Indian Catholic integrates faith into ancient dance

By Enedelia J. Obregón
Senior Correspondent

When Shishya Natasha Paul started planning her Bharatanatyam Arangetram, she knew it was a way for her to honor and express her Indian heritage. The challenge was how to incorporate her Catholic faith with what is traditionally a dance that originated in Hindu temples.
Natasha, as she is known, found a way to do both this past summer in her arangetram, a graduation dance recital for Indian girls learning the 5,000-year-old art of Bharanatyam, or classical Indian dance.
An arangetram is the solo debut performance of a Bharanatyam student. It is the art of storytelling through the dance known for its grace, purity and tenderness that involves the mind, body and soul of a dancer. Facial expressions, including eye movements, contribute to the story. So do graceful hand movements –– including the placement of different fingers on the palm. Foot and leg movements and standing poses flow seamlessly.
“There are other Christian girls who have had arangetrams,” said Natasha, 15, a sophomore at Westwood High School in Austin. “One girl had a piece that was Christian.”
Natasha’s parents, Priya and Alphonus Paul, spent the previous year ensuring she had music, choreography, musicians and teachers not only for the traditional dances but newly choreographed dances honoring Jesus and Mary.
The Pauls are parishioners at St. Thomas More Parish in Austin, where Natasha and her older brother, Stephen, both play cello in the music ministry. Before Natasha began her arangetram, the family received blessings from Father Sushil Ekka, associate pastor at St. Thomas More, who is a native of India. 
Priya and Alphonus Paul are originally from Kerala, an Indian state that has a large Christian population. Therefore, two of Natasha’s dances reflected that heritage. One of them, which depicted the gentle swaying of palm leaves and gentle flowing rivers,was a song for Jesus. She concluded with another dance in benediction of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She also changed her outfit and headdress,  which had been filled with bright reds, blues and gold, to a white and gold outfit that reflected the culture of Kerala.
Of the nine dances Natasha performed during the four-hour arangetram, four had Christian themes, including the Varnam, the main performance in which a dancer demonstrates her talent in abhinaya - or facial expression –– and nritta –– pure dance.
The Varnam portrayed the life of Jesus: his birth, his miraculous deeds, his temptations and the commandments as well as his ultimate sacrifice on the cross. The Varnam was composed by Smt. Ramaa Pustakam, the vocalist in the orchestra that played the music for the arangetram, and choreographed by Subramanian, Natasha’s guru.
“She grew up attending Catholic school,” Natasha said of her guru. “She knows a lot about the Bible and the church. We brainstormed about what the music would say and if she could relate to it. She did.”
Natasha learned the Varnam in about six weeks. But she still had eight other dances to master. Each dance was 20 to 30 minutes long. She also performed a Padam, an expressive and emotional piece on the Blessed Virgin Mary. This Padam was choreographed by renowned dancer Francis Barboza of Iselin, N.J., who is credited with pioneering the Christianizing of the Bharathanatyam.
Natasha put a lot of time and energy into her arangetram. She has taken classical Indian dance classes since she was 7. Preparing for the arangetram required extra after-school classes along with the weekend classes. She squeezed that into a full high school schedule at that includes philharmonic orchestra, varsity cross country and junior varsity soccer. She also plays piano and volunteers in the Mobile Loaves and Fishes Ministry.

More on Indian Catholics
According to a November 2013 report titled “Cultural Diversity in the Catholic Church in the United States” compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate there are 146,421 Indian Catholics in the U.S. In India there are about 19.5 million Catholics, or about 2.5 percent of the total population.
Aldila Lobo, a parishioner at St. Theresa Parish in Austin, is president of the India Catholic Association in the Diocese of Austin. She said the ICA has 90 families and she estimates there are 500 to 600 Indian Catholics in the greater Austin area.
For these Catholics, the Spanish or Portuguese cultures are more of an influence than the predominantly Hindu culture. Many Spanish and Portuguese established colonies along coastal areas of India. Some Catholics affiliate themselves with others from a home state in India with a similar culture, she said. Thus, many Indian Catholics have Spanish or Portuguese last names.
Christianity is not new to India. According to tradition, St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles, introduced Christianity to India in 52 AD, working his way along the West - or Malabar - Coast of the South Indian peninsula in what is now the state of Kerala. There is little historical evidence of other missionaries to India until 1518 with the arrival of the Franciscans, who established a convent in Goa in 1518. The Jesuits sent St. Francis Xavier in 1542 and the Dominicans arrived in 1548. Many came with Portuguese sailors, who established colonies in Goa and other areas along the Western cost of southern India.
The India Catholic Association will hold a fundraiser at St. Thomas More Parish in Austin on Oct. 18. Proceeds will go to orphanages and schools in India. For more information, visit 
www.austinica.org. 
–– Enedelia J. Obregón

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