Indian Classical Art Forms Offer the World a Language that can Connect Cultures: Israeli Artists, Dinoor & Amos

Dinoor Elster hails from the beautiful town of Tiv’on in Israel. Her passion for dance began when she learnt ballet and contemporary dance. On a trip to India, when she was 25, Dinoor was introduced to Odissi dance and since then she has grown “learning and teaching this beautiful dance form at her home studio.” Her husband Amos, is a flautist taking forward his family tradition of playing and teaching music since the past three generations. He says his favourite raagas keep on changing. While Jaijaivanti is his current favourite, he says “for many years Bihag was my favourite, perhaps because of its sweetness and before that it is was Madhuvanti as it expressed a beautiful feeling that cannot be explained.

A chance meeting in Israel and then a few coincidental meetings in India led Dinoor and Amos to discover their mutual love for Indian classical art forms and for each other. Upon completing their gurukul shiksha from Odissa, Dinoor and Amos decided to embark on a journey of bringing Indian classical performing arts to Israel and support each other not just as partners but also as artists. In this conversation, Dinoor and Amos share their experiences from India to Israel.

What inspired you both to pursue Indian classical art forms – Odissi dance and Bansuri respectively?

Dinoor had been a dancer since an early age, learning various western dance forms. “But it wasn’t until I travelled to India, at the age of 24, that I found my passion and motivation in life.  Towards the end of my nine months of travel to India, I saw an Odissi dance performance. I fell in love immediately, I felt so connected... in one moment my love for dance and my love for India became one.” I learnt the dance form for three years, following which I received an ICCR scholarship that brought me back to India. I became a disciple of Guru Ratikant Mohapatra and Guru Sujata Mohapatra, at Srijan Dance School in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha.

For Amos, the journey with flute began much earlier. “Having a keen interest in wind instruments, I learnt block flute from my mother and Trumpet from my father. In 2005, I met Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia at a concert in Israel and expressed my wish of being his shishya. Panditji said, “if you are serious you must go to the Conservatory in Rotterdam to begin your training.” And since then, I have been guided by Panditji. But my first introduction to Indian classical music happened in 1999 when I travelled to India for the first time. On my very first day, I saw a Bharatnatyam recital and in the following days, I had a chance to listen to Ustad Shahid Parvez and Ustad Zakir Hussain. Being there and listening, it was amazing to my ears and I discovered that on one hand, they were improvising in ways I could never imagine, but on the other hand, it made so much sense and was beautiful. I really fell in love with the Indian music forms and style and knew this is what I wanted to pursue in life.

Amos, in your experience of learning bansuri in India and also being trained in western classical music, how is the gurukula tradition different from the more conventional methods of teachings?

Firstly, I must say that I have been lucky to experience both ways of learning as they are both complementary and equally essential. At the conservatory in Rotterdam, I learnt Indian music from a more analytic point of view – how to differentiate between ragas, how to count the taalas, what is a tihai, what are the features of this gharana or the other. I had to take exams and give auditions which made my learnings quite clear. Shifting to the Gurukul meant sitting 2-3 hours in the class every day, playing 1-3 different raagas, and simply following what Guruji is playing without much explanation… just doing what is to be done. But moreover, it was meeting Guruji at different times, listening to your own self and seeing others practice, made the music, mind and body dissolve into one. This was much more holistic than most conventional methods of training. I also felt like a part of the larger family with many gurubhai and gurubehen, and together with them, I grew as a child does in the most friendly atmosphere.

Adding to this, Dinoor also recalled her experiences at Srijan. “To learn an Indian classical dance in India was very different than learning any dance in Israel–the way of teaching, the relationships between the Guru and the shishya and the discipline and sincerity with which one approaches art is much stricter in India. Actually, to study in India means to learn another culture and to adapt to that new culture.

Dinoor, you have made compositions such as Moksha for the Jewish festival of Passover. What was the motivation behind taking the idea of Moksha for this celebration?

I wanted to make a blessing for Passover through dance. In Passover, we celebrate liberty as it marks the liberation of Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Moksha also symbolizes liberation. I chose to present the pure dance part of the Moksha choreography of Padma Vibhushan Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. The choreography ended with a small prayer that I wrote in Hebrew and choreographed: “May all of us have the freedom of mind and consciousness, may we exit the straits of our life and our hearts will fill with happiness, Amen, Aum”. I feel that this prayer holds universal importance, and by bringing two old cultures of Israel and India together through the dance choreography, I wished to convey the same.

Amos and I have tried other such choreographies as well. We recently did a video of Vasant Pallavi in our garden. We only incorporated the sounds of bansuri by Amos and he talked about a shloka translated into Hebrew. “sikhanda-barhoccaya-baddha-cudah, pusnan pikam cuta-navankurena | bhraman muda-ramam ananga murtir, marto matango hi vasanta-ragah.” I, on the other hand, did an adaptation of original choreography by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra.

For bringing the art from India to Israel, and connecting the audience here to the Indian arts we have to be creative, and also sometimes to carefully find the connection between both cultures, yet we always have to keep the respect of the traditional source.

How are Indian art forms received in Israel and what more can be done to promote Indian cultural community?

There are about three dozen artists in Israel who are related to Indian classical performing arts and very few (probably you can count with one hand) earn their livelihoods just from performing and teaching Indian classical performing arts. Similarly, some people know a bit of Indian classical music and dance, but only a few are really into it who can appreciate this art.

Many people in Israel don’t know about Odissi at all, says Dinoor. When I say that I am a teacher and a practitioner of Indian dance, people often assume it to be Bollywood dance. But, the reaction of the audience in performances is really good and for those who see it for the first time, it is an amazing experience.

Amos says that his “experience has been a bit more disappointed as most people in Israel misunderstand the music. But I also see the interest is growing with to festivals of Indian classical already taking place and some house concerts as well. I believe that in order to promote Indian art we should aim for a vaster audience. Today, there’s a significantly large community of Israelis who have visited India and even a few dozen who have learnt something in India–music or dance, the question is how to enlarge the audience. “

We think it is important for artists to consistently innovate and improvise on their performances and create more stages where they can showcase their knowledge. Activities such as house concerts, festivals need to happen regularly and even with small audience size, the effect will be great. Combining different art forms and making fusion will also expose the audience to the classical forms but with more contemporary contexts and concepts. Lastly, it is important that Indian classical art is inculcated in the local education system. These measures will definitely lead to the amplification of Indian art forms in terms of their receptibility and their contribution to the culture and economy of Israel.

Many Indian classical art forms date back to centuries. In your opinion what is their universal and contemporary relevance?

We don’t have the present without the past. Indian classical art forms have so much richness, complexity and depth, that they will always have relevance to individuals across the world. The meditative, spiritual and complexity of melodies, movements and rhythms are unique and offer the world a language that can connect cultures.

Adding further to this, Dinoor mentions, when I first got introduced to classical dance in India, I felt that it had another kind of depth. I felt that the ancient past is coming to the present, that dance is a prayer, that the dance expresses something much bigger than myself and has a strong spiritual meaning.  Learning Odissi, I realized that while emotions and feelings may be expressed differently today, the essence that touches people’s hearts remains the same.