The Shakers and Tagore Dance – Leslie Friedman – India 1984

The Shakers and Tagore Dance – Leslie Friedman – India 1984

     December, 1983. I arrived in India, a Fulbright Lecturer affiliated with Viswa Bharati University, West Bengal. It is Nobel Prize poet Tagore’s university. Mrs Das Gupta from Fulbright/Calcutta took me to the train to Santineketan. A gorgeous carriage met me. Dance Department Directors, men in colorful, exquisite costumes, greeted me as though I were an ambassador from another world. They departed in their carriage.

     I thought I would teach, perform, or observe Tagore style dance classes. No invitations came. I learned the dance gurus were protecting their students and Tagore’s art from me.  After a few days, four art students approached me. They wanted to know what I do, what my music is, would I dance there? Students of graphic design, textiles, writing, they were irate that I came from around the world but they would not see my work. The writer asked what I needed to do a show. Did I have music? Yes, on cassettes. They could find a cassette player. Costumes? In my backpack. Space? I paced a space in the dusty ground. They walked me to the print studio. Could I do it there? Sure.

      They posted announcements across the campus. They told me when to arrive. They seized the building.

     Students sitting on the floor filled the room. As I danced, I saw faces in open windows. Unable to squeeze inside, students stood on boxes to watch through windows. The program went smoothly. When I began my dance, Johannes Kepler’s Dream, the lights went out. Boom box batteries kept playing music, so I kept dancing. Then, lights appeared like twinkling stars as students turned on flashlights. The costume was a champagne colored dress with a flowing lace covering.  A turn allowed me to see the concrete back wall where flashlights cast swirling shadows of lace. It seemed I was flying. The students went wild with applause and pride that they had saved the program. The student producers were immensely pleased by their success and the serendipity of lace and light.

     Invited to return to Viswa Bharati near the end of my trip, I wondered if I would see the art students. They were there. We went for a ride on a bullock pulled cart. As I traveled to perform and teach, I had studied Tagore. This time at Viswa Bharati I performed and talked about my dance on a raised platform before a giant audience. The dance gurus beamed approval. I heard they felt they had seen the living spirit of dance in my previous presentation. Our different arts had permeated each other. I quoted a Tagore poem about art. I described Martha Graham’s work, Appalachian Spring, and the Shaker Hymn which Aaron Copeland incorporated into his score. I recited part of the song knowing that I had “come down where I ought to be.” The writer, racing onto the platform, said he loved my dance, the music, and the Shaker Hymn. I gave him the cassette; I keep glowing memories.

Leslie Friedman – Fulbright to India 1984

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1 Response

  1. Dennis Parks

    Thank you for this beautiful recollection.

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