Indian music and dance tradition retains dominance in Guyanese theatre Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
Stabroek News
May 13, 2007

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Despite the relative absence of East Indian drama in the Caribbean there is a very rich Indian tradition in the region's theatre. While plays and playwrights might not have emerged in significant numbers, there is a very strong tradition in the performing arts in the areas of theatrical acts, music and dance. These have been driven by survivals and evolutionary developments from indentureship. But more than that, by religion, deliberate efforts to preserve Indian culture, the activities of cultural, social and theatrical groups, importations from India and the local popular culture.

One of the strongest indigenous evolutionary developments is the powerful chutney tradition, which has the added advantages of hybridity, commercialisation and a place in the popular culture. The strongest in overall terms is the Indian music and dance theatre tradition. This tradition has its own strength in the place it has in religion and secular society of all classes. Music and dance traditions are sustained by religious practice, the filmi culture, a widespread interest because of the entertainment capacity, a real interest in training and the study of forms, and the development of several dance companies.

As is the case in the Caribbean, Indian dance has been kept vibrant in Guyana where it is among the most popular performing art forms. It has claimed a dominant place in Guyanese theatre with a countrywide interest in classical, folk and popular forms driven by the Hindu religion, radio, television, and the large number of occasions when these are called upon for performances, including Diwali and Arrival Day.

Perhaps the most striking performance at the Arrival Day production staged by the Indian Commemoration Commission at the Monument Gardens on Friday, May 4, was the kathak dance form exhibited by the Indian Cultural Centre. It was an excellent item illustrating the study of different forms introduced into Guyana. Of interest here is that the memorable performances from that production were not part of an isolated occurrence, but represented the customary contributions from the Indian Cultural Centre as well as from leading dance groups involved in training, research and practice of dance, such as the Dharmic Nritya Sangh of the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha led by Vindya Persaud and Trishala Persaud, the National School of Dance and the National Dance Company. It also helps that these companies perform these forms on several occasions in full annual dance productions.

Another of these outstanding companies involved in training and research is the Nadira and Indranie Shah Dance Troupe. This group has an interest in a wide range of dance traditions. Although it owes its formation and early preoccupations and development to Indian dance and music, it has long since transcended Indian forms. The troupe has an interest in the art of dance theatre and explores classical, folk, modern and chutney with inputs from different cultural traditions.

The Nadira and Indranie Shah Dance Troupe is responsible for the annual show called Nrityageet, which is actually the company's annual 'season'. It was founded in 1979 and has a remarkable record of 28 unbroken annual productions on or around May 5, as a commemoration of Arrival Day. The team of producers is led by the four co-founders, all members of the Shah family: Nadira Shah Berry, Indranie Shah Lennartson, Seeta Shah Roath (formerly Mohamed) and Bhanmattie Shah. Nadira is producer, artistic director and the main choreographer and dancer. Indranie is choreographer and dancer; Seeta is the director of Nrityageet, manager, researcher, artistic and set designer, as well as PR coordinator. Bhanmattie is the active matriarch, designer and maker of all the costumes.

The three other producers are Suzanne Shah Mohamed, a dancer and choreographer; Rajendra Shah, a dancer and music coordinator; and Rewattie Datt, dancer, choreographer and teacher/trainer of the troupe. She is, it seems, the only producer, who is not a member of the Shah family.

Nrityageet is an outstanding achievement, the result of an extraordinary show of commitment, interest and dedication by Nadira, who has been living in Barbados and the USA, and Indranie, who lives in Sweden, because of their consistent annual return to Guyana for the show, as well as the maintenance of links with the group. There are equal contributions of perseverance and endurance from those who keep the troupe together in Guyana such as Seeta, Bhanmattie and Rewattie.

The 2007 edition of Nrityageet emphasized the catholic interests of the Nadira and Indranie Shah Troupe and their efforts at outreach to dance forms and other groups. This added to the show's variety while producing lack of variety of another kind; for example, the 'Line Dance' by guest performers Terpsichorean Ballroom Dance School. It was, in fact, too much of a line to hold much interest, with the men masking the women for the entire one-dimensioned, linear choreography. Other dances such as 'Sargam' and the appearances of the Cummings Lodge Mandir Dancers were much more rewarding. 'Destiny', which is a pas de deux designed by Vivienne Daniel and danced by Suzanne Mohamed and Tishan, however, took proceedings to a considerable height, bringing together, the country's principal choreographer with one of its most promising lead dancers.

Suzanne Mohamed has grown in accomplishment as a dancer, literally growing up with Nrityageet while receiving some of her training from Guyana's National School of Dance in addition to other schools overseas. The National School of Dance was also brought in to be a part of the programme in a dance choreographed by its former student. Mohamed's artistic achievements were further on show with other of her choreographies such as the impressive 'Serenading the Cobra' which she performed. The piece called 'Sexy Back' was one of those that demonstrated the versatility of both the Troupe and Mohamed. It was a mixture of the popular with modern, making considerable demands on technique and expression. In a similar vein, the piece 'Giya' (Rewattie Datt and Stacy Singh) showed the emergence of a few others like Almasi Alleyne, Miss Singh and Rubena, who all have good potential to be lead dancers.

There were other dances, apart from those performed by Mohamed, which demonstrated the kinds of levels that those emerging dancers may aim to get to. These included 'Chandini' and 'My Loved Ones' in which Nadira and Indranie Shah appeared either together or as soloist. Nadira, in particular, has presence and a command of the stage consistent with talent, training and experience. Two dances that stood out, however, were 'My Colourful Country' and 'Ram and Seeta'.

'My Colourful Country' exhibited some of the real strengths of Nrityageet. It was choreographed by Datt, another dancer building a promising career as a product of the Nrityageet tradition and competently performed by the Troupe. The set, designed by Seeta Shah Roath, was very colourful and appropriate to the dance with its Independence Arch and the gay colours of the national flag. This very visible element of spectacle and colour is a heritage of Indian dance theatre that has been a hallmark of Nrityageet.

Equally spectacular and even more interesting as a dance was 'Ram and Seeta' by Datt and Nadira Shah. Even though the costumes worn by most of the dancers in this piece might have been a bit too close fitting so that they tended to restrict their free movement, the very element of good costuming was another inheritance from the Indian dance tradition exhibited in the show. As was the case in most of the other items, they were designed by Bhanmattie Shah, very spectacular, colourful and carefully wrought to support the plot. It was a regal performance which appeared to involve Lord Ram and his wife Seeta holding court, accompanied by corresponding images. Adaptations from the Ramayana are themes that have left a very famous legacy for Indian dance theatre.

This standard of set, costuming and research into form and theme has become a feature of Nrityageet, which has developed its own tradition over its several years of performance. The annual production has earned its place as a tradition in Guyanese theatre and as one of the institutions responsible for the strength of dance in this context. The Nadira and Indranie Shah Dance Troupe is the committed investment of three generations of one family deserving of recognition for this work. The 2007 production in tribute to the Arrivals of May 5 underscored a determination that this theatre must continue. The tradition and its audience are the beneficiaries.