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Saju George: A Confluence of Cultures, Religions and Spiritualities

Born and raised in Kerala, and educated in different parts of India, Dr George is a professional Indian classical dancer, choreographer and teacher who has
Saju George classical dancer Jesuit Priest
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Looking much younger for his age, always in enviably fine fettle, and maintaining a strikingly vivacious but composed demeanour, Prof. Dr Saju George will take you by surprise as you meet him first. If you visit Kalahrdaya (The Heart of Art), a centre for arts and culture he founded at Bakreswar (a village on the outskirts of Calcutta in the South 24 Parganas in West Bengal), Dr George will take you for a discursive stroll through the lush green campus. His characteristic discursive stroll is his favourite way of engaging you in enriching and erudite discussion on art, culture, spirituality, humanism, mysticism, philosophy, theology, social work, socio-political issues and so on in the most agreeable manner. 

Born and raised in Kerala, and educated in different parts of India, Dr George is a professional Indian classical dancer, choreographer and teacher who has performed different Indian classical dance forms and lectured on them in more than 30 countries in the last two and a half decades. He has performed in various villages and cities in India, in temples, auditoriums, churches, and educational institutions, at international Congresses of Church leaders and at various ecumenical, inter-religious and cultural fora in different parts of the world. As a solo dancer, he has performed on over 2000 stages.

Saju George and his team performing at Kolkata church
Saju George and his team performing at Kolkata church

Dr George holds three bachelor’s degrees (in political science, philosophy and Christian theology), two certificates Arul Isai Mani and Arul Isai Thilakam in Carnatic music with Mridangam and Chenda as subsidiaries, a two-year diploma as well as a master’s degree in classical dance. For his PhD from Madras University, he wrote a thesis on the religious and philosophical foundations of Indian classical dance with special reference to the Saiva tradition. The Tamil Shaivite mystic Thirumoolar’s depiction of the cosmic dance of Siva-Nataraja in his Tamil poetic work, Thirumathiram, an important text of Saiva Siddhanta, is the inspiration behind Dr. George’s research. 

Apart from these formal degrees, he had been an ardent disciple of various illustrious Gurus. While he learnt Bharatanatyam from gurus such as K. Rajkumar, Khagendranath Barman, Leela Samson, C.V. Chandrasekhar, late Kalanidhi Narayanan and Priyadarshini Govind, he leant Kuchipudi from Derric Munro and late Vempathi Chinna Satyam. He also learned and performed dance forms such as Kathakali, Koodiyattam, Manipuri, Kathak, folk, tribal and creative dances with commendable ease and competence. His passion for theatre led him to take lessons in theatre as well. Ask him about Kalaripayattu, and you will be spellbound as he gets ready in a flash for a payattu (fight). 

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Malayalam became his mother tongue as he was born and raised in Kerala. On account of his education, English eventually became his first language. Since he adopted West Bengal as his karmabhoomi (the land of his mission and action), he learned Bengali. Necessitated by his passion for dance, he learned Sanskrit, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and even Deutsch. “In order to fashion myself into a scholarly and competent artiste, I worked hard at all that I laid my hands on. None of them was easy,” says Dr George with a smile. 

He is a much sought-after PhD supervisor in Dance at the Kalai Kaviri College of Fine Arts, under the Bharatidasan University, Trichy, Tamil Nadu. On the list of those who acquired their PhD, you will find names such as the well-known Mohiniattam dancers, Dr Methil Devika and Dr Ayswaria Warrier. Recognising his laudable erudition and competence, Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit at Kalady, Kerala ensured that it has Dr. George on its Doctoral Committee. 

Dr Saju George
He is PhD supervisor in Dance at the Kalai Kaviri College of Fine Arts

The Sangeet Natak Academy (the national academy of music, dance and drama, an organization under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India), recognises Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Sattriya, Manipuri, and Odissi, as the eight Indian classical dance forms. Bharatanatyam which originated at the temples of Tamil Nadu, and which used to be performed originally only by female temple dancers, is Dr George’s passion and forte. Like all other Indian classical dance forms, Bharatanatyam is a dance drama that depicts stories by means of stylised dance and acting accompanied by music and song and has its theoretical and performative foundation in Bharata Muni’s Natyasastra, the oldest treatise on performing arts in the world. 

Explaining the mythical origin of classical dance forms, Natyasastra says that at the onset of the Tretayuga, as people began to indulge themselves in a wayward way of life, under the leadership of Indra, all the gods approached Brahma (the god of creation) for an audio-visual entertainment that would enable people to reorient themselves to an honourable and ethical way of life. 

Brahma was convinced that the way of life envisaged in the four Vedas would be sufficient for the purpose. Therefore, amalgamating the essence of the four Vedas (words from the Rigveda, chant and music from the Samaveda, the language of gestures from the Yajurveda and sentiment and emotional element from the Atharvaveda) he created Natyasastra also known as Natyaveda that would serve as the fifth Veda. The art of Natyasastra was so difficult that the gods themselves were unable to either comprehend or exercise it. As Brahma realised that only the sages who have learnt the Vedas would be able to comprehend as well as exercise it, he instructed Bharata Muni in Natyasastra and entrusted him and his sons with the responsibility of teaching it to others. Bharata is believed to have written down Natyasastra in the form of the present text somewhere between 500 BCE and 500 CE or between 200 BCE and 200 CE.  

Students of Kalahrdaya
Students of Kalahrdaya

Natyasastra is a complete manual for performing arts, especially music, dance and theatre. It is the foundational text for all the Indian classical dance forms. Talking about the all-inclusive purpose and significance of Natya (drama), Natyasastra says, “This (the Natya) teaches duty to those bent on doing their duty, love to those who are eager for its fulfilment, and it chastises those who are ill-bred or unruly, promotes self-restraint, in those who are disciplined, gives courage to cowards, energy to heroic persons, enlightens men of poor intellect and gives wisdom to the learned. This gives diversion to the kings, firmness [of mind] to persons afflicted with sorrow, and [hints of acquiring] wealth to those who are for earning it, and brings composure to persons agitated in mind. The drama I have devised is a mimicry of the actions and conducts of people, which is rich in various emotions, and which depicts different situations. This will relate to the actions of men, good, bad and indifferent, and will give courage, amusement and happiness as well as counsel to them all.”  

The Bharatanatyam performer in Dr George is so full of Natyasastra that your stroll with him can turn out to be an engrossing crash course on the art and science of performing arts according to Natyasastra if you happen to ask him any question to this effect. As he ushers you into the octagonal chapel that has the semblance more of a south Indian temple than a chapel, the magnificent abode of the divine takes your breath away for a while first in admiration for its delicate grandeur and then in awe for the unique philosophy it embodies. The evocating architecture of this exquisite artistic bower of the divine conceived by Dr George himself is a symbolic symbiosis of the Hindu and the Christian, the spiritual and the aesthetic, the earthly and the heavenly, the human and divine. This chapel, Dr George’s favourite place on the campus, is a testimony to the philosopher, the aesthete, the religious and the mystic and the universal man in him.  

He also learned and performed dance forms such as Kathakali, Koodiyattam, Manipuri, Kathak, folk, tribal and creative dances with commendable ease and competence. His passion for theatre led him to take lessons in theatre as well. Ask him about Kalaripayattu, and you will be spellbound as he gets ready in a flash for a payattu (fight).

As he explains how seated at the altar in the chapel wearing a saffron shawl in place of the conventional eucharistic vestments, every morning he celebrates the holy Eucharist, the most important form of Christian worship, you meet the Catholic priest in him almost in total disbelief. As he elucidates with an overwhelming sense of equanimity how the Eucharist which is the centre of every Christian’s life is his greatest source of spiritual sustenance, you come to terms with the fact that Dr George, the classical dancer, in fact, is a Catholic priest. Ask him a further question about his priestly identity, he will tell you that he is a religious priest, a Jesuit priest to be precise, in the Catholic Church. Jesuit priests are Catholic priests belonging to the Society of Jesus, an international Catholic religious Order founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the middle of the 16th century in the background of the European Renaissance and Reformation. Headquartered in Rome, since its founding, its members work all over the world in every field of human concern and interest.  

As you refresh your knowledge of Indian cultural history, you realise that originating in Hindu temples, the Indian classical dance forms were part of the worship of gods and goddesses in Hindu temples. At this stage, you might find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that Dr George, performing, teaching, choreographing and lecturing on these dance forms is a Jesuit priest. “Dance for me is contemplation in action, through dance, I contemplate and experience the divine who transcends the bounds of religion and culture and I help my audience to experience the same,” says Dr George. The high point of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the comprehensive spiritual manual of the Jesuits, is contemplation that helps one to find God in all things, and all things in God. Quoting from Ronald Modras’s book, Ignatian Humanism, Dr George says, “Service is at the core of Ignatian spirituality, encapsulated in a phrase that Ignatius used more than any other in his writings: ‘helping souls’ . . . If, as Ignatius puts it in the Jesuit constitutions, we can and ought to ‘seek God our Lord in all things,’ then there is no aspect of life or human endeavour that is outside of grace or inappropriate for Christian service.” Since Natyasastra assures that natya “will be conducive to [the] observance of duty (dharma) as well as to fame, long life, intellect and general good, and will educate people” why would a Jesuit priest not make Indian dance forms his passion and mission? 

The spiritual process called ‘discernment,’ a concept central to The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola involves a close examination of human thoughts and emotions both healthy and unhealthy so as to cleanse oneself of all unhealthy thoughts and emotions. In the language of The Spiritual Exercises, they constitute what Ignatius calls desolation, namely, the “darkness of the soul, turmoil of the mind, inclination to low and earthly things, restlessness resulting from many disturbances and temptations which lead to loss of faith, loss of hope, and loss of love.” Ignatius argues, “It is also desolation when a soul finds itself completely apathetic, tepid, sad, and separated as it were, from its Creator and Lord.” As opposed to ‘desolation,’ ‘consolation’ is an inner disposition, a feeling that one undergoes when one experiences a deep connectedness with God that fills one with a sense of peace, joy and contentment on account of which one comes to consider that all one’s affection towards all worldly things is insignificant. This interior movement of the soul leading to the love of God above everything comes as a response to the love of God.  “I call it consolation,” says St Ignatius, “when some interior movement in the soul is caused, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord; and when it can, in consequence, love no created thing on the face of the earth in itself but in the creator of them all.”  Indian classical dance forms have the power to lead the audience to consolation in the Ignatian sense.

As you refresh your knowledge of Indian cultural history, you realise that originating in Hindu temples, the Indian classical dance forms were part of the worship of gods and goddesses in Hindu temples. At this stage, you might find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that Dr George, performing, teaching, choreographing and lecturing on these dance forms is a Jesuit priest.

In Natyasastra, Bharata refers to the human soul as Bhava-Jagat (the world of emotions). He speaks of eight rasas, namely, sringara (the erotic/love), hasya (humour/joy/the comic), karuna (sorrow/compassion/the pathetic) raudra (anger/the furious), veera (thr heroic/courage), bhayanaka (the fearful/insecurity/worries/self-doubt), bibhatsa (the disgusting/hatred), and adbhuta (the wonderous). Rasanubhuti, the reader’s or viewer’s experience of rasa, that is to say, their aesthetically transformed bhavas, (emotions represented in art), is the ultimate aim of art, so also dance, a performing art form. The ability to transform bhava to rasa so as to experience rasa calls for the transcendence of the self, in other words, the overcoming of one’s ego. Rasanubhuti, the experience of every one of these eight rasas, leads to the ninth rasa, santarasa, peace and tranquillity. Abhinavagupta, the eleventh-century Saivite theologian and aesthetician argues that the aim of all the eight rasas is the supreme rasa, santarasa, which is comparable to moksha (liberation), the ultimate goal of human life. According to the Saivite worldview, the phenomenal world is the manifestation of Siva, in other words, Siva’s consciousness. Liberation consists in one’s realisation of one’s true self – one’s identity with Siva. Abhinavagupta, a follower of Kashmiri Saivism, argues that liberation is possible during our earthly life.  

It is by leading his Christian audience to a sense of consolation in the Ignatian sense, his Hindu audience to a taste of moksha in the Saivite sense, and the rest of his audience to an engrossing aesthetic, intellectual and emotional experience, Dr George fulfils his call to live the life of a Jesuit priest. In him, you perceive the confluence of the East and the West, the Hindu and the Christian, the Saivite and the Ignatian. In fact, he is a confluence of cultures, religions and spiritualities.  The world needs more priests like Dr George.

Images courtesy: https://www.calcuttajesuits.in/kalahrdaya/

Sacaria Joseph is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Having pursued his undergraduate studies at St. Xavier’s College, he furthered his academic journey by obtaining a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Pune University, a Master of Philosophy from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and a PhD from Visva-Bharati University, West Bengal. In addition to his academic pursuits, he writes on a wide array of subjects encompassing literature, philosophy, religion, culture, cinema, politics, and the environment.

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