A Portrait of India

I had the incredible opportunity to choreograph yoga postures and participate in Chitram, a multimedia musical theater production depicting the unity in cultural diversity across the Indian subcontinent. Chitram is the brainchild of the highly talented & genius musician, composer and musicologist Kanniks Kannikeswaran of Cincinnati, OH. It tells the story of India’s cultural history using choral music, dances and powerful visuals. Proceeds from show will benefit EYS (Education, Youth, and Service), an initiative of the Hindu Temple of The Woodlands.

Allow me to share some of my experiences along this wonderful journey. First, here are some pictures of the yoga segment of the show.

Initial preparations

Preparations for Chitram began in September 2013, a full 8 months before the show. During the kick-off meeting with the lead choreographers and musicians, Kanniks gave a powerful and evocative presentation on the remarkable cultural heritage of India. He outlined the major themes and objectives of Chitram to effectively showcase the rich traditions of dance, music and spirituality. What his presentation did to us was amazing: we were overwhelmed with admiration towards the cultural ethos of India. We also watched video excerpts of past Chitram shows from other cities. By the end of the presentation, our spirits were soaring and the enthusiasm was sky-high! We were all eager to prepare and present an extraordinary show. I was greatly looking forward to working with Kanniks and the eminent dancers and teachers who agreed to be the “dance captains” to choreograph the different parts of the show. Chitram attracted some of the most renowned names in Indian classical dance in Houston, including Dr. Rathna Kumar (Bharatanatyam), Ms. Padmini Chari (Bharatanatyam), Ms. Supradipta Dutta (Odissi), Ms. Uma Nagarsheth (Kathak) and Ms. Pallabita Bhuyan (Indian folk dance). In addition to the dance teams, the choir group was to be led by talented singer Ms. Bhagyashree Dhavale.

For me, the enthusiasm was mixed with some trepidation. I began to wonder what have I gotten into! I had zero prior experience in choreography and here I am, about to embark on a project with great artists in the field of dance. What if I am the weakest link in the show? What if I spoil the perfectly crafted works of experienced choreographers? Thankfully, I listened to my inner wisdom that spoke encouraging words like “there is always a first time”, “the joy is in the journey”, “what a great opportunity to work with wonderful people”, and “even if you manage to mess it up, the yoga postures would still be a stunning success”.

Yoga as Art

Yoga — specifically hatha yoga — is usually associated with rigor and discipline. In fact, in the first sutra (aphorism) in the yoga sutras, Maharishi Patanjali uses the word “shaasanam”, meaning rules or discipline. An essential ingredient of yoga is “tapas” or heat, which refers to highly intense practice. Just as fire purifies and reveals the beauty of gold, tapas brings out the elegance and refinement in the yogi. Maharishi Patanjali enumerates these benefits as physical wealths in the chapter on perfection (vibhooti pada):

“Roopa lavanya bala vajra samhananatvani kaya sampat” — Beauty in form, graceful in movements, strength, and diamond-like body constitution are the physical wealths attained by the yogi.

~Maharishi Patanjali, in Yoga Sutra 3.46

Indeed, the beauty and aesthetic appeal of yoga postures and movements was that we wished to portray in Chitram.

My background (or lack of thereof) in Choreography

Growing up in Chennai, I had plenty of opportunities to witness Indian Classical Dance performances. In fact, my very own Yoga Teacher Sri Ramaswamy Subramaniam is a great connoisseur of dance. My Teacher’s wife, the eminent bharatanatyam exponent Ms. Jayanthi Subramaniam, has received numerous awards including the prestigious Kalaimamani award from the Government of Tamil Nadu. Together, they built a beautiful hall in their home to conduct yoga and dance classes. The hall hosted yoga classes in the mornings under the banner of Yogalayam, and transformed into a dance class Kala Darsana in the evening. Here is a picture of the hall from the 1990’s, with my Teacher conducting yoga class:

However, despite the abundant opportunities, my attention was focused solely on yoga and I never got around to appreciate the subtler nuances of Indian classical dance forms. Today I really wish I hadn’t squandered the opportunity.

“How I wish I made use of my time to learn about my culture” is a very common refrain among Indians who have settled outside their home country. While growing up, we took many valuable aspects of our culture for granted. As they say, we realize the value of something only when we are away from it. One of the many objectives of Chitram is to reconnect those of Indian origin to their rich cultural roots.

The yogis

Chitram brought together 46 singers and 48 dancers. Our yoga team was the largest with 15 dedicated and highly enthusiastic yogis. Most members in our team were yoga teachers with several years of dedicated yoga practice. At the same time, combining yoga movements in choreography was a new experience for most of us. Fortunately we had one experienced dancer among us, Pallabita Bhuyan, who was also the dance captain of the folk dance team.

Here are some pictures of the yoga team, just before the show

I was joined by 14 amazing yogis Krishna Allam, Pallabita Bhuyan, Rohini Chandrashekhar, Ulupi Choksi, Aniruddha Gadre, Suveena Guglani, Anu Hari, Ekaterina Jeleva, Jalpa Patel, Neeta Shukla, Elangovan Sivagnanakumar, Nitika Veludandi, Ranjan Veludandi, and Shilpi Veludandi.

Unique challenges (opportunities) for the Yoga team

During one of Kannik’s initial visits to Houston, I had a chance to demonstrate an extempore flow of yoga poses set to music. I was greatly relieved to find that he liked it; in fact he complimented me on my sense of rhythm. It felt good!

However I quickly realized that choreography for a large group of 15 people is a whole new ball game. The first few sequence of postures I put together and choreographed were wonderful in parts, but the combination failed to create a powerful synergy. The movements seemed scattered and disconnected when we viewed the practice videos. Ideally, I would like the different parts to come together like the different threads perfectly intertwining to create a beautiful fabric. For several months, we kept refining the sequence so that the harmony was brought out.

Once we decided on the sequence of postures, our next objective was to practice it several times a day to develop muscle memory. When the muscle memory is established, the flow of postures becomes easy, effortless and need very little direction from the mind. The body moves on it’s own accord. Developing muscle memory was a uphill task because we continued to refine and modify the sequence every week. In fact, we made major changes right until the day of the show. All 15 of us had to be in sync with the latest version of the flow.

These challenges were compounded by another additional subtlety. Indian classical music compositions are replete with examples where words of a line occur a fraction of a beat before or after a rhythmic cycle. For example, take a look at the notations (swaras) of a popular Bhajan “Parameshwari Jaya Durga”. In this song, each beat accommodates four musical notes. The actual words of the song begin half a beat after the commencement of the rhythmic cycle, as indicated by the two comma’s in the notation. Here is a youtube link of a rendering of the song; to help appreciate this nuance.

Our yoga music composed by Kanniks had plenty of examples of these “fractional offsets”. This presented a unique challenge to us, because some of the team members used the words as the cue and others used the beats as the cue to initiate the next movement. And so, it introduced an unintended phase shift between the team members. We realized that the best way to solve the puzzle was to use the third syllable of a word as the cue, which does fall on the start of the rhythmic cycle. We had to practice dozens of times to get it right and to bring perfect coordination. It was well worth the effort, as we began to appreciate the rhythmic intricacies in classical music.

Practice makes a yogi perfect

“Tatra sthitau yatno’abhyasah” — Practice is the constant attempt to be established in the state of yoga ~Maharishi Patanjali, in Yoga Sutra 1.13

During one of our practice sessions just four days before the event, we were curious to try the following experiment. How many rounds will it take for all of us in the team to perform the sequence error free and to be perfectly coordinated? Even a tiny mistake — such as a team member delaying a movement by a fraction of a beat, or doing a spinal twist on the wrong side — would disqualify the whole team and we had to begin again. We discovered that it took us a full 2 hours and a grueling 14 rounds before we accomplished the feat. I realized why it was so difficult to bring perfect coordination: even if each team member does the practice error free 90% of the time, the probability that all 15 of us perform error free is just a mere 20% (for the mathematically inclined: . Of course, we are assuming that the individual success or failure are independent and identically distributed (i.i.d) random variables). This was good to know as it shows that we’d still fail nearly 80% of the time as a group despite everyone being 90% confident. While we strive for perfection with our rigorous practice, we also decided it’s OK to accommodate a few errors. After all, to errr is human. And yes, we did have some in the final show, and yours truly was one of the generous contributors

During the several months of practice, we realized that the sequence of postures was a great workout for the body. Even with the thermostat set to a comfortable 70 F, most of us were sweating profusely by the end of 3 rounds. The body felt so light and agile after each session. In fact, a few people in the team were happy to report that they shed some extra pounds of body weight.

Here are some pictures from our practice sessions:

Here is a picture with the youngest yogi in the team, Nitika, doing an incredible picture-perfect king cobra pose:

The music

The music for the entire Chitram show was composed by Kanniks. The lyrics for the yoga segment started with the words “Chaitanyam sarva bhootanam”, set to Raga Bhupali of North Indian classical music (equivalent to Raga Mohanam of South Indian classical music). The lyrics were composed by the great Sarangadeva in the 13th century AD and appears in his magnum opus work Sangeeta Ratnakara. Click here to see the full lyrics and the meaning. Bhupali is a pentatonic raga where every pair of neighboring musical notes is separated by at least two semitones. As a result, the musical tension was minimum due to the lack of strong dissonance. This helped create an ambience of peace and tranquility that is perfectly suited for yoga. In fact, I greatly admired Kannik’s choice of Ragas in all segments of Chitram. For example, the dramatic and intense moments of a dance perfectly matched the strong emotions evoked by the ragas he chose.

During our practice sessions, we had our choir group practice in the adjacent hall. Our team had the unique advantage of practicing the yoga sequence with live music with the choir each week. The talented singers in the choir group also practiced for the other segments of the show. I found the music so mesmerizing that it frequently captured my mind away from our yoga practice. I had to strive very hard to focus my attention on the yoga sequence when such enchanting music was flowing in the background (I guess I should practice more Pratyahara). You can listen to excerpts of the Chitram music in the two videos from Kannik’s youtube channel here and here.

“Bhaava”: The feeling

While the technical aspects of our practice are certainly important, I wanted our performance to be much more than a mere drill that is technically perfect. I wanted the presentation to be imbued with Bhaava: great feeling. To let it speak to the heart and soul of everyone who is watching our show. How do we do that with yoga movements? Which brings up the important question — what is the feeling that we wish to communicate? What is our central message?

The answer was articulated beautifully and eloquently by Kanniks a few days before the show. Our team of yogis performed a demo of our yoga sequence before Kanniks. He gave plenty of feedback (and yes, they included a generous dose of changes to the sequence!). The most important thing he said to us was to showcase the grandeur of this rich and majestic tradition of yoga.

“Allow the audience to discover the wonder of yoga. Allow them to be inspired by yoga coming to life on stage.” ~ Kanniks

As they say, we have to cultivate the feeling in our heart first in order to express it in an authentic and effective manner. We always began our practice sessions with an invocation prayer to Maharishi Patanjali. This created a prayerful attitude and a spiritually charged environment where yoga can unfold. Kannik’s powerful words to inspire and create wonder strongly resonated with me and reminded me of Maharishi Patanjali’s famous Sutra on the four ingredients of a high quality yoga practice.

“Sa tu dheergha kala nairantarya satkara sevito drdha bhoomih” — When the practice is done for a long time, without interruption, with honor and respect, with an attitude of service, the state of yoga is firmly established ~Maharishi Patanjali, in Yoga Sutra 1.14

In fact, all art forms practiced in India is considered divine and auspicious. It’s far more than a mere entertainment. No wonder the eminent composers of music and dance are also revered as great saints. The Bhaava is all important; the technical aspects are just vehicles that convey this feeling to the audience.

The Show

On the day of the show the atmosphere was electric! We had one final rehearsal with Kanniks and the entire team and we were all set and ready to go.

We had over 1,200 enthusiastic people in the audience, including the special guest of the show, Consul General of India P. Harish. Judging from the response we received, the yoga was indeed a great success. So many people shared that they are inspired to learn yoga.

Regarding our yoga performance on stage: my memory of it is quite foggy. It feels almost like a dream… I recall very little of what we did. Thanks to the many months of practice, my body ran on auto-pilot throughout the sequence (big YAY to muscle memory!). After the show, a few in the team quipped that if they hear the music “Chaitanyam sarvabhootanam…” while in deep slumber, they’d instantly jump into the yoga sequence! I fully agree. (Nice way to set wake-up alarm perhaps?)

Looking at the pictures and the video afterwards, I noticed that the coordination in the team was just fantastic. Remarkably, the our performance was on stage far surpassed our expectations.. in fact, it was superior to all of our prior attempts during our regular practices. While there were some unintended, and thankfully very minor flaws (as I mentioned before), it was still a wonderful show. We were on cloud nine

What I do remember vividly from the show is the awe I experienced while appreciating the other dance presentations. Each group delivered a spectacular and majestic performance. There were many occasions during Chitram where I was deeply moved. All the segments came together so beautifully and it was indeed a magical experience! I made a resolution that day to attend more Indian classical dance shows in Houston. Furthermore, the choral music with 46 singers sounded as one powerful voice, transporting the listener to a different realm of consciousness. (Samadhi, perhaps?)

Click here to see pictures from the show. And here is a report on Chitram that appeared in the Indo-American News..

Wrap up

A day before the show, I was pleasantly surprised to know that I was invited to be a faculty member of EYS to teach yoga and related subjects at the temple. I readily accepted the opportunity and I greatly look forward to offering yoga and knowledge workshops at the Woodlands Temple. We are already planning to do a workshop in June 2014.

EYS faculty

I thank Kanniks for touching the hearts of countless people in his mission and for providing me the wonderful opportunity to work in the Chitram team. I also thank the dance captains, choreographers, singers, and everyone who participated in Chitram for sharing their experience and talent. I was also greatly inspired by the volunteers of EYS, true karma yogis, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make Chitram a memorable experience. I humbly offer my gratitude to each one of you. I am also grateful to all those who gave the yoga team generous words of appreciation.. we received a boatload of praise and encouragement during the last 8 months

I am indebted to Krishna Allam for nominating me as the dance captain for the yoga team. Thanks also to Anu Hari for the impeccable selection of yoga attire in pure white color, and to Neeta Shukla for the yoga mats that blend perfectly with the stage backdrop.

Finally, I am extraordinarily indebted to the 15 yogis in my team.. I greatly admire your devotion and dedication to yoga! I know I am going to sound like an old man saying this, but I am going to say it anyway: sincere & dedicated yogis like you are the true ambassadors of authentic yoga that is rooted in the 5,000+ year old rich tradition. Chitram brought all of us together and we felt a powerful sense of belonging.. as one yoga family.