to see the dancers “do something that is not part of their normal life style.” For Kumar, there is nothing weird about seeing a group of African American and Latinos perform a traditional Indian dance.

“Art is not confined to any particular group of people,” he said in a phone interview. “Art is something universal.”

Willie Lewis was a second grader at Anna Yates when he began taking classes in Kathak, a classical Indian dance originally designed as a religious and theatrical form and later popularized as a lay dance. And though Willie was probably too young to fully appreciate it, his teacher, Purnima Jha, happened to be one of the biggest figures in the world of Kathak dancers, and her father and mentor one of the gurus of the art form in the 20th century. Imagine a second grader in India taking lessons in American country music from Hank Williams Jr. and you’d start to get the idea, except the Kathak tradition goes back some 2,500 years.

Purnima Jha was born in India, in what she calls the “foothills of the Himalayas,” the youngest daughter of Natraj Shanker Dev Jha, whose title, Natraj, means Lord of Dance. Jha, who has lived in the East Bay for 25 years, has had a brilliant career as a Kathak dancer, choreographer and scholar. For the past six years she has taught elementary school kids in Emeryville the fundaments of Indian classical dance. To Jha, this is a way of “capturing the tradition and passing it on to a new generation.”

Jha’s dance classes at Anna Yates Elementary are funded through Kala Art Institute, a non-profit that organizes artists in residency programs, exhibits and art education programs. Kala’s art education programs, offered to schools in Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville, are funded through grants, private donations and, at least until the budget cuts last year, school participation.

Archana Horsting, executive director and co-founder of Kala arts, said she believes the importance of Jha’s teachings goes far beyond the dance, and can have a tremendous effect on the children’s self-confidence. The Indian dance classes are only offered to elementary students right now, but Archana hopes they will be able to expand the program in the future, so students can continue learning throughout middle and high school.

At one point during Tuesday’s performance, Jha looked up from the drums and led the audience in a countdown as Joseph and the two girls performed twenty one of the “real hard” spins in a row, a feat that drew a long round of applause from the audience packing the small room.

“There is something magical about what Purnima brings,” she said. “To know that you can do something really well gives you a huge leap forward.”

Her troupe of young dancers has performed at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, the Oakland Museum, the Museum of Asian Art, the Women’s Museum and at Emeryville City Hall, among other venues.

“It doesn’t have to be in India,” she said. “It can be here. And they carry on. As long as they have the desire.”

Neither do they have to be Indian. At the Tuesday night’s show there was a predominance of African American kids, but Jha said that sometimes, “the stage is like, 15, 20 kids of different cultures.”

Back on the stage on Tuesday night, the performance was about to start. The young dancers sat down, legs crossed and eye-shadowed eyes closed. Jha, sitting by Tabla drums, observed her pupils, while to her left Brian Wallace, a blond musician in a flowing white robe quietly strummed the Sarod, a string instrument that produces a sound similar to a sitar.

From the audience, Willie Lewis explained that meditation was a big part of Jha’s dance classes. And though it sometimes means sitting quietly and unmoving for up to ten minutes at a time, Willie said meditation wasn’t “that hard.”

Jha says it’s important that her students understood all aspects of Kathak: the language, the music, and even the mythology.

“Dance, anybody can do it,” she said, with a smile. “But education and dance, putting it together. That takes a little effort.”

She called Joseph over and the two performed an impromptu vocal drumming game, in which the boy had to repeat the beats sang by his teacher. After they were done, Jha explained that this call and response game, known as Padhant Layakari, precedes the use of Tabla in Indian music. “Nobody created it,” she said. “Basically, it’s the sound of the universe.”

Jha recalled that six years ago, when she first played the Tabla and chanted to her new pupils at Anna Yeats Elementary, their reaction was to ask if she was a rapper.

“They said, ‘Wow, it sounds like…You rap, Mrs. Purnima?”

Yes, Jha replied, she did. “I do ancient rap,” she said.

Half-way through the dance, Joseph and the two girls were frozen halfway through a complicated movement, and for a few seconds they stood still, balanced in one foot, their arms in mid-air, while the music went on in a crescendo. They kept a smile on their young faces even as their calf muscles throbbed, their heads bobbing to the sides in a way reminiscent of a bird. When the movement was over, the audience exploded in applause.

Willie Lewis sat watching, and in his face there seemed to be pride for his younger brother’s feat, and perhaps also a touch of jealousy. Willie moved to a different school two years ago; he’s no longer in Mrs. Purnima’s class. Now it is through his brother, and through his memory, that Willie maintains contact with the strange world opened up to him by the Kathak classes:  a world filled with stories about powerful she-gods and demons, bright costumes and makeup, music and dancing.

“I miss it sometimes,” he said. “Seeing everybody go up there, people cheering. Yeah, I miss it.”

1 Comment

  1. Abhi Uppal on October 22, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    Great piece, captures the inclusive and celebratory spirit of Diwali!



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