When Suresh Goel, Director-General of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), invited me to choreograph the finale pieces on both days of the ICCR Africa Festival, little did I realise what a fun time I would have working with African dancers and musicians. Each of the six groups — from Zambia, Seychelles, Ghana, Senegal, Sudan and Mali came with different skills, representing diverse cultural heritage, different instruments, traditions and amazing dance steps. As a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, I was able to enter into the spirit of each of the groups and was able to eke out their best in the finales.
The first set of countries were Zambia, Seychelles (both from Eastern part of Africa) and then Ghana from the west.
The Zambian cultural dance troupe was built around the motto of ‘One Zambia’, representing different tribes and cultures of that nation. To the beats of robust drumming, five amazing male and female dancers demonstrated pelvic muscle movements that one never thought was possible.
Seychelles — the melting pot of immigrants — presented two dance traditions based on its history. The first was the European inspired ball room steps of the ‘burra sahibs’. With nimble footwork to the melodic strain of the violin and a full drum set. These dances yielded to a second section, highlighting more native African jiving — the dance of the slaves with bamboo sticks, baskets, and other interesting pops. The dancers wove interesting narratives into their dance with wooing and playing the mating game being the main themes.
The Ntentan Dance Company from Ghana aims at preserving traditional dances for posterity. Eric explained to me that ‘Ntentan’ is an Akan dialect which literally means ‘web’. In the context of the dance company, ‘ntentan’ symbolised the emphasis of skillful dancing. And wow! Were they skilled! With syncopated swaying to the beat of drums and other hand-held percussion instruments, the dancers truly let go.
In the finale for these groups, I worked on tandem percussion across three sets of tribal and modern drums. The rhythms were then translated with dance movements that depicted the culture of their native cultures. The finale was a blast!
The second day was more difficult for me since the dancers only spoke French, a language I do not know. Yet the challenge to transcend words and use the language of the body was easily met by both sides. The countries were Senegal, Sudan and Mali.
From Senegal came La Linguere, a group with deep national history, having been founded by their national leader and poet Leopold Senghor. Their high voltage movements to heavy rhythms made for a grand opening act.
From Sudan came a story telling tradition. The Sudan Folklore Group presented folk narrative tales about Fatima the beautiful who plays the role of matchmaker and outwits evil.
From Mali came the most exquisite vocal voices that sang with such clarity in soprano. Those women artists were fabulous. And their range of percussion instruments was so varied.
For their finale, I chose the Malian voices and created a swaying finale with the three groups merging their energies into the ocean of melody.
To me as a classical Indian dancer, what amazed was the ability of our training to understand the other and comprehend it easily in our terms.
The writer is founder-president of Natya Vriksha, Delhi.
She is both a performer and teacher.