Aranya Devi, Goddess of the Forest, revives an environmental story from India in a moving performance of kathak dance. Artistic Director Charlotte Moraga’s choreography opens the classical Indian form out wide onto our stage, and the message resonates today, celebrating everyday heroes of Earth.
In Rajasthan, in 1730, Maharaja Abhay Singh was building a palace and ordered his ministers to fell shami trees in the Bishnoi village of Khejarli, even though the Bishnoi religion promotes harmony with nature, caring for trees and other living beings. When the military arrived, Amrita Devi and her daughters hugged the trees, trying to save them. They were killed, along with 360 neighbors, and the remorseful maharaja eventually prohibited tree cutting. Centuries later, this story became an anthem for the 1970s Chipko anti-deforestation movement, in the Himalayan foothills, when women hugged trees and prevented logging.
The piece opens with a puja invocation, with conch shell and hand movements to symbolize fire and flowers. Then, dancers dressed to represent trees and their sacred gifts perform Vriksh ki Dhadkan—Heartbeat of the Trees. Men on horseback enter; Andolan—Resistance, shows the famous martyrdom; and a Sanskrit shloka to the shami tree signals hope for change.
Aranya Devi is an excerpt from a larger production, restaged for this Festival. The music is composed by Raginder Momi Singh with compositions from Pandit Chitresh Das and Charlotte Moraga. Musicians on violin, harmonium, and vocals play specific Indian ragas—musical cycles—to support the emotional tone of each segment, as tabla plays percussive beats. The opening tarana is a 10-beat cycle (jhaptala) in raag jogiya. The raag changes to kirwani and tala teental for Andolan; raag bhairavi for the pathos of massacre.
The Chitresh Das Institute (CDI) was formed in 2017 by Charlotte Moraga, Celine Schein Das, and Preeti Zalavadia a few years after the untimely death of Pandit Chitresh Das, to carry forward his teachings and philosophy of excellence and innovation within tradition. CDI is dedicated to training the next generation of kathak artists, educators, and arts activists. The organization has branches in San Mateo, San Francisco, Cupertino, Marin, and San Ramon.
July 6 & 7
Dance Origin: North India
Title: Aranya Devi, Goddess of the Forest
Artistic Director/Choreographer: Charlotte Moraga
Dancers: Ishani Basak, Gauri Bhatnagar, Srija Bhattacharya, Ishani Chakraborty, Heeya Das, Noopur Garg, Amidala Geetaumesh, Pakhi Gupta, Ruhi Kalambur, Anusha Kothari, Anshu Manchanda, Amrit Mann, Anita Pai, Meera Pala, Kalyani Parulkar, Anushka Rao, Ruchira Rao, Supriya Rao, Atmika Sarukkai, Nehal Shahi, Kritika Sharma, Grishma Shukla, Saavani Vaidya, Preeti Zalavadia
Musicians: Nilan Chaudhuri (tabla), Ranjana Ghatak (vocals), Raginder Momi (violin)
Photo: RJ Muna