Rania Das moved gracefully across the stage set up on the New Haven Green Thursday afternoon, her gestures precise yet fluid, graceful and controlled. They were about practicing a tradition that began in India over 2,000 years ago. They were telling a story, about a prankster god getting into mischief. But they were also about crossing thousands of miles, halfway around the world, to make connections to people here in New Haven.
Das’s dance was part of the first Rhythm Exchange on the New Haven Green, a new series of concerts hosted by the International Festival of Arts and Ideas taking place every other Thursday through Nov. 3. Thursday’s concert featured Das performing classical Indian dance, Tiare Kahana presenting hula and storytelling, and Clifford Schloss and Avery Collins performing a set of neo-soul, including Schloss originals.
Sept. 1 will feature jazz and gospel from the Shannon Trio and Sharli Smith. Sept. 15 focuses on funk and drumming with Velez and His Band and the Lost Tribe. Sept. 29 will see bachata, dance, and musical storytelling with Baila con Gusta CT and Alexis Robbins , Friends. Oct. 13 will feature hip hop with Tang Sauce, Alyssa Hughes, Marshun Art , DJ Dooley‑O. Oct. 27 focuses on New Orleans second-line music with musicians from the New Haven Public Schools and Yale Bands, curated by Thomas Duffy, Director of Bands at Yale. On Nov. 3, the series concludes with a Día de los Muertos celebration organized by Unidad Latina en Acción.
On Thursday a group of 50 gathered at the north end of the Green, where Kahana got them out of their seats to learn the hula, and Schloss and Collins laid down suave grooves matched to the afternoon heat. Das, who started off the proceedings, is a practitioner of Bharatanatyam, ,the oldest form of classical dance” in India, as she explained before she started. Das had the widest cultural distance to travel from her art form to the New Haven Green, and she bridged that distance with ease.
,It used to be performed in temples in southern India but over time it was fully showcased to the public,” she continued, explaining further that it took three forms — nritta, nritya, and natya — which differed from one another in their steps, modes of movement, facial expressions, and whether they were performed solo or in groups. A full performance typically had eight parts, of which Das would perform three. For the first dance, an alarippu, the idea was to ,showcase steps in a certain order,” she said. ,It’s slow in the beginning, but the more you progress into the dance, it gets faster and faster, so that’s why it really starts to get tiring. When a dancer does it, they make it look very simple, but … even with those simple, basic steps, it’s really a lot of footwork. It’s tiring but it’s always worth it to perform.”
Her next piece was a shabdam, ,basically a piece of poetry,” she said. ,Through hand gestures and facial expressions, you help that poem come to life.” The poems set to dances were often about Hindu gods and goddesses. The particular dance she performed was about Lord Krishna; ,you might know him as the god with blue skin who plays the flute. He loves to drink milk.” Krishna is ,the god of protection and compassion,” but also has ,a childish side. He’s a bit of a prankster.” The first part of Das’s dance depicted Krishna stealing the saris of bathers and then watching their reactions when they realize their clothes are gone. While they are bathing, he also drinks their cream. In the dance, the bathers are annoyed when they realize what Krishna has done, but ,they can’t resist, because he’s very charming — that’s his specialty.” Sure enough, certain gestures that Das danced portrayed Krishna piercing pots to drink the cream from them. Other gestures conveyed the bathers’ helpless exasperation and disapproval.
Das’s final piece was a vasantha jathiswaram. ,Rather than focusing on the expressions, jathiswarams are steps and mudras, or hand gestures,” with the dances matched to specific melodies and rhythms. ,I hope you really enjoyed this art, because I know that I enjoyed sharing my art and my culture with the New Haven community.”
Das, who lives in New Haven and is 13, has been dancing for five years. Learning bharatanatyam has meant learning more about Indian culture as well — and about finding connections to the American culture around her.
Traditionally, bharatanatyam ,was really meant to tell the stories of deities but now it’s used in a lot of other forms. People use it for social justice and activism,” she said. But ,one reason it really called to me was because it was something that kept me close to my roots.” The dance doesn’t come specifically from West Bengal, where her parents are from, but ,it’s a well-loved art form all over the country.” Her mother went to an all-girls’ school in India, where all the students ,learned some sort of dance form.” Her mother wished the same for Rania, even as Rania recalled her saying that ,I know you’re comfortable in your own skin, you’re comfortable with your Indian identity. I just wish you had the opportunity to learn an art form like we had when we were growing up.” She found a teacher, Jaynti Seshan, in Wilton, who could teach Rania to dance.
Classical Indian music can be notoriously complex, especially for Westerners trying to play it, with rhythmic systems built within rhythmic systems that can give the pieces their structure. For dancers, however, ,really what we’re focusing on is connecting with the rhythm. Certain steps will be connected to certain instruments and their rhythm. We do have to keep the rhythm in our head, but after so many years of doing it,” it becomes second nature. Also, the more familiar Das has become with the dances, and the more research she has done, the more she has come to see how ,it’s really very similar to Western music in a lot of ways. The concepts are very similar.”
In the same way, as she has grown as a dancer, she has found ,a lot of connections between Indian dance and Western dance that I wouldn’t have noticed before,” from ballet to hip hop. She sees them in the movement of limbs, in certain held positions. ,Now when I learn K‑pop dances from time to time, I think, ,that looks like something we learned in class.” Sometimes, across cultures and continents, the sounds may be different, but the beats are the same.
The next Rhythm Exchange happens Sept. 1 on the New Haven Green at noon. Visit the website of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas for more information.