The “Samudra Manthan” (“Churning of the Ocean”) is a story from Indian mythology in which demigods and demons compete for supremacy. It is beautiful and complex, full of battles and diplomacy, and miraculous events such as the creation of Amrita, the nectar of immortality.
Befitting the grandness of such a myth, the retelling of this ancient story by Vishwa Shanthi Performing Arts can be described as a grand operatic production. In its promotional material, the company refers to “. . .the cornucopia of characters, the grace, strength, humor, obstacles, deceit, conflicts, and flirtatious romances of this mythical tale.”
Vishwa Shanthi (Universal Peace) Performing Arts has been sharing the stories and culture of India for over fifteen years, through teaching and performance in the ancient dance tradition of Bharatanatyam.
Originally presented by a solo female dancer, modern expressions of Bharatanatyam have grown to incorporate entire troupes of dancers (both male and female) to tell the traditional stories.
The dancers of Vishwa Shanthi do not approach their work only in terms of performance art, but are fully committed to it as a spiritual practice, with a focus on meditation and yoga as well as dance.
The 90 minute SFIAF production of “Samudra Manthan (The Churning of the Ocean)” was written and composed especially for Vishwa Shanthi by the eminent poet and musicologist PR Venkatasubramanian. The recorded music is sung by the great Guru V Krishnamoorthy, who has been associated with Vishwa Shanthi for many years. The entire performance is choreographed by Shreelata Sureh and performed by her along with 25 senior dancers from the company in elaborate costumes. The performance includes helpful explanations in English to assist audiences to follow the action.
I recently had the opportunity to interview the delightful and articulate Shreelata Sureh:
Charles: How would you describe your work?
Shreelata: I started out as a performing dancer in India. When I married (it was a traditional arranged marriage), it turned out that my husband was bitten by the wanderlust bug and we began our marriage backpacking around the world for two and half years. For my own spirit, I had to dance, and when we were in South America, I would dance while listening to music. One day, I was “discovered” by a group of Hare Krishnas! They often sponsored local Hindu Festival “happenings.” They provided me with a costume and I traveled all over South America. After that, I just continued, and now I’ve performed all over the world.
Vishnu Shanti (Universal Peace) was formed out of that. As we traveled, my husband and I would learn more and more local languages, and he would explain the meanings of the dance, and he loved that
Then I began to teach and that’s how the company was born.
Our dance form is a religious and a spiritual dance. Originally, the temple dancers would dance for the deity of the temple. All our songs are devotional songs. We dance for worldly audiences, in theatres, not temples, but everything we do is underlined by a basic spituality. We are a spiritual team with a message: we are all souls who yearn to be united with the divine.
The experience of travel, and the mission to spread Joy and Peace all aroound the world: that is who we are!
By the way, since we have settled in America, my husband has had a career as a software marketer while I have worked as a teacher and dancer and choreographer, but we are both still totally engaged with this spiritual practice.
Charles: What are some of your influences?
Shreelata: Of course, there is my traditional Guru (teacher) in Delhi. His name is V. Krishnamoorthy. He is a musician, primarily, and he also has his own dance company. He often accompanies our dancers with singing. Unfortunately, he is unable to be here in person for our Fort Mason performance, but his recorded voice will be with us.
My primary infuence would be the ancient scriptures and the music itself. Singing emotionally to the divine is most important. This is an ordinary part of life for me. I grew up in a deeply religious home and we celebrated all the festivals. My family is not strictly ritualistic, but we are deeply devoted nevertheless. I learned the epic stories from childhood. I try to connect the ancient scriptures to the context of the modern world.
Charles: How would you describe your daily artistic practice?
Shreelata: Dance is a combination of physical, mental, and spiritual elements. I practice the dance with the company three or four times a week for two or three hours. But, beyond that, there is the daily practice of spirtual living: yoga, meditation, the daily rituals of life. As a company, we go to see other performances and we talk about the news of the day, and we are always looking forward to our next production. We are a very collaborative company and always look to work with other groups, mostly Indian traditional dancers. We look forward to working with other traditions as well.
Charles: What would you say to someone who wants to do what you do?
Shreelata: Follow through on your passions—the truth that you believe in! If you are a dancer, musician or artist of any kind, that truth will come out in your work. Be true to commit to what you believe and support people who believe that.
Or come and join us!!!
Vishna Shanthi will perform the world premiere of “”Samudra Manthan (The Churning of the Ocean)”on Saturday May 26, at 3 p.m, in the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture.
Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC) hosts this performance as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, which runs from May 24, 2018 to June 3, 2018. The Festival features more than 60 performances by close to 40 different artists, ensembles, and companies. Get discounts on tickets to see multiple shows at the Festival by buying a Festival pass. More details HERE.