Nrityageet: Earning the Status of a Tradition

by Al Creighton

The performance of Nrityageet 25 at the Cultural Centre last weekend was a worthy tribute to the two occasions that it celebrated. This renewal of the annual production was somewhat special because it was the 25th anniversary of a dance programme that is not only a fixture on the Guyanese cultural calendar, but has earned the status of a tradition. The quality and impact of last week's performance confirmed its present stature as well as the production's suitability as a programme to celebrate the other anniversary: the first arrival of Indians from the East to the shores of Guyana on May 5, 1838.

While the show over the years has not always reached the same high standard of this most recent performance, its overall rating is respectably high, and it marks a commendable achievement for its producers, particularly given the fact that the two principal choreographers/dancers live overseas. Nrityageet is produced and performed by Nadira and Indranie Shah Dance Troup, and the two sisters after whom it is named, Nadira Shah Berry and Indranie Shah Lennartson make an annual pilgrimage to Guyana for the shows.

They are co-founders of Nrityageet, along with sister Seeta Shah Mohamed and mother Bhanmattie Shah. The full production team comprises six members in all when Rajendra Shah and the youngest member, Suzanne Shah Mohamed are included, completing a group that represents three generations of the Shah family.

It is a household already known for production and entrepreneurship in the theatre, since Cyril Shah as producer and promoter was a major contributor to the development and career of The Mighty Sparrow who became the best calypsonian the world has yet known. For Nrityageet, Rajendra Shah is a producer, dancer and music coordinator, while Bhanmattie Shah, a co-founder, is responsible for costumes.

Suzanne Mohamed grew up with Nrityageet as an apprentice in dance, receiving training at Guyana's National School of Dance as well as in Barbados and Sweden. She emerged as a prominent dancer/soloist in the troupe and is now one of its choreographers. Although, up to this point, she is best known for a number of remarkable solo performances and lead parts in the work of previous choreographers, she choreographed Jai Maa, jointly with Nadira Berry, and Butterfly, two of the better pieces in Nrityageet 25.

This, the latest production in the long, very well-sustained series was directed by Seeta Shah Mohamed, co-founder and director. Many of the choreographies were performed on a very effective, colourful set, designed by Mrs Mohamed, sometimes appropriated to the concept of the dance, at other times basically functional or merely a fashionably pretty backdrop for filmi or disco performances. She is the show's manager and publicist, but has also made other artistic contributions as director, researcher and workshop coordinator for the troupe during the year. She has acknowledged a debt to director and academic John Rollins for some valuable training received in theatre, which she has used for the benefit of Nrityageet.

Indranie Shah, as has been the case for many years, was one of the major dancers and choreographers in the anniversary production. She was responsible for Shiva Vandana, which set the tone for the show, having taken its theme from the Divine place of Lord Shiva, the most important 'dancer' in the Hindu universe. Indranie also teamed up with Nadira as dancers in Dafli Wali, which was among the most outstanding pieces in the show. It was the work of an artist who, since starting Nrityageet, has deepened her expertise and experience through further training in India and a company of her own in Sweden.

The Nrityageet tradition has also had a symbiotic existence with Nadira Shah. It launched her career and brought her to prominence while she, in turn, has brought back to its development, the considerable experience and achievements she has gained since. As artistic director, main dancer and choreographer, she has earned a reputation as one of the leading personalities in Guyanese dance while building a career as tutor in her school in Barbados, a career she aims to continue in the USA.

Again, as she has been in previous years, Nadira has been associated with the most outstanding items in Nrityageet 25, including Khajaraho, Jai Maa and Dafli Wali. On a previous occasion, she produced a dance based on research into erotic images from ancient Hindu temples, and Khajaraho is a continuation of that theme. It is an exploration of the sculpture found in temples in India, whose forms are sexual and vivid, depicting the life energy. The result was an extremely creative thought- provoking exhibition with the potential of being the most memorable item in the production. The trouble is, its strongest points became its weakest. Understandably, the lighting was subtle and containing the tones for appropriate atmosphere. But all the beautiful work comes to nought if the audience cannot see the dance, and that was almost the case here, because the lighting was too dim and the stage too dark.

This kind of investigation into culture and dance, however, is one of the things Nrityageet has come to be known for since it began to develop seriously. The anniversary performance reflected this, a factor which is consistent with its celebration of 166 years of the Indian presence in Guyana. Like many other choreographies in this and previous shows, Khajaraho was inspired by research into Hindu cosmology and Nrityageet has always reflected Indian classical and folk dance as well as forms influenced by Indian art or culture. The repertoir of the Nadira and Indranie Shah Troupe has widened to include a range of modern, interpretive and popular dance, as was seen in this show.

Prominent on stage were the filmi items as well as a highly proficient popular duet danced to country and western music. Those that made a lasting impression were the ones with some conceptual depth such as the very spectacular Jai Maa, Butterfly, Dafli Wali and, of course, Khajaraho. Nadira and Indranie displayed their best in Dafli Wali, which defined the show in many ways. The teamwork was excellent with two performers complementing each other. It had the qualities of the other very good works including the brilliant costuming, hallmark of Mrs Shah's contribution.

The many choreographers also included Abigail Allen, Rewattie Datt, Asha Bjorkman and Walter Berry. This underlined the variety which was to be found in the show, which, in its own way, traced some development in dance locally including the input of the immigrant Indian culture and its contact with other traditions. The varied programme included chutney, gospel and a lively number to the patriotic Guyanese song ArrowHead with its bright images of the national flag.

In these ways, Nrityageet 25 contributed to a demonstration of dance reflecting the upkeep of Indian traditions.

However, like the Indian Arrival Day to which it pays tribute, its items, its significance and its interests far transcend those ethnic boundaries and has much wider national importance as an historical event in nation-building. Similarly, this dance production exhibited the dance and music traditions that developed in Guyana after May 5, 1838, with and without Indian influence.

It also drew on the dance traditions of the world. While upkeeping some of the developments in contemporary dance over the 25 years of its existence, Nrityageet has itself become a tradition.

[Editor's Note: All credits to the author and Stabroek News.]

© 2001