The Civil Rights Struggle in America Brought to Life With Classic Indian Dance? Yes!

1 min
Rasika Kumar of the Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose plays Rosa Parks in a Bharatanatyam exploration of the civil rights hero's epic moment on a Montgomery bus. (Photo: Courtesy of Santhosh Selvara)

For decades, Mythili Kumar, co-founder and artistic director of the Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose, has used the classic South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam to talk about contemporary topics, like social justice. Because I was in the Bay Area, I’m doing certain things!" she exclaims with enthusiasm.

Over the years, Kumar has choreographed dance pieces exploring the work and stories of voices as varied as the Indian author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Nelson Mandela, and Cesar Chavez. The company has also collaborated with modern dance troupes, Japanese Taiko drummers and a Balinese gamelan ensemble

Today, Abhinaya Dance performs I Have A Dream: Stories of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. It's a restaging of excerpts from Stories of Justice, presented in November 2018 in San Jose.

Watch Kumar's daughter, dancer and choreographer Rasika Kumar, perform her work exploring the Rosa Parks' story:

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When you think about it, there’s no reason the ancient stylistic vocabulary has to stick to stories of Hindu gods and goddesses. Kumar notes Bharatanatyam is a natural and flexible story-telling medium. "The dancer takes the form of the character, takes the expressions of the character, and with the hands, the story is narrated."

Contemporary costumes and music help, too. Working with original  music by Asha Ramesh of San Jose that blends the Carnatic tradition with jazz, the dancers tackle topics ranging from Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus in 1955 Montgomery to the arrest just last year of two African-American men at a Philadelphia Starbucks.

To Kumar, it’s all part of a continuum stretching back to the start of civil rights as we understand it today: Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign to free India from British rule.

Chaitanya Gotur, Manisha Roy, Hemavathy Arumugam, Rekha Nagarajan, and Vaishali Ramachandran perform Si Se Puede — “Yes We Can,” the United Farm Workers’ motto — about the life and activism of Cesar Chavez.
Chaitanya Gotur, Manisha Roy, Hemavathy Arumugam, Rekha Nagarajan, and Vaishali Ramachandran perform Si Se Puede — “Yes We Can,” the United Farm Workers’ motto — about the life and activism of Cesar Chavez. (Photo: Courtesy of Santhosh Selvaraj)

"Civil resistance came as a result of them following the principle of ahimsa, or non violence that Ghandi propagated in his fight against the British. So we start with Ghandi’s inspiration. Ghandi’s inspiration comes from the Bhagavad Gita. So the spiritual aspect is always there in our dance, in some form or the other," Kumar said.

The company has traveled to New Jersey, New York, Chicago and St. Louis, but Kumar prefers to stay close to home, serving audiences in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This region is rich with dance troupes serving up the classics to Indian-Americans who want a taste of home, and want their children to be exposed to this part of their cultural heritage. Kumar says there is also an appetite for dance that reflects the audience's American heritage, reflected and elevated through the sights and souths of Bharatanatyam.

Abhinaya Dance Company performs I Have A Dream: Stories of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center April 27, 2019. For more info, click here. Also, at the Cowell Theater as part of the SF International Arts Festival on May 25, 2019. For more info, click here.

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