“Whatever is written is just a suggestion,” Sandeep Das, a world-renowned Indian tabla musician, tells the small group of Butler University percussion students during their Wednesday-afternoon rehearsal. “You have to make it dance. Make it breathe.
And let’s try it one more time.”
Das visited campus in late October as part of the JCA Signature Series, an artist residency program organized through Butler’s Jordan College of the Arts. Featuring guests from the worlds of art, theatre, music, and dance, the series is designed to serve the Indianapolis community through high-quality public performances, while also providing opportunities for students to interact with and learn from artists in the classroom.
For Das, the three-day visit to Butler felt like coming back home. He first performed at the University in 2017, and JCA Dean Lisa Brooks says students haven’t stopped talking about Das and his joyful teaching style ever since.
“He’s so giving,” Brooks says. “When he sits and talks with students, it’s not like, ‘I am so successful. I played with the Silkroad Ensemble—one of the most famous music groups in the world.’ There’s none of that. He is just this incredibly warm human being.”
This time around, Das didn’t just bring his tabla—a traditional Indian hand drum resembling a pair of unattached bongos, but ringing with a more vibrant, melodic sound. He also brought along two fellow Indian performers: sitar player Rajib Karmakar and Kathak dancer Antara Bhardwaj.
Beyond a main performance featuring all three guests, the artists spent time working directly with students through rehearsals and master classes—a key element of the JCA Signature Series. The performers led classroom-based demonstrations and interactive lessons, playing and dancing right alongside students.
“They come and work with you in your class, and then you go watch them perform, and you are going to see yourself on that stage,” Brooks says.
Sometimes, you’ll actually be on that stage, soloing in an Indian song about the creation of the universe while standing just a few feet away from the person who wrote it.
Forget About the Paper
For the night, Robby Buetow is Shiva. As part of a concert from Butler’s Percussion Ensemble, Das has left his front-row seat to join students for a performance of Shristi, a piece he created during his time with Yo Yo Ma and the Silkroad Ensemble. From Buetow’s spot holding down the beat on tom-toms—a role based on the universe-creating Hindu god Shiva—the Percussion Performance junior can’t help but smile every time he looks over at Das drumming on tabla and nodding along to the complex rhythms.
And Das never stops smiling back.
“Shabash!” he shouts—an Indian term for “bravo.”
He’s glad to see the students looking up at him instead of down at their music. It’s a change from the day before, when he’d asked them during rehearsal to forget about the paper and just feel the groove. And they listened, approaching Das before the concert to leave all the sheet music in a pile at his feet.
“When Das is on stage with students, there is just this feeling of, ‘We did this together,’” Brooks says. “It’s not just a gig for him, and the kids pick up on that. He inspires them with the sheer force of his love for music.”
Das first started teaching when he began to feel like just playing music wasn’t enough. He feels responsible for passing what he’s learned on to younger generations, and he sees music as a way to help students learn more about people who are different from them.
“We might play different instruments,” he says. “We might sing different songs. But at the end of it all, we are humans first.”
Not an Everyday Experience
“The body that dances on this earth is for the divine,” translates Antara Bhardwaj.
She’s teaching a class of about 30 Butler students how to consecrate their dance space—common practice within Kathak, a classical Indian dance style. The poem she chants matches the choppy but powerful stomps of her feet, which just barely leave the floor with each step.
As she goes on to demonstrate a storytelling dance about the flute-playing Hindu god Krishna dancing on the banks of a river, the fluid waves of her arms offer contrast to the strength of her legs. She explains the sounds of the dance, from a flat-footed slap on the ground to a heel stomp that brings out a deep echo from the floor.
Combining those rapid foot rhythms with the intricate hand movements is the hardest part for senior Dance Pedagogy major Elizabeth Labovitz, who has never taken an Indian dance class before now. But the students catch on fast, learning in an hour what Bhardwaj usually teaches throughout a semester.
“I’m really glad Butler provided this opportunity for us, and that they are trying to bring in dancers outside of what we normally do,” Labovits says. “I thought the teacher was fantastic. She broke it down very easily and made it accessible to people who don’t have any background in this. It was super cool to explore a different dance style and culture from what I do everyday.”
Creating these out-of-the-ordinary experiences for students is a main goal of the JCA Signature Series, but the program also serves and inspires community members through a full lineup of performances. See below for details about upcoming events.
Remaining performances, 2019-2020 JCA Signature Series:
- November 19: Canadian Brass
- January 31: Louisville Ballet
- February 5-9: Michael Abels and Patrick de Bana (Midwinter Dances)
- February 26: Frances Jacobus-Parker
- March 25: The Q Brothers
- April 9: John Clayton
- April 15: Candy Chang
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