Dance in the Liturgy

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1. The Dancing Jesuit From "The blog of an English Catholic priest" Fr. Nicholas Schofield June 18, 2006 EXTRACT

St Ignatius Loyola, St Aloysius Gonzaga and St Edmund Campion would be rather surprised to learn that the man in the picture is actually a Jesuit, Fr Saju George, S.J., the so-called 'dancing priest,' who begins his English tour later this week.

This includes concerts at the Balaji Temple, Birmingham and Farm Street Jesuit Centre in London as well as performances during Sunday Mass at St Catherine's, Bristol (Fr Saju will provide a dance of self-offering, a Gospel meditation and a thanksgiving dance or Keerthanam after Communion).
Fr Saju is attempting to 'Christianize' Bharatanatyam, a sacred dance which (in recent centuries) was often performed by prostitutes in Hindu temples - so much so that it was abolished in 1947. As Fr Saju explained to Brendan McCarthy in this week's Tablet*, [a Catholic newspaper] this ban led to its 'spiritual reinvigoration.'

The dance, he said, involves a commitment of the whole person, body and soul. Everything that is danced is in praise of God. God may be Shiva or Krishna - or one of the other gods of the Hindu tradition...

As a Catholic I found that the dance may be in its traditional roots Hindu, but that it had the potential to express a Catholic commitment to Jesus through our own psalms; to make the spirit of the Bible alive in dance or movement.
*2. Dancing Body, Dancing Soul From The Tablet, 17 June 2006 EXTRACT

Saju George is a Jesuit priest and bharatanatyam performer, who integrates Indian classical dance with Catholic spirituality.
Even as a child Saju George loved to dance and he was endlessly fascinated by the folk dances his schoolmates performed at Hindu festivals. He himself comes from a community in Kerala, which has deep Christian roots… As a young man, Fr Saju joined the Jesuits where, inspired by Mother Teresa, he hoped to work as a missionary with India’s poorest people. Not for a moment did he imagine his eventual life as both priest and dancer. However his superiors had different plans.
When he performed at concerts in the seminary, his dancing gift was strikingly obvious. He was 22 when his superior suggested that he should study dance more formally. He began to immerse himself in India’s great traditions of classical dance, initially kuchipudi and later bharatanatyam, the form we know best in the West. A guru even visited the seminary to give him daily lessons. "I had not expressed myself strongly about a wish to dance", Fr Saju told me. "Instead it was a blessing from my superior. All my superiors - my provincial and my rectors - were artistically sensitive to the beauty of dance, music and theatre. They saw that I had the talent to 'go for it'. My call to dance is a call within the fundamental call to priesthood. While most of the time, I dance and teach dance, I am very much a priest."
The first thing that strikes you about him is his costume, which he designed himself; necklaces, waist and ankle belts of gold plate temple jewellery; and a silk costume, a man’s sari, or dhoti, with pleats. The jewellery looks heavy and I wondered if its weight made it difficult to move. Not so, Fr Saju says. In any case, bharatanatyam (in contrast with western classical dance which emphasises ethereality and escape from gravity) is very earthed with a fast flickering quality.

It uses the ground and is heavily percussive and rhythmic, driving into the base of the body before moving upwards and outwards. Mime and acting are integral to the dance, and facial expressions and highly stylised hand gestures are highly important. A performer explores the finest nuances of dramatic mood, winding together elements of pure dance with a fervour rooted in the everyday.
Bharatanatyam is a Hindu temple art. Historically it was performed by devadasis, (in Sanskrit, "servants of God"), women temple dancers. Its fundamental motivation is praise and worship of God. Over time the devadasis became little more than prostitutes and the practice was abolished in 1947. This freed Indian religious dance to reassert its fundamental value. As temple dancers brought their art to the proscenium theatre, high caste people began to study it, and increasing numbers of men became interested. As Fr Saju explained, "it underwent a spiritual reinvigoration. Its spiritual content was brought out - and seen not as vulgar and associated with prostitution."
How does Saju George integrate a traditionally Hindu religious practice with a Catholic spirituality?

His answer is that a Christian subjectivity transforms it. "You have to go through a rigorous training - physical and mental. The form of dance involves a commitment of the whole person, body and soul. Everything that is danced is in praise of God. God may be Shiva, or Krishna - or one of the other gods of the Hindu tradition. But the underlying spirituality is lifting one’s soul towards God. The dance lifts the soul. There is a sacredness and spirituality in it. It becomes a prayer. It’s like a Yoga, which takes years of commitment and it has its own deep philosophy. As a Catholic I found that the dance may be in its traditional roots Hindu, but that it had the potential to express a Catholic commitment to Jesus through our own psalms; to make the spirit of the Bible alive in dance and movement. Expressing psalms through this form really captures me. Our hymns can be danced. We have choreographed biblical themes - and it is a different way of preaching and evangelising and sharing with others how the whole person can be involved in prayer and worship, through body-gestures, singing, acting."

Fr Saju visits Britain later this month. To the accompaniment of Karnatic music, the classical form of South India, with its ragas and talas, he will dance at the Parish Mass at St Catherine’s, Bristol Street, Birmingham on Sunday 25 June.

As well as performing in Birmingham, Liverpool, Gillingham, Leicester and London, he will also be at the London’s Jesuit Centre in Mount Street on Wednesday 28th. At the Mass in St Catherine’s there will be a dance of self-offering; a Gospel meditation; and a thanksgiving dance, or keerthanam after Communion.

At a recent Eucharist, his danced reflection on the Paschal mystery lasted for 22 minutes.

"When you bring these dances to the West", he told me, "you need to explain certain things. The symbolic system is different. I found people are quite open to it." In his native India no explanation is necessary.

In 1989 he danced the offertory prayer at Pope John Paul’s Mass in Delhi. It had a powerful impact on those who saw it. Saju George belongs in a long tradition of dancing Jesuits, and it is one from which he takes encouragement.

For further details:*

Also at

*The Kalai Kaviri link given above is not opening. For Kalai Kaviri, see pages 49-52.

Fr. Saju George too is, as were the priests we examined on the previous pages, performing his Bharatanatyam recitals during the Liturgy of the Mass. Also, as in the case of the SVD priests seen earlier, he is encouraged by his fellow-Jesuits and superiors. He acknowledges that Bharatanatyam is a traditional Hindu dance that was not just performed in temples but also by prostitutes.
3. Sacred dance ideal for today's Catholic worship by Michael Higgins July 22, 2006 EXTRACT

King David was fond of dancing. But then again, so was Salome. As you can see, the Scriptures are rather non-committal with regard to the efficacy of dancing. In other words, it can be to a fine end or it can be to a deadly end.

Jesuits are very fond of dancing as well, and presumably it is all to a good end.

A Jesuit dance ensemble from Boston College regularly performs and provides instruction in matters pertaining to liturgical dance.

They are not entirely unique in this undertaking. As a recent article in The Tablet of London indicated there is a remarkable Indian Jesuit by the name of Saju George who believes in the profound relationship of the sacred with Indian classical dance. He is an expert in Kuchipudi and, more especially, Bharatanatyam.

Bharatanatyam is originally a Hindu temple dance

Michael Higgins is the president and vice-chancellor of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.


1. Mr. Higgins forgets that Liturgical dancing is not appropriate in western culture, according to statements made by the Vatican in 1975 and 1994. In Dance in the Liturgy (1975), the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship specifically provided that liturgical dancing is not appropriate in western countries. Instruction on the Roman Liturgy and Inculturation (1994) is a document that is universally binding in the Church.

IN CORDIBUS JESU ET MARIÆ Secretman July 26, 2006

2. O. K. As sick as it is here you go. Those dancing Jesuits.

[See] Polycarp July 26, 2006

Watering down Catholic Doctrines - Mixing with Hindu dancing liturgies - what's next? Kama Sutra before the Kiss of Peace? GBS0535 July 26, 2006


3. He [Fr. Saju George] is a fool ...oops! I guess according to Jesus I'm not supposed to call him that. It's so tempting however. sgnofcross July 26, 2006

4. Jesuit artists use traditional songs, dance to portray biblical themes August 27, 2009 [with 2 photographs]

Suranjan Makhal was surprised when a Jesuit priest sang about the teachings of Jesus on an ektara, a one-string musical instrument, during a religious program in this eastern city. "It was the first time I listened to baul songs by a Catholic priest," Makhal admitted. He had come from Keorapukur parish in Baruipur diocese to see two Jesuit priests use local art forms to explore biblical themes. The Aug. 23 program at St. Xavier’s College was titled "Bible, Baul and Bharatanatyam: An evening of song and dance meditations."

Baul, popular in West Bengal and Bangladesh, is a folksong tradition with philosophical overtones. Bharatanatyam is a classical dance form that developed in southern India.

Father John Chinnappan, a self-taught baul singer, and Father Saju George, a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, together with their musical troupe, enthralled the audience for two hours.

"I found it interesting to listen to Father Chinnappan’s rendering of the message of the Bible in an idiom which is easy for me to understand," Makhal commented. Father Chinnappan sang about Jesus as the way to the Father, his invitation to people leave everything in order to follow him, his words of encouragement and other Gospel themes.

The 41-year-old priest, who performed eight songs, told UCA News his vocation is to preach the Gospel in the vocabulary and idiom of Bengal, fulfilling the command of Jesus to share the Gospel with the whole world. He added that the people’s response to his presentation overwhelmed him.

Makhal said Father George’s 15-minute solo Bharatanatyam performance of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus also surprised him. Father George, 44, explained: "The Lord was nailed to the cross and requires my hands to reach out to the people in need, and he invites me to offer myself in the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola — 'Take Lord, receive!'" He said he has performed this particular piece more than 100 times in Europe and several times in India. In the West, he added, people do not like to watch depictions of great suffering, whereas in India people are affected deeply by it.

Father George said his other troupe members, all Hindus, go beyond the narrow boundaries of religion and find fulfillment in performing works with Christian themes. [See this article’s picture of Fr. Saju George on page 67, on the right hand side]

According to Christian baul singer Sonojit Mondol, who attended the program, baul is a spiritual tradition. With the Bible’s focus on spiritual values, it is easy to compose and sing baul songs based on biblical themes, he said.

The program was part of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Church’s presence in Bengal and the founding of St. Xavier’s School in Kolkata.

Church leaders who attended included Bishop Salvadore Lobo of Baruipur and three heads of Religious congregations: Missionaries of Charity Sister Mary Prema, Missionaries of Charity Brother Geoff Brown and Daughters of St Anne Sister Florence Rozario.

The same story was carried the following day by the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India site!

The baul-ektara performance of Father John Chinnappan SJ is folksy with no Hindu underpinnings and it was not performed inside a church. The problem is that he performed along with fellow-Jesuit Fr. Saju George [in a Catholic institution; Jesuit?] who has the Bishop of Baruipur and heads of three religious orders believing that it is fine to use Bharatanatyam to express Christian themes!
5. In the Flip of a Hip by Renuka Narayanan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi May 13, 2008 EXTRACT

The art of cheerleading is not that different from Indian classical dance. So, what’s all the fuss about, asks Renuka Narayanan in the Hindustan Times

The furore over imported Indian Premier League (IPL) cheerleaders and that they are 'indecent' is incredibly funny, especially because some American foreheads wrinkle exactly the same way when confronted with Indian classical dance. Where’s the comparison between "Rah-rah-rass! Kick’em in the ass!" and "O Appalamswamy Pappadam Perumal, I pine for you, come to me!" you ask? For one, Kansas City Catholics take a dim view of a man dancing Bharata Natyam as a ‘liturgical dance’ to God, especially if the dancer happens to be Father Saju George, an Indian Jesuit. “Ignatius Loyola, founder of the order, would be rolling in his grave,” fumed an offended American on a Catholic blog just a few months ago.

Just as funny are the NRIs at the biggest Carnatic diaspora festival, the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana.

Says a Bharata Natyam dancer, back home after a dozen years in the US, "Some parents in Cleveland object to the more 'sensual' padams (devadasi love songs) being taught to their daughters. They seem to have retained the mindset of the last century."

And there’s the catch: which 'mindset'? There were several contradictory ones. Let’s flashback first to the 1930s, to the sunny deck of a ship sailing to Sydney from Madras. A beautiful Indian girl called Rukmini honeymooning with her much older gora husband, Dr George Arundale, is watching the world’s greatest ballerina, Anna Pavlova, rehearsing en route to her Australian tour. The Arundales have unleashed a tsunami already back in Madras — a Tamil Brahmin girl married to a mleccha ('foreigner' in Sanskrit, implying 'barbarian'). Now Rukmini Devi is set to unleash another: she takes ballet classes from Pavlova’s principal dancer, Cleo Nordi. Nordi advises the beautiful Indian to learn her own arts. 69.

Back from Australia, Rukmini Devi* goes to watch two acclaimed devadasis, Pandanallur Jivaratnam and Jayalakshmi, dance their temple art, the sadir. That is the birth of what we now call ‘Bharata Natyam’, and the founding of the historical dance school, Kalakshetra***, in Madras. *See following page

Ironically, that’s also when the ‘anti-nautch’ campaign led by Miss Helen Tennant finds its fiercest champion in Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, herself of devadasi origin. The Devadasi Abolition Act slams down on this fragile sub-culture. While devadasis can no longer dance in temples, everyone else can at other public venues.

6. Faith is like a lotus flower- Father Saju George in Bad Laer [Germany] Translated from German EXTRACT

At first glance, it seemed like a fairy tale from a Thousand and One Nights, when Father Saju George began his sermon at the Protestant Church in Bad Laer… "Personal enrichment is a special gift in our lives," said Pastor Reinhard Keding and left the pulpit to the Jesuit Father Saju George. His special talent is the body language. With plenty of jewelry, expressive face and painted in traditional festive Hindu monksattire… For the fifth time he visits Germany. It should be open to people of other cultures, especially India, Saju George. His wish: an art and cultural center in India, where faith is taught by exceptional means of art. "Faith is like a beautiful lotus flower to the honeysuckle," said Saju George.

That was Fr. Saju George at the altar in a Protestant church and, below, in a Catholic church.


8. Nritya Sadhana – Bharathanatyam by the ‘Dancing Priest’ [U.K.] EXTRACT

Fr Saju George Moolamthuvuthil, a Jesuit priest from Kerala, trained in Chennai and now working in Kolkata, was one of the two opening dancers at the Festival of India in Moscow, 1999. He has performed on some 60 solo and 25 group Bharatanatyam stages in India, Germany, Bangladesh and Thailand, with both Christian and Hindu themes. Having also danced before Pope John Paul II in New Delhi, he has thus raised Bharathanatyam to the realm of Christian prayer and worship. Here is a rare opportunity to experience a new flowering of an ancient vine. In the concerts, imageries of Radha Krishna share a platform with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Fr Saju has been groomed under a galaxy of gurus:
Sri K Rajkumar, Khagendra Nath Barman, Padmashri Leela Samson*, Nadabrahmam Prof. C V Chandrasekhar (all from Kalakshetra, Chennai) and Padmabhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan and Kalaimamani Priyadarshini Govind. *See following page
Fr Saju views art as a medium for social transformation and integration, and in his own words: "Art is a wonderful medium that can transcend the barriers of religion and culture, and I want to make Bharathanatyam a source for building bridges between religion and culture".
His University of Madras PhD was for a thesis on dance in the Saiva** Tradition. He is also Research Director at Kalai Kaviri*** College of Fine Arts, Tiruchirappalli. **Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, see picture on right, following page

***For Kalai Kaviri, see pages 49-52. Fr. Saju George is its “Research Director”.


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