creative:impact - The universal language of ancient Indian dance and theater
Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.
ABOUT SREYASHI DEY:
Project Artistic Director, Choreographer and Dancer, Sreyashi is one of the foremost exponents of Odissi in the US, and the Founder and Artistic Director of Srishti Dances of India and Akshara.
Previously also an exponent of Bharatanayam, as a thoughtful artist, she constantly expands her creative horizons with new choreographies and collaborations across artistic genres. She regularly tours the US and has performed all over the world - in Europe, Asia and India.
Her work has been critically acclaimed by well-known critics in leading newspapers and magazines in the US, such as the New York Times, as well as in leading media in India.
She has been the recipient of several awards, notably the Harry Schwalb Excellence in the Arts, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and several premier foundations in the US. Sreyashi’s new works have been prolific, with a range of creative excellence and depth.
Lately, her new dance works native to the digital medium have garnered widespread appreciation and reach across the world.
Sreyashi’s educational background includes an MS in Economics and an MBA, with parallel careers in marketing, University of Michigan administration and non-profit.
Deb Polich: This is 89 one WEMU, and it's time for creative:impact, WEMU's exclusive and award-winning show featuring the artists, creative people, businesses and organizations impacting creatively Washtenaw County's quality of life, place and economy. I'm Deb Pollack, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host. Let's welcome today's guest. Sreyashi Dey is the artistic director, choreographer and dancer of Akshara. Her company draws inspiration and works across a range of ancient Indian artistic genres. Sreyashi, welcome to creative:impact.
Sreyashi Dey: Thank you, Deb. It's a pleasure to be here.
Deb Polich: I'm excited to have our conversation. You know, we've known each other for a little while, but I would love you to share your story. How did you get introduced to Indian dance and theater?
Sreyashi Dey: Yeah, well, it goes back a long way. So, my childhood and teenage years were spent in India. I was born and raised in India, and, from as far back as I can remember, I've been very passionate about dance, any kind of dance. And around age seven is when I started formal, classical Indian dance lessons. And that's something that's stayed with me through my life. And that was my early introduction. I started learning, performing and then, eventually, made it one of my careers. It's not the only thing I do, but it's definitely a very important part of my life and my work.
Deb Polich: You mentioned taking courses. Is traditional Indian dance a kind of a folk engagement with people in India, or is it almost only through formal courses that you learn the art form?
Sreyashi Dey: Yeah, that's a really good question. So, there is a big distinction--a very clear distinction--between classical dance and folk dance in India. So, classical dance is....well, they say that we can trace their roots back to over 2000 years ago. And it's a tradition that, of course, has changed over time. It's not what we practice today isn't what it was 2000 years ago, but it is codified. There are texts, there are temple carvings, there are some living traditions, and all these come together to form the technique and the content and the grammar of the classical dance does. So, it's similar to, let's say, ballet in the West.
Deb Polich: Okay.
Sreyashi Dey: And there are formal classes that you have to take classical. That isn't something that you would just learn in the community and just start dancing, that you have to go through a formal period. And it does take a long time. So, you know, in a lot of cases, it's maybe around even ten years before you can even acquire some competency to start performing in a meaningful way. Folk dancers, on the other hand, are just that. There are community dances. And they are not seen as often in urban areas and in cities, but they are more focused in...I mean, they just exist more in rural areas or, you know, in rural communities. But that's a different genre of dance altogether.
Deb Polich: Okay. That's really helpful. And so, as the founder and artistic director of Akshara, tell us what the mission of that organization is.
Sreyashi Dey: Yeah. Thank you for asking that. So, I founded Akshara as a multi-art company. In the past, when I lived in Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, I had an arts company that was focused solely on dance, and that was a performing arts company--touring company. So, when I moved to Ann Arbor, I wanted to retain that aspect of my work from before. But I wanted to add other arts and other genres of art to the work that we do. So, Akshara is established as a multi-arts company, which means it spans across performing arts, visual arts, literary activities, sometimes even culinary. So, it's film, you know, media, film, all of this.
Deb Polich: And is it....I'm so sorry.
Sreyashi Dey: No. Go ahead.
Deb Polich: Is it all inspired by Indian forms of those art forms?
Sreyashi Dey: Yeah. So, actually, we wanted to go a little bit broader than just India as a country, so it was focused more on the entire South Asia region. And there are actually seven countries that comprise South Asia. So, there's India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan...I'm trying to count the countries. So, in some cases--I don't know if I counted all seven or not, in some cases, Afghanistan is also included, but may or may not be. So, anyway, you get a sense for that area.
Deb Polich: Truly international.
Sreyashi Dey: Yeah, but it's still South Asia. And India happens to be the largest country in South Asia. So, you know, we end up doing a lot from India, but we are definitely open to all the South Asian countries. And we actually have had performers from Pakistan and from Bangladesh as well. Yeah.
Deb Polich: 89 one WEMU's creative:impact continues. I'm Deb Polich, and my guest is Sreyashi Dey, whose company Akshara is inspired by South Asian art forms. So, you've produced and presented the Rasa Festival--if I said that right--in our community and also in India for a number of years. And I understand that after presenting it virtually during the COVID years, you are back live on stage and premiering a new performance piece that's titled--I'm going to try to say it--Shikhandi?
Sreyashi Dey: You're right, Deb.
Deb Polich: Did I say it right?
Sreyashi Dey: Yes, you did. You did a great job with all the presentations. Thank you.
Deb Polich: I've been practicing. Tell us all about this piece. It's really contemporary. It's a contemporary subject, but told through ancient means, right?
Sreyashi Dey: That's exactly what it is. So, one of my interests is to reexamine and explore some of the Indian myths for more contemporary interpretations and a new look at them. Because, sometimes, what happens is there are very modern and very contemporary themes that are present in these very ancient myths. But due to social norms and traditions over centuries, they kind of get told in those stories, and those myths get told in a certain way that are more consistent with the social norms.
Deb Polich: And what's this story?
Sreyashi Dey: So, this story is actually a really complicated story. I probably don't have time here to go to all of it.
Deb Polich: Give us the high point.
Sreyashi Dey: Yeah. In short, it's about a character from the Indian epic of Mahabharata, and this is a character whose story unfolds over two books. So, she was born as Amba in her one birth, she goes through a lot of marginalization and injustices and seeks to take revenge on the main character that is the cause of a lot of her marginalization and is born again. But then, there is the twist in terms of gender fluidity, because, when she's born again, she is born a female, but she's raised as a male. And then, she has a transformation into a male, and then they live their lives as a male. But then, the gender is ambiguous, and Shikhandi is then a very important character in the huge battle of Kurukshetra that takes place and is responsible for turning the course of the battle and eventually everything that happens. So, it is the ambiguity of the gender of, you know, everything is very liminal.
Deb Polich: So contemporary. So important to all the conversations that we're having these days. So, we've just got a minute or so left. Can you give us the details--the where and when--about this year's Rasa Festival?
Sreyashi Dey: Yeah, the Rasa Festival this year is going to be at the Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti, and it's on the 23rd of September. It's at 6:30 p.m. And that evening, we will have this performance of Shikandi, and we also have a classical vocal concert with a visiting artist from India with two other local musicians.
Deb Polich: Well, it's sure to be an inspiring and enjoyable festival. Thank you so much for sharing some of it with us. And I don't know if this works in India language, but break a leg.
Sreyashi Dey: Thank you, Deb. I really enjoyed talking to you, and I hope people come and watch us.
Deb Polich: That's Sreyashi Dey. Find out more about her and her company, Akshara, and the Rasa Festival at WEMU dot org. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host. Mat Hopson is our producer. We invite you to join us every Tuesday to meet the people who make Washtenaw creative. This is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.
Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support. Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.