(as appeared in India Currents)
Imagine this: 150 singers; on stage; clad in coordinated sarees or kurta-pyjamas. Singing Sanskrit verses and songs. An Indian choir? Brown, white, black faces. A mixed-race choir? And then 40 dancers: ballet, Indian classical, martial arts. An international music and dance event? The answer to all three questions is Yes! The name you are seeking for this presentation is “Shanti- A Journey of Peace,” presented by Dharma Civilization Foundation and dance-curated by Sangam Arts.
Its creator is Kanniks Kannikeswaran, a classical-music trained engineer who discovered the Western discipline of the Choir and set upon a mission to put the two together. Shanti was born in 2004 and since then has seen many incarnations, but with a difference: Rather than have a dedicated set of artists that travel to perform, Kanniks draws from the local community (desi and non-desi) where Shanti is being presented. Thus, among others, Cincinnati had its own; Houston its own, and now Bay Area.
Aspiring participants are encouraged to send in mp3 recordings, from which the pool of singers is short-listed. Classical training was desirable but not mandatory. What is interesting is that a significant number of the Shanti choir in Bay Area will be comprised by The Santa Clara Chorale, which is a 90 voice auditioned choir bringing “…together knowledgeable, amateur singers from a range of ages and backgrounds to study, rehearse, and perform major choral works.” (scc.org)
Of the Bay Area community, Kanniks says, “I am blown away by the fact that there is so much interest in the community. People drive long distances to make it to the four-hour rehearsals. There is the Bay Area professionalism. There is the willingness and interest to learn and go the extra mile to attain perfection. There is tremendous warmth and camaraderie. And there is no dearth of talent. The Bay Area is big; it is very different from creating the Shanti experience in a place like Cincinnati or Lehigh Valley (PA).”
The inspiration for his creations comes from an 18th century poet called Muthuswamy Dikshitar. Kanniks explains, “I am particularly fascinated by the 39 western tune inspired compositions of Dikshitar. In this set is a composition ‘Para Devate’ inspired by a Welsh tune- that used to be played by my grandmother on the Veena…This tune always touches something in me.” (kanniks.com)
The segments of Shanti form an inspired, cumulative flow, a single message, while being distinct: ‘Shivashakti’ is powerful with an energetic dance showcasing pairs of opposites. The flagship song ‘Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah’ is haunting, and one finds oneself humming along and long after. The movement ‘ashAnti’ depicting the ravages of greed and anger is evocative as the final form of delivery.
When asked why he chose to include dance; after all, a choir is about singing, Kanniks said, “When I envisioned Shanti, the picture I had in my mind was that of a large choir of Indian and Western singers in the center, an Indian orchestra on one side, a western orchestra on the other and dancers in the center, in front, and multimedia on the side. The music expresses the story, the message, the dance brings an additional dimension to the expression.” (shantichoir.org)
Usha Srinivasan of Sangam Arts is responsible for this additional dimension, which she achieved by pulling together numerous groups comprising 40 dancers in all. These include dancers with Yokayam led by Surabhi Bharadwaj; Guru Shraddha (Odissi), led by Niharika Mohanty; Xpressions (folk), artistically directed by Srividya Eashwar; Tarangini (Kathak) led by Anuradha Nag; New Ground Theater, led by Coleen Lorenz. There are also independent dancers, including Ganesh Vasudeva, Vinay Srinivasan, Navia Natrajan, and Samidha Satyam. “Sangam Arts is about creating social connections, Shanti presented an opportunity to do this on an unprecedented scale,” says Srinivasan. (sangamarts.org)
While most of the dancers and groups are established brands already, two are relatively unknown to desis: Yokayam and New Ground. What is Yokayam? It’s an exercise routine that combines Yoga, Kalaripayattu (South Indian martial art), and Bharatanatyam. Having newly moved to San Francisco, Bharadwaj realized early that neighborhood folk were looking for a good workout after a strenuous day at work- that’s how the idea originated. What helped it along was her belief that, “This way, many who have no clue about these Indian art forms and martial arts will actually end up knowing about it and begin to appreciate them!”
Bharadwaj will be presenting the pieces Surya and Buddha, along with leading Bay Area dancers. She discovered this talent pool by holding virtual auditions. Speaking about her choreography for the Buddha piece, Bharadwaj says, “Everyone is constantly in search of something which ultimately gives happiness and peace. A voice captures our attention, it energizes the body mind & spirit. We follow the voice and move as if in a magnetic field. It guides us throughout, until we find happiness and peace within us. That is eternal bliss that I’ve tried to portray in this dance.” (surabhibharadwaj.com)
New Ground Theater will be presenting Gange. Artistc Director Lorenz’s first reaction to Shanti,”…was a shared feeling of sacredness for life, its rituals, and joyful connection with others. I have always loved using an eclectic assortment of ethnic music in my own work, and I find the musical sounds and artistry of Shanti exquisitely beautiful and profound.”
About the piece, she says, “Gange is a profoundly moving composition for me! I sense both the strength and grace of Gange’s current flowing through me when I hear the music. The arms of the dancers have become very important for me in the development of the choreography, for they represent the constant flow of the Gange River . . . a symbol of the unshakeable life force in all of us…moving through the people of India and representing the natural process of life, death, and the afterlife. For me, Gange expresses the dimensions of our own soul.”
Shanti’s emphasis of community building resonated with Lorenz as well, she explains, “Because New Ground Theatre Dance Company is founded on discovering and sharing empathic connection with others through dance, Shanti felt like a kindred spirit in the faith and hope that art can help bring people and nations together in peace.”
Lorenz has also founded AUM (Arts Unity Movement), a name she especially liked because of of its namesake Aum- the primordial sound and vibration in Indian/ Hindu culture. (artsunitymovement.com)
Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF), the sponsor of the event, states on its website, “Shanti embodies the possibilities for concord amongst the world’s civilizations rather than their clash.” This aligns singularly well to DCF’s mission, which is “to promote philanthropic giving for creating academic and intellectual infrastructure for the systematic study of “Dharma”, its interpretation and application in modern contexts, in formal academic settings.” (dcfusa.org)