Dancing down the Ganges, Agatha Christie style

Anita Menon's "Murder on the Ganges" takes a famous murder mystery and dances it in a new place

This has been a good month for Indian dance teacher/choreographer Anita Menon and her Anjali School of Dance. It started with a Newmark Theatre production of Murder on the Ganges, a dance adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile that gathered various local Indian dance groups into one stunning dance travelogue. It ended with the announcement that the Regional Arts and Culture Council had awarded Menon its $20,000 performing artist fellowship this year, along with choreographer Linda Austin, who founded Performance Works Northwest.

For me, Murder on the Ganges was very personal: When I was in 8th grade my parents took me out of school for six weeks to travel across Northern India. We traveled by train from Delhi to Agra and to Jaipur. On the Jaipur leg of the trip I bought an Agatha Christie novel from a train station bookseller. I was already a Christie fan, so it was that much more thrilling to be in someplace so unfamiliar and find something so familiar and comforting.

"Murder on the Nile" was a dance version of Agatha Christie/Photo courtesy Anita Menon

Alisha Menon, Shaila Ramachandran, Maya Jagannathan, Saloni Parikh and Renuka Ramanathan in “Murder on the Nile”/Photo courtesy Anita Menon

I read this novel (sadly I don’t remember which it was anymore) while traveling by train across the Jaipur desert, sitting in a vintage club chair on an old train, watching the desert flash by the windows as the train chugged and swayed side to side. It was wonderful. It was visceral. It was my Agatha Christie come to life.

Since that trip, Christie has become synonymous with India for me. I have also grown a small, maybe large, obsession with Hercule Poirot and his little gray cells. I enjoy his attention to detail, his sense of order and his confidence that everything will turn out OK in the end.

I am also a big fan of Indian classical dance. It was the first form of dance I ever learned as a child, and I have revisited it over and over in my dance training throughout the years.

So when I saw that Menon had taken Death on the Nile and transformed it for the stage into Murder on the Ganges, I was elated – and very curious about how this transference from text to dance and Egypt to India could be done.

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Death on the Nile, Christie’s 1937 tale of love, deceit, betrayal and murder, takes place on a riverboat on the Nile in Egypt. In adapting it to the dance, scriptwriter Avantika Shankar, in collaboration with Menon,  gave the characters Indian identities and placed them in India on the Ganges River. Shankar and Menon kept close to the original script but interspersed the plot with large song and dance numbers, weaving a new tale.

The cast goes for a sightseeing riverboat cruise on the Ganges guided by the effervescent (and amazing) boat manager Avish Menon,who threaded the show’s episodes together. Avish is an 8th grader, and also the son of director Anita Menon.

Originally, Menon wanted to highlight different cities and cultures along the Ganges, but as she researched she became more interested in talking about the women who lived in those cities, and wanted to honor their courageous spirits by highlighting their homes and designing the dances in the production around them.

The production tracked the voyage on the Ganges with projections/Courtesy of Anita Menon

Avish Menon and Erik James (as Hercule Poirot)/Courtesy of Anita Menon

The first port of call on the voyage is Uttarakhand, The Village of Widows; next Rishikesh, where The Beatles visited to study transcendental meditation and wrote the White Album. The trip continues: On to Kannauj, famous for its rose perfume; then Kanpur, famous for its “Ganga Mela,” a celebration of Holi—the Festival of Colors. In Kanpur the British banned the celebration in 1942, and the people defied the British by playing a Game of Colors for seven days until the British relented and lifted the ban. It has become a symbol of India’s victory over the British rule.

Then the boat moves to Allahabad, considered a patriotic city because it has birthed seven of the 13 post-independence prime ministers. Located at the union of three sacred rivers—the Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati—it is known as the “Place of Offerings.” The route continues to Varanasi, a very holy city where it is believed that Buddha founded Buddhism. Then to Baruni, known for its all-girls soccer league that unites a diverse community; to Bhagalpur, where endangered dolphins live within the Ganges, and finally to Calcutta, also known as Kolkata, and the home of the famous Bengali writer and poet Rabindranath Tagore.

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The set was a painted boat split into two sections bookending the sides of a platform on top of the stage. The platform was skirted with an apron of shiny aqua-colored cloth depicting the Ganges. Behind this on a screen, images were projected that supported the different scenes—the deck of the boat, a painting of Shiva, a map of India, and the like.

The cast included ten main characters, along with children and adults from seven local Indian dance schools, as well as professional actor Erik James, who played Hercule Poirot. Occasionally the smallest cast members needed gentle reminders of where to go and what direction to face, and the leading ladies, without missing a beat during their solo numbers, did a great job of directing these future stars. It is always risky having small children on the stage, but it wouldn’t be any fun without them.

The talent of all the performers was exceptional. Of particular note was the small jazz ensemble performing on the side of the stage.  The breadth of their repertoire included rock and roll to American Jazz standards. American jazz dance and music have strong ties to Classical Indian music, so it was nice to see this relationship represented.

Large dance numbers accompanied each location on the tour. My favorite was the opening dance Shiva Shambho, which appeared to be pure Bharatanatyam, a South Indian style of dance, and was performed by the young talented NatyAnjali Dance Company dancers. It is appropriate that a dance about Shiva should come first: Shiva, who is the god of destruction, is also the protector of the Ganges, which flowed from his head. I am proud to say that I recognized the Hastas, or hand gestures, in the dance depicting the three lines that are drawn across Shiva’s forehead in ash representing his all-pervading nature, superhuman power and wealth, and the wavy lines drawn in the air coming diagonally down from his head representing the flowing Ganges.

A scene from "Murder on the Ganges"/Courtesy of Anita Menon

Lisa Adhikari, Kshiti Shah, Brianna Adhikari, Alisha Menon, Maya Jagannathan, Rupali Nigote, and Shanmathi Mageshwar in “Murder on the Ganges”/Courtesy of Anita Menon

The dancers wore deep pink costumes, sewn to look like saris but made especially for dance, with shimmering gold borders and matching gold jewelry. Simple Bharatnatyam steps, combined with diagonal formations and moving geometric shapes, made this a very satisfying opening. There were several solo performances by leading ladies, but it was unclear to me what style of Indian classical dance they were doing because their form was obscured by the fabric of their saris. Nonetheless they were absolutely stunning to watch.

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Another dance highlight, notable for its symmetry and sweetness, was performed in the Calcutta scene by Calcutta Dance Ensemble. Its four adult female dancers (Sucharita Mitra Chatterjee, Mayurakshi Dutta, Sudeshna Ganguly and Sudipta Majumdar) were dressed in red-and-white costumes with silver jewelry in the style of Tagore dance, a lyrical combination of Bharatanatyam, Manipuri, Kathakali and folk dances.

Amazingly through all of these adventures Christie’s original storyline in Death on the Nile comes through with clarity and is not lost amid the dancing and sightseeing. The wealthy and very beautiful leading lady is still killed by her husband’s disenfranchised ex-girlfriend. Poirot reveals through his cunning detective work that the husband and ex-girlfriend were in cahoots all along. In Christie’s ending, the ex-girlfriend fatally shoots the husband and then herself. In this family-friendly version, Menon softens the ending by sending them off to jail.

I appreciate Menon’s goal through her dance theater productions to create cross-cultural dialogue and to demystify Indian dance by placing it in another context. It was wonderful to see such a large cross-section of the local Indian dance community working together to create such a beautiful production. And it is especially invigorating and inspiring to see so many young performers onstage and to consider the direction and talents of the next generation.

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