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Folk Artist Spotlight: Panchatantra Tales

portait of Rachita Nambiar
Rachita Nambiar (portrait courtesy of the artist)

In our Spotlight series, we take a closer look into the kaleidoscope of traditional arts in Central Pennsylvania and the work of artists featured in our Folk Artists Gallery. This article spotlights Rachita Menon Nambiar, a teacher of classical Indian dance in Dauphin County, PA.

"Panchatantra Tales" is a collaboration between Rachita Menon Nambiar’s Rasika School of Dance and the Young Acting Company of Gamut Theatre. It was presented onstage in April 2022 and reviewed here by folklorist Amy Skillman. Thanks to John Bivens Photography for the lovely images.

Traditional dance and contemporary theater met in this delightful rendering of The Panchatantra, an ancient collection of animal fables from India used to teach the five overarching principles of being wise humans.

The story centers around three young, naïve princes and the efforts of their teachers to help them mature into wise leaders.
In this still photo from the Panchatantra Tales production, three young princes stand cheering with their arms linked, while their tutor looks on skeptically from the left. The princes wear traditional Indian garb of silk tunics, trousers, slippers and turbans. The oldest boy wears dark blue with tan trousers, and the younger boys wear progressively lighter blues and tans. The tutor is more richly dressed with a gold turban and a long embroidered coat.
Sumati, their court instructor, has not been successful with his lectures and lessons. So the king decides to bring in Vishnu Sharma, a guru who teaches through story.

What ensues is a series of engaging stories within stories that ultimately teach the princes about Dharma — the responsibilities and virtues of knowing themselves in the larger context of human activity, and behaving in a way that sustains culture and community. It was a beautiful illustration of how humans have used storytelling to teach for millennia, reminding us there are many ways to learn.

This production, adapted for theater by Sean Adams, was co-directed by Rachita Menon Nambiar and Melissa Nicholson. It represents a thoughtful collaboration between Nambiar’s Rasika School of Dance and the Young Acting Company of Gamut Theatre.

The performers ranged in age from second graders to high school seniors, and every one of them brought skill, emotion and charm to their characters.
In this still photo from the Panchatantra Tales production, two young girls are wearing alligator costumes.  One is swooning on the floor propped on one elbow, while the other is kneeling beside her, supporting her with an arm, and holding a bright-red fruit. The second girl has a wide-eyed expression of intent. They are clearly having fun acting their parts.
The audience laughed at all the right moments and squirmed in their seats when a character playfully called them out.

We fell in love with the turtle and worried about her abduction, felt the pain of loss over the mongoose, were devastated by the cruelty between crows and owls, and adored the monkey with her winning wisdom. It was clear the actors were having a blast.

The messages were clear:  Make allies. Treasure your friendships. Wisdom can be stronger than physical force. Trust must be earned. We are all responsible for each other.

Using storytelling and traditional Indian dance, each story unfolded as a new lesson. As the stories were told, the actors highlighted key words and ideas with mudras — the hand gestures used in Bharatanatyam classical Indian dance. In this subtle way, we learned what many of those gestures mean.

It was an effective way to teach the audience about classical Indian dance: giving us a little bit of the language to interpret these older art forms. As the dancers performed in some of the spaces between stories, I tried to tell if they were dancing the story just told, or the one to come.

The dances were a lovely way to augment the stories and remind us that they come from an ancient tradition that is still enjoyed today.
In this still photo from the Panchatantra Tales production, several barefoot young actors dance in a circle. They hold their left foot high, their right arm out to the left, and their left arm across their chest also pointing left. They wear traditional Indian tunics of pale green silk, with loose trousers and flowing head scarves of dark green.
The authenticity of dances and gestures created a sense of being in the King’s household, participating in the story.

The costumes, lighting, music, direction, and acting conventions were as professional as one expects from Gamut’s Shakespeare productions. It was clear they all took this seriously, despite being a youth theater sharing folktales. In fact, part of its value is just that: lending credibility and authority to these tale and their tellers.

Pairing traditional story and dance with contemporary theater helped to make Indian culture accessible to American audiences.
This still photo from the Panchatantra Tales production depicts the battle of the Crows and the Owls. Facing us is a dancer dressed as an owl, holding her arms out to show fabric wings hung from her arms. Facing her is a dancer wearing black, who seems to be attacking the owl with a sword. The owl dancer is looking down to where she's being struck in the belly.
The house was nearly full with a mix of cultures and ages, all of us smiling and leaning into the action on stage.

Panchatantra Tales was a brilliant and important collaboration between two artists who are willing to take risks. I wish more adults could have seen it. My sense is that Asian Indians walked away feeling proud of their cultural identity, while the rest of the audience felt welcomed into a cultural experience, coming away with a richer perception of their Indian neighbors. Panchatantra Tales could have run for a second weekend and been just as successful — word of mouth would have filled the seats again.

These kinds of collaborations not only help to make ancient traditions relevant...
A montage of still photos from the Panchatantra Tales production, showing dancers in colorful costumes. At upper left, two teenage girls perform a traditional Indian dance, posed with their arms held gracefully in front of them and one foot raised. At upper right, three teen girls strike a different traditonal pose, one girl crouched in front of two others standing behind her. Across the bottom are four dancers in varied costumes. In contrast to the upper photos where the girls appear to be of Asian Indian descent, these girls appear to be of European descent. The one in front is wearing a black dress with lace sleeves and blue feathers on her head.
...but they also expand our awareness of each other and open up opportunities for cross-cultural conversations. We are lucky to have such vibrant traditions in our community.