Austin Dance India Calls on Us All to Respect Mother Earth
Multimedia, multicultural production Sacred Earth Stories appeals to the heart
In 80 years, sea levels might rise one to four feet. In just 30 years, the Arctic is expected to be near ice-free. But climate change is not something of the future; it is already here in the form of more intense earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, and rising global temperatures. Unfortunately, much of the world is still turning a deaf ear.
Anuradha Naimpally believes those who don't listen with their brain might listen with their heart. Looking at ancient cultures that saw Earth as a life giver and revered it as a goddess, she saw that whenever the world was treated badly – by, say, deforestation or pollution – the Earth goddess would cause destruction. For example, Naimpally says, "People in Peru and Incan tribes believe that when humans create havoc on Earth, [the goddess Pachamama] will cause earthquakes to show her displeasure." For Naimpally, the way to prevent further destruction is to give Mother Earth high importance again, allowing the gods to rest and nature to go back to the peaceful state in which it's supposed to be. Thus came the idea of Sacred Earth Stories.
Naimpally envisioned a theatrical project with Earth goddesses of different cultures onstage, their human forms making the abstract threat of global warming close and personal. In striking an emotional chord with audiences, it might compel them to respect the planet and pay more attention to climate change.
Her vision will be realized this weekend when Sacred Earth Stories is performed at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. Naimpally will be one of five dancers representing the Earth goddesses Bhoomi Devi (Hindu), Pachamama (Peruvian), and Gaia (Greek) to an original score played live by local musicians, with spoken word commentary by Austin Critics Table Award winner Carla Nickerson and projected images and sound of the rainforest from Rainforest Partnership of Austin.
If the project sounds ambitious, it is. But Naimpally knows what she's doing. The seasoned classical Indian dance artist has taught Bharata Natyam dance to students in Austin for more than 22 years, produced the 2016 program Girl Power! at the Long Center, and worked on a project highlighting hidden voices of senior immigrants and refugee high school students at the Asian American Resource Center last year. In 2018, the Critics Table inducted her into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame, and this May, the Austin History Center included her story in its collection of 1,300 Austin History Makers – the first Indian American artist included!
In addition to conceiving Sacred Earth Stories, Naimpally is its artistic director. "I oversee the entire artistic element, collaborating with dancers on choreography," she says. But behind all of Naimpally's productions is a hardworking team that she meticulously assembles herself. "I need to have a good vibe," she says. "I like to choose people who bring good energy and their artistry to the project because, in the end, it's a collaborative product. I believe in people, and many people along the way have believed in me when I wasn't really sure what I was doing. That itself gave me confidence to get the job done. I feel it is vital to have faith in your team and allow them to tap into their creativity rather than dictate how it needs to be done."
In Sacred Earth Stories, her team includes Soumya Ashok, who has trained as a classical vocalist and studied dance with Naimpally since 2007. She has a presence that she brings to the role of Gaia, but she gives credit to her teacher for bringing the best out of her. "Bring it to your face," Naimpally tells her when Ashok rehearses a scene in which she shows how the Earth feels after being treated badly through the abuse of her natural resources. Joining Ashok as other earth elements and goddesses are Austin-based professional dancer Preya Patel and Naimpally's advanced students Sreenidhi Tupuri and Sanjana Aluru. Naimpally herself plays Bhoomi Devi.
Filling out the project team is a mix of veterans and newcomers. Sitar player Amie Maciszewski has known Naimpally since 1996, while Ashwini Gore-Deshpande, a professional Indian classical vocalist, came to Austin from Finland seven months ago. She and her mentor father Mukund Gore are part of the ensemble. During a rehearsal, Srivi Balaji, a 15-year-old high school student who plays the mridangam, performs effortlessly using notes jotted on her iPad. Her father, who is also her teacher, patiently guides her through stop-and-go cues. Dallas' Jacco Velarde plays the almost hypnotizing Andean flute. Then there are five happy child artists full of life and hope who come to revive Mother Earth.
Naimpally has made reviving the Earth a consistent focus in her dance productions and community efforts. She highlights the UN Global Goals for 2030 adopted in 2015: 17 Sustainable Development Goals which recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth, all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests. The tales of the goddesses remind us of the need for urgent global action.
At the beginning of Sacred Earth Stories, Naimpally masterfully slows down life with all its colors, movement, and sound – so much so that the complex thoughts that clutter daily lives slowly vanish, leaving only the pure message of what Earth and life are all about. Without even feeling this change from fast-paced to peaceful thought, the audience experiences a journey where God is at play, the circle of life is at play, and the very essence of humanity is at play.
One can't help but be drawn to the three Earth goddesses in the play, who go through their birth, growth, destruction, and retaliation. Admirably, Naimpally doesn't leave the audience hanging when Mother Earth stands ravaged and beaten by human greed. Her story continues to the hope of rejuvenation, presented in an expressive dance where every step coincides with a lift of the eyebrow, a widened smile uplifted by a flick of the chin, and sorrow drowned in a bowed head on a downcast elbow.
Will anyone listen to Naimpally's call for action about global warming, climate change, and deforestation after watching Sacred Earth Stories? We cannot be sure, but when Soumya Ashok's Gaia looks at the audience with those almond-shaped, kohl-lined eyes and ruffled brows in anger and hurt over the way Earth has been treated, hearts will surely flutter and feel a moment of deep responsibility toward the planet. Hopefully, that breathless connection will make people think twice before being unkind to Mother Earth.
Sacred Earth Stories will be performed Sat., June 29, 7:30pm, and Sun., June 30, 2pm, at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St. For more information, visit www.austindanceindia.com.