November 7, 2014
India is frequently criticized for rapid development and heavy greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s also the country where the term “tree-hugger” originated. An upcoming performance by an Indian-American dance troupe highlights conservation movements in India as well as America. It combines traditional dance, martial arts and even the writings of Rachel Carson to raise environmental awareness.
At the rehearsals, Nandanik Dance Troupe artistic director Nandini Mandal guides about 40 teenage girls to stomp rhythmically in a dance that represents tree worship. It’s the first scene in the show, called "Prakriti-Maatrikaa, Mrittikaa." It translates as an ode to the mother goddess and nature.
"The tree is the lifeblood of the village," Mandal says. "The elements are important and you preserve all the elements, and they just take as much as they need."
Mandal is referring to villagers of a sect called Bishnoi or Bishnois founded 540 years ago. The Bishnoi focused on biodiversity after a guru instructed followers to protect trees and wildlife.
Mandal tells the dancers how that commitment to environmental protection plays out in the performance. In the story, a king wants a larger palace with ornate painted filigrees. He needs wood to burn paint for the rich colors he wants. So the king sends his men to get the best trees.
"And so the wood cutters come," Mandal says. "They follow the kings’ orders, and eventually they reach the Bishnoi village to cut down the precious trees."
Nandanik Dance Troupe performs a new original work every couple of years in Pittsburgh. Previous shows have focused on social issues like conformity. While this year’s show tells the story of the Bishnoi, it also alludes to modern events, like the Chipko movement.
In the 1970s, as businesses cleared acres of trees around Himalayan villages to make products like tennis rackets, people living in the forests fought back. Groups of women adopted Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance techniques. They literally hugged trees to fend off logging. Chipko started as a tribal self-preservation movement, but activists the world over carried it out it as an environmental rallying cry.
"But now," Mandal says, about the younger generation, "I don’t think they’re really aware of the part it played in the world. Especially, it was started mostly by village women. These simple ladies, not highly educated, sometimes not educated at all. But they knew the essence of nature around them."
The purpose of the show is to entertain and enlighten the audience, but also to maintain cultural connections for the performers, many of whom are American-born. Seventeen-year-old Roosha Mandal, the artistic director’s daughter, says this year marks her fifth time in a performance with the dance troupe. This program is her favorite, because she says it has cross-cultural significance, tying her Indian heritage to her American upbringing.
“So everyone’s saying ‘go green’ and all of that," Roosha Mandal says. "Just in school the other week I was doing a project on environmental issues. So it’s really nice to find this connection, the ideas and themes of kind of starting locally to make a bigger difference on the world.”
Her school project included reading Rachel Carson. During the show, a Pittsburgh artist will read passages from Carson’s work. The dancers and actors will don colorful saris and scarves made in India. The energetic, emotional work has a hopeful ending.
Nandini Mandal says the performance is particularly relevant in a time where people are witnessing increasing deforestation, climate change and environmental disasters.
"Last time this year we had the Kashmir floods, the flash floods. Two years ago we had devastating landslides, washing down pilgrims on the way. Like thousands and thousands lost their lives," Nandini Mandal says. "So they say this was caused by, indiscriminate, like cutting down the trees from the Himalayan sides as well as building too many houses, too many hotels."
One of the oldest dancers, Aparna Nigam, sees the significance of the play closer to her American home.
"I went to school at University of Kentucky and there was a lot of mountaintop removal happening and effects to the environment," Nigam says. "And I think that’s starting to happen in Pennsylvania as well with the new mining and shale companies coming in. It does affect the people in sometimes a small way and sometimes a large way. I think it is important that we try to be aware of it."
Organizers say that one play raising awareness of environmental issues may not turn things around dramatically, but if they can get people to consider their actions, they’ll have done their job.
Images inset in copy, from top: Photograph of Chipko activists, public domain, photographer unknown. Nandanik Dance Troupe artistic director Nandini Mandal, in red, with her dancers.