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Sensational India At The Peabody Essex Museum Comes Alive!

Nirmala Garimella

On the first weekend of April every year, the Peabody Essex Museum came alive with the sights and sounds of India. This year too, the museum celebrated Indian arts and culture with the Sensational India Festival cementing the museum’s historic connection to India, which dates to 1799.

From architecture to art, education to technology, city planning to rural sustenance, India has always been an innovator in design. The museum’s annual festival – with music, dance, art making, lectures and more – explored India’s many contributions to the world of design.

Mesma Belsare, a dancer who has created a niche in the realm of classical Indian arts in Boston, performed to an appreciative audience two distinct pieces that showcased her repertoire of immense creativity -The Descent of the river Bhagirathi in Hindustani music set to raag Bhairav, a work that explored the movement of the river through different terrain reflected in the vocal " taans” and part of the Behag Varnam by TR Subramaniam: a composition that extols Krishna as a lover, savior, emancipator and a charmer elaborated in his many "leelas"/ play and replete in metaphors from nature. It was a delightful treat for all lovers of the art form.

The same evening, visitors were blown away with the performance of another leading exponent of the dance form. Awarded the title of “Jewel of India” by the Government of Sri Lanka, Rama Vaidyanathan presented a specifically commissioned repertory in Indian classical dance, accompanied by live music. Landing just an hour before from India, she amazed the audience with her choreography of Ardhanariswara emoting beautifully the complexity of movement, abhinaya and bhava of both Shiva and Parvathi that left the audience wonderstruck. This was followed by a Raasa Leela depicting Krishna with the circle of bewitched gopis dancing to his tune. Soon after the Carnatic musicians presented live an interactive demonstration to highlight the design, the form and structure of Indian classical music including the use of notes and the genesis of Ragas.

Other activities included fiber art students from Massachusetts College of Art who explored the range of fiber materials used in different media and a presentation of Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth, a fun and beautifully illustrated book by Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes. Textile artist Suruchi Kabra demonstrated some weaving techniques and talked  about her work.

PEM’s Curator of Indian and South Asian Art, Sona Datta in a special lecture discussed the inception of modernism in Indian art, focusing on PEM’s collection and the work of artist Jamini Roy, the subject of her 2010 book Urban Patua. Sona Datta presented the transformation of Bengal folk arts in the paintings of Jamini Roy and gave us a glimpse of the artist and his desire to chart an independent course.

The festival ended with DJ Yogz and DJ D-Xtreme of Boston Sound and Light Company transform PEM’s soaring Atrium into a nightclub by spinning the latest Bollywood, Bhangra and Western remixed music.

Thousands of people attended the weekend-long festival and enjoyed the museum collection and galleries while participating in the festival.

 Sensational India! is made possible in part by Samir and Nilima Desai; The Desai Foundation.


Photo 1 and 2: Bharatanatyam dancer Mesma Belsaré presents three dances that create a tapestry of images inspired by nature. Her professional dancing career includes solo performances in New York at Lincoln Center, the Asia Society and Alvin Ailey Theater, as well as The Lincoln Theater, Washington D.C., and Siri Fort and Triveni in New Delhi.

3 and 4: Awarded the title of “Jewel of India” by the government of Sri Lanka, Rama Vaidyanathan is one of the leading exponents of Bharatanatyam, a popular classical dance. At PEM, she presents a commissioned repertory to highlight the theme of design in Indian classical dance, accompanied by live music.

5. Dancers enjoy the Bollywood Dance Party on Saturday, April 5.

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