• January 2017
Shreelina Ghosh, a professor in Gannon University’s English Department, is a master practitioner of Odissi, one of seven forms of Indian Classical Dance developed over 2000 years ago as a form of Hindu devotion. All seven forms of this dance tradition based their theories and practice upon the Natya Shastra, an ancient Sanskrit document. This poetic text describes the proper integration of music, costume, and dance for the purpose of transporting the performers and audience to a higher state of consciousness.
Odissi was developed along the eastern coast of India. It was first practiced by young women who enacted religious stories and poems in the Hindu temples. Muslim rulers from the 14th to 17th centuries often discouraged female dancing. As a result the tradition was passed down to young boys and the slow sensuous dance was replaced with more acrobatic movements. Boys still practice this form of Odissi at public festivals. In the 19th century the British colonists and Christian missionaries outlawed Odissi and other religious dances. Once India gained independence in the 1940’s Odissi and other classical dance traditions were revived in a spirit of nationalism.
Ghosh said she started her formal training when she was six, in her hometown of Calcutta. Much like ballet, it demands a great deal of discipline and patience. “I spent many hours every Saturday afternoon working with my guru,” she explained, “and practiced for hours every day at home.” She said that her guru warned her not to delve into other styles, such as modern, Bollywood dance, as it would negatively influence her Odissi technique, which is exacting. The precise placement of the hands and feet is paramount, as is the use of particular costume and makeup. Despite this technical rigor, Ghost admits that, properly done, the dance is really an internal process, a form of kinetic prayer. “It is a way for me and my audience to connect to Supreme Goodness. It is a spiritual act.” She adds that this is why she rarely uses a mirror when practicing as it distracts her from focusing on humble devotion.
Ghosh remarked that the colonizing influences of Muslims and Christians forced the dance tradition to adapt, and now, the dance must adapt still to 21st century technology. “It used to be that all the choreography lived in the memories of the gurus. Now we have video to record and archive everything. Skype allows many students to study with gurus who live far away. The challenge is that video can emphasize entertainment over the spiritual aspect.” She states that the 21st century challenge is for gurus to keep the dance as egoless as possible.
For Odissi dancers, the relationship to one’s guru is primary. “I feel I am still just a student, still learning. I still defer to my teacher. She would also say she is still learning and holds her guru in the same esteem.” When she was 23 years old, Ghosh’s guru permitted her to start creating her own choreography. In 2006 she moved to the U.S.A. with her husband and they both earned doctorates in English from Michigan State University. When teaching in South Dakota (before accepting her position at Gannon) she created her own Odissi dance that drew inspiration from Hindu mythology and the potent winds of the northern prairies. She is now considering creating a new piece that draws from the power of Lake Erie. Ghosh has performed in both India and in the United States. She was one of the featured performers at the TEDx Erie conference at the Warner Theater in November. Erie is indeed blessed to have such a gifted and articulate practitioner.
Watch Shreelina’s performance at the 2016 TEDx Erie Conference
For more information about Ghosh or other local folk and traditional artists contact Museum Folk Art Director Kelly Armor.