Negotiating Cultures

Photo Courtesy: Susil Pani

by Sylvana Duarte

India and Brazil are geographically so distant and belong to such different historical, religious and philosophical traditions that, at first, they seem to have nothing in common. However, that is not entirely true. A closer and more careful look can reveal several similarities between the two countries. The similarities bring it closer while the differences, despite causing initial strangeness, arouse, at the very least, curiosity and fascination towards “the other’s” culture.

Over centuries of colonisation, Brazil staged the fusion of different cultures. Such blending has formed what defines the country today: a mosaic of peoples, cultures and beliefs. One of the most fascinating examples of popular religious and artistic expressions derived from Brazil-Africa cultural syncretism is “Dança dos Orixás” (Orixá Dance) – dance style of spiritual nature, devised by a Brazilian dancer called Augusto Omolú. Omolú codified this dance style under the watchful eye of his Guru or Pai de Santo*, as he liked to call the Italian playwright, Eugenio Barba (Odin Teatret). Orixá Dance, among so many other traditional Brazilian popular dance styles, is a clear example of the fascination that art filled with spiritual meaning operates in Brazilian people who tend to value celebrations of life, of nature and of the holy. This may be the reason why Odissi Dance has sparked so much interest, curiosity and enchantment in Brazilian audiences when it first appeared at cultural centres in Brazil in the early 90s, featuring some renowned dancers such as Sanjukta Panigrahi, Madhavi Mudgal, Sharon Lowen and Sonal Mansingh.

Here, I share a memorable encounter between Afro-Brazilian dance and Odissi dance in the 90’s, led by Sanjukta Panigrahi and Brazilian dancer Augusto Omolú, developer of “Dança dos Orixás”.

The meeting arranged by Eugenio Barba aimed at creating an opportunity to discover and raise a range of possibilities in Omolú’s dance expertise (elaborating and codifying), thanks to the wisdom of another tradition, more ancient and elaborated, Odissi. The only communication means between Sanjukta and Omolú was stage language, since she did not speak Portuguese and he did not speak English. The challenge was to create a scene together. Júlia Varley describes the experience in her own words: “Sanjukta began to improvise, moving from the representation of an elephant to one of a peacock, from Radha to Krishna, from a snake to a demon. Omolú followed her, transforming from Oxumaré to Nanã, from Iemanjá to Ossãe, from Iansã to Ogum… In order to signal each character change, she would turn. Together, they found an artifice he could use: a procedure that resembles “trembling”, something like a slight loss of balance, leaning backwards which signals the moment a devotee becomes possessed by an Orixá (deity). When Omolú switched characters, it was as if the “trembling” fused a new energy within his body.” The improvisation and dialog exercise between Sanjukta and Omolú is a beautiful narrative of how arts are a privileged means of culture approach and how much, once sensitized to “the other’s” experience, we can creatively find our own paths in making art.

In the last two decades, Brazilians have shown growing interest in Odissi performance and practice, attracted by its sculptural and lyrical form but mostly by its dramatic, philosophical and spiritual aspects. The spiritual context of Odissi dance is easily incorporated by Brazilian students who can identify in this art the same human and universal values found in their own artistic and religious expressions. While both cultures differ in their artistic expressions, from another point of view they come close and share the same values.

From the many students who begin their studies, only a few live up to the demand of energy and time that the practice requires. Those who persist practicing become acquainted with the technique. Once that happens, they step into the expressive dance universe, engaging with one of the most exciting stages of the study, which is the investigation of the countless meanings of the symbols found in Indian mythology. In addition, the most significant task in this study is the observation of how the symbols interact with us in our daily lives, and especially what influences they operate over our view of the world and our self-awareness. Fortunately, we can find excellent references about the study of Myth in the Western World, such as Mircea Eliade, Heinrich Zimmer and Joseph Campbell.

Within the stages of Odissi instruction, I believe that the most challenging one is to identify the gestures, the manners and the movements that depict a native of Orissa. How do they walk? How do they talk? Which are the gestures that identify them? How does an Oriya represent a Radha or a Krishna? How gracefully does this Oriya body translate them? In which ways does femininity and masculinity, with all Oriya body nuances, awaken my own gesture and movement to a not yet experimented inner grace or vigour? These and so many other questions to be observed in Odissi dance study made me believe that the greatest contribution that art can offer to us is the benefit of the everlasting “self discovery.”  Art is a journey to the inner self!

That, and so many other contemplative essays about “the other’s” art, compels us to revisit our own way of being and re-evaluate our many values, so many times forgotten. I am now reminded of the poet and essayist Octavio Paz, in his prose poem called Liberdad bajo la palabra, (Freedom over the word, literally), when he says: I invent the friend who invents me, my fellow man (…)
*Pai de Santo is a male priest of Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda.

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