Dancing Jesuit’s visual sermon transforms Mass experience
By Binu Alexander
Ahmedabad: Daily wage earners in South 24 Parganas near Kolkata still worry about their next meal. They have no fixed income or decent roofs over their heads. But all this is forgotten when they are on stage performing Bharatnatyam.
It all started eight years ago when a Jesuit priest literally danced his way into their impoverished lives. Until then, it was fantasy for them to see their children learn Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi, ancient Indian dance forms. It would have been unimaginable to see them perform to the verses from the Bible during Mass.
The impossible was made possible by Father Saju George, a Jesuit priest who has dedicated his life and dance skills for bettering the lives of the deprived. The priest, known in India as the ‘Dancing Jesuit,’ has become the godfather of these underprivileged families.
Fr. Saju, as he prefers to be called, has trained many young talents with sheer dedication and rare passion. Many of these young people are now engaged in local nursery schools as dance teachers while some have travelled far to perform in places such as Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
Fr. Saju too has performed solo and in group in parishes across India and in more than 30 countries.
I met him after a full house performance at St. Xavier’s Parish in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. People were jostling to take selfies with him. “I am not a star. But they have not seen a Catholic priest in a dancing costume. Hence this curiosity,” he explained the admiration.
Born in a Catholic-family in Kerala, Saju got attracted to art and theatre early in life. Participating in school dramas and inter school arts championships came naturally to him. Among his 10 siblings, it was his eldest sister Celine who encouraged him. “Not that others discouraged me, but she knew the nuance of art very well as she had performed in school competitions. Ultimately she became my inspiration.”
Saju decided to pursue his passion by teaching himself from texts and learning from peers. He started attending the village theater and dance performances and went on to excel in theater, dance and singing. He was the main choreographer during his school years.
But another calling beckoned him – vocation to priesthood. While in school, Saju had watched a documentary on Saint Damien, the leper that left a permanent imprint on his heart. Seeing his interest in things spiritual, his grandfather took him to the Salesians when he was in the eighth grade. But he was too young to decide his future then.
The turning point came in the final year of school when he saw a documentary on Mother Teresa. So, in 1984, he landed in Kolkata to work for the men’s wing of the Missionaries of Charity. In the City of Joy, he came across Jesuits and was impressed with their social work and outreach to the deprived. He then decided to join the Society of Jesus.
After joining the seminary, his passion for dance diminished. “But I always dreamt of doing something different for God as I went through my formation programs. Because dance was within me I decided to take permission from the superior to join professional classes. He was more than happy for me,” Fr. Saju recalled.
So, in 1988, he began learning Indian classical dance in the typical Indian Guru-Shishya tradition from Prof Derrick Munro, a Catholic who was then 58. Saju also learnt under renowned teachers such as Natyacharya Guru M.C. Vedanta Krishna, Padmabhushan Prof C.V. Chandrasekhar, Padmabhushan Guru Kalanidhi Narayanan, Padmabhushan Guru Vempathi Chinna Satyam, Padmasri Leela Samson, Prof. Khagendra Nath Barman, Guru Sri K.Rajkumar, and Kalaimamani Smt. Priyadarshini Govind, among others.
Years of learning led to a Master of Arts degree in Indian Dance and Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Indian Sacred/Classical Dance. When he was given responsibilities of running a Jesuit home for the underprivileged children in south Kolkata, he began teaching dance to the children to help them express themselves to a world which had deprived them their basic rights.
He also set up Kalahridaya (heart of art), which offers a one-year diploma in Bharatanatyam and regular classes in instrumental music, especially for the poor. “Everyone is born with a talent – which the Bible teaches us. All we need to do is to help harness it,” he explained.
Over the years, Fr. Saju has earned many accolades — and brickbats too. Many priests and Catholics are not only surprised but also offended to see him perform during Mass. I spoke to a few of them in Goa, Mumbai and Pune. Many said they are open to such innovations, but a few just could not bear the sight of a bare chested priest in dance costume with traditional anklets, bangles, earrings, entering the sanctuary with his group of dancers when the liturgy is being read.
Since most Mass attendees have little knowledge of the ancient Indian dance forms, they seem unable to fathom the idea of conveying the message of the Bible in this manner. They cannot understand the uniqueness of the medium, where a combination of body movements, eye and facial expressions, hand gestures, footwork, costumes, music, and varied themes of performances, convey the daily readings and Responsorial Psalm.
“Yes, there is some uneasiness. When we break away from something that we have been following in our Mass for years, it takes time to adjust,” conceded a diocesan priest in Goa.
The costumes are intended to make the dancer beautiful. They are worn to dance for gods in temples, or for kings in palaces. So replicating it in a Catholic church looks odd, another priest in Pune said. Most priests whom I spoke to said they would hesitate to allow a dance performance in the middle of a Mass lest they offend the conservatives.
But there are supporters such as Fr. Ashok Waghela, a Jesuit in Ahmedabad. He drew my attention to the large number of Catholics who had paid to watch the ‘Dancing Jesuit’ performing.
“Dances have a sacred, spiritual origin and originated and belonged to places of worship”
“If you concentrate, you can read the Bible in Father Saju’s body through his movements. And it is something gifted by the Almighty himself. Whether it is an Indian form or a western form, how does it matter as long as the message is conveyed so beautifully,” Father Waghela told me.
The priest also drew my attention to a verse from the 2 Sam Chapter 6 which read – King David danced before the Ark of the Lord with all his might and proclaimed, “I will make merry before the Lord.”
“Dances,” Fr. Waghela added, “have a sacred, spiritual origin and originated and belonged to places of worship.”
Fr. Saju knows that a few pure liturgists disagree with his style of dancing inside the church. “Yes I have faced opposition from far too many places. But it is natural that adaptation is a big process. I am not annoyed by criticism. I take it as an opportunity to explain my point of view as per the second Vatican council teachings.”
He wonders how anyone could have problems with his way of conveying the biblical message when none other than Pope John Paul II asked him to perform during his visit to India in 1999. In this, he followed his Guru, Prof. Munro who had performed during the visit of Pope Paul VI to India in 1964 to attend the World Eucharist Congress in Bombay.
The young Jesuit believed he was fulfilling his guru’s vision, when performed a group dance before the Pope in New Delhi, depicting sowing, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, and finally the offering of bread.
Fr Saju says his aim is to combine Catholic spirituality and the Indian form of dance. For him, liturgy is nothing but a sacred performance. Eucharist is experiencing God and the priest is the main performer at the worship. He says homilies in churches will never cease because the Bible is a big ocean where as you go deep you find that there is no end to your learning experience. The same way, he adds, dance is experiencing the divine through the Word of God.
He regrets the Church does not recognize dancers as it does with other Christian artists –musicians, sculptors or painters. Musicians, conductors, sculptors and painters are provided with the space to praise God through their pictures, musical instruments, choir conducting, sculptures, and wall paintings, dancers. “It is sad that dance is not given space in church,” bemoans Saju.
God, he says, saw everything as “good” since goodness is engraved in every fiber of creation. Fr. Saju’s keertanams (praise-dances) glorify God’s goodness.
The Jesuit doesn’t dance when he is the main celebrant in a Mass. He performs mostly during entrance procession leading the main celebrant to the sanctuary. The main dance form is during the responsorial hymn. “Instead of the normal way of sitting and singing the hymn, we make it a visual imagery of the same reading. When we dance after the Gospel it is nothing but a visual sermon,” he added.
Performances are not limited to a particular time during the Mass. It is also extended during the invocation of the Holy Spirit to bless the bread and wine or even after the communion hymn. It all depends on the parish priest, who decides when and what to perform, Father Saju remarked.
Apart from Mass, he has choreographed and directed several dance dramas based on the Bible and Saints. It includes the life of St Francis Xavier, St Ignatius of Loyola, St Teresa of Kolkata, St Edmund Rice, Servant of God Bishop Anasthatius Hartmann, Rev. Ante Gabric, a Croatian Jesuit Missionary.
And, in the South 24 Parganas, the tribal children continue to set the stage on fire with their visual sermon. And their parents have built “pucca” house of brick and cement with the earnings from Fr Saju’s performances and their own little contribution.
(Binu Alexander is the Editor and Publisher of Living in Faith)