India's classical arts originated primarily in temples, and once were seen only within their confines. Likewise, only fairly recently have those ancient art forms been widely exhibited in places outside India itself. Yet even in Pittsburgh, the vibrant contributions of the subcontinent -- with its tradition of artists combining rigid discipline with unfettered imagination -- have found their way to stages.
Srishti Dances of India, for instance, was founded by choreographer and performer Sreyashi Dey in 1999. The company focuses on the Indian classical dance style known as Odissi, but also hosts performances of the other six classical styles.
On Sat., Oct. 6, Srishti premieres Angika at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater for a single area performance before embarking on tour. The evening includes Odissi, featuring Dey and frequent collaborator Manoranjan Pradhan; and Manipuri, with Los Angeles-based Sohini Ray and Sanjib Bhattacharya, who lives in Dehli.
Despite its tenure, Srishti continues to introduce new audiences to the basics of traditional Indian dance. The forms vary in style. Odissi, says Dey, is "very sculptural," intended to replicate religious icons; Manipuri has a wider lexicon and range of motion.
The inner substance of the styles, however, is the same. Like most Indian classical art, the primary intent is worship. The dance is deeply and fundamentally spiritual, and exists as an offering; the various forms were initially seen solely as an aspect of ceremony.
The objectives present at the birth of the dance linger; the physical vocabulary likewise remains. But just as the performance venues have broadened, so too do new stylistic elements infuse this centuries-old form. "Now we are presenting it in a completely different context," Dey says. "We have recorded music and lighting cues instead of live musicians and oil lamps, we are performing in theaters, and we are performing outside of India."
This means that they're also performing for an audience who may not be aware of the meanings and ritual behind what they're seeing. "The audience can appreciate it on two levels," Dey says. "There's movement, costumes, music; it's a performance art form with interesting features." But another layer of meaning is added through information included in the program about the history and significance of the dance.
Though the context may be new, the dance itself remains the same. "We are carrying on a tradition," says Dey. The custom is highly exact, and the practitioner must adhere to very rigorous standards and methodologies. For Dey as a choreographer and performer, however, this stringency is not limiting. "The vocabulary is so rich that it allows me ample space to do what I want to do," she says. But in the union of performance and veneration, Dey is comfortable with the place she occupies. "It's not about our own visions as choreographers or dancers," she says. "It's about the larger picture."
Srishti Dances of India presents Angika 5 p.m. Sat., Oct. 6. Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. $12 ($8 students/seniors/groups). 412-394-3353 or proartstickets.org