Ephemeral, lasting impression

fter years of training in modern dance and subsequent formal training in India in Manipuri and Mayurbhanj Chhau, the techniques of Odissi came rather easy to Sharon Lowen, writes Anuradha Vellat

When I first watched Sharon Lowen, I was immediately taken over by a certain effortlessness that appeared in her abhinaya. Each expression was fleeting, ephemeral yet the grandeur of her language was such that the memory stayed.

Sharon Lowen’s tryst with Odissi began when she first visited India as a Fullbright scholar 45 years ago. Today, she is glad she left academia, travelled continents and dipped her feet in Odissi. She says, “I understood very young that you should not wait till you’re 50 and your children are all grown-up to be able to travel abroad. What if you might like to sojourn somewhere?”

Quick learner

After years of training in modern dance and subsequent formal training in India in Manipuri and Mayurbhanj Chhau, the techniques of Odissi came rather easy to Lowen. Kelucharan Mohapatra (Kelu Babu as his disciples and others fondly called him), her guru, spotted the quick learner in Lowen, soon enough to be giving demonstrations to beginners within two weeks. “He was a generous and brilliant teacher. His pedagogy was excellent. I went back to Michigan after five years in India and I wanted to see if this was self-indulgence or whether I can do something. I did wind up teaching, performing and giving over 250 lecture-demonstrations in schools. I wore out my costumes, after which I came back. As it turned out, my forte is abhinaya. It did not make sense because everyone knew that foreigners work hard and are good at pure dance but had difficulties with the abhinaya. I feel that it is very culture specific,” she adds. “Abhinaya requires you to be free. You have to imbibe all the parameters of the poetry and the art. I love diving into a text. Because of my language limitations, I developed a methodology on how to take a text and to deconstruct it, with a sense that the audience has to understand everything that I now understand, whether they know the language or not,” says Lowen. Her classes brim with Kelu Babu’s timeless choreographies like Pashyati Dishi Dishi, Yahi Madhava and Dheere Sameere. The fluidity of abhinaya in Pashyati or Yahi Madhava are some of the most difficult to master, and also some of Lowen’s favourites. Lowen also appeared in the Telugu film Swarnakamalam as herself. She was cast alongside Venkatesh and Bhanupriya. “The Ashtapadi Sakhi Hey I performed in that film is also one of my all-time favourites,” she says.

Pronounced

At the festival last year called ‘Looking Back to Move Forward’, Lowen put up an exhibition of rare photographs clicked by her during her early years in India. The photographs were of teachers, performing artistes, scholars and events from 70s and 80s. “I took two semesters of photography and a semester of video production because I wanted to document my time in India. One of my students wanted to beat the drum about how I have been here for 45 years. I did not think it mattered to anyone outside of my own circle, but, I did agree to marking it by bringing out these pictures,” Lowen says. The festival also saw discussions by eminent dancers, critics and scholars, workshops, and performances by acclaimed artistes. This year, she organised the Manodharma Dance Festival which was about developing ideas through movement inspired by text. Manodharma in itself is a concept very close to the art of Indian dance. The line-up of artistes included Lakshmi Vishwanathan, Pandit Birju Maharaj and Saroja Vaidyanathan among others. So what is her vision for the dance now? “As long as something adds value, you do it. You put one foot and the next falls in front of it. It does not matter the direction, as long as you are clear why you are doing it. I don’t take something because I think it would be popular, or because of a burning desire inside that I must explore this idea. I take something up because there is a situation that requires it,” says Lowen.

 

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