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Since 1st March, 1999
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Saraswati vandana flows, Brooklyn-style
- Americans invoke goddess of learning to revitalise canal wasteland and creative spirit

New York, Aug. 11: In a converted soap factory near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, in a studio down a hallway paved with glistening whorls of mosaic glass and up three steep flights of wood stairs, a motley collection of dancers was gyrating and chanting as it summoned the powers of Saraswati, the goddess of learning and the arts.

They were all members of Spoke the Hub Dancing. Wednesday afternoon at 5.30, as part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors, that company’s 100 or so members — who include children and the elderly, professionals and amateurs — will come out on the street to perform “Community of Creativity: A Garland for Saraswati”.

The singular invocation they were chanting during their Brooklyn rehearsal began, “Oh lordy, please say it’s not broken, please say she was kidding,” before diverging into specifics:

“And please send me a hot guy who’s young and athletic and not married or secretly gay.”

“But lord, what do I have to do to get a new job and my credit card approved'”

“Am I truly a bad person because I wish my upstairs neighbour would get hit by a truck or struck by lightning every now and then'”

To choreographer Elise Long, this frenzied celebration — and the hodgepodge of wishes it elicited — is a perfect fit. Legend has it that before she was transformed into a goddess, Saraswati was a river on whose banks a rich culture thrived until its waters evaporated and its civilisation disappeared.

Two decades ago, Long found her studio space in the industrial wasteland lining the toxin-filled Gowanus Canal and has been fighting — and praying — ever since to revitalise it and keep the neighbourhood’s heritage from drying up. In this, she has been helped by like-minded artists lured to the area’s vast loft spaces and cheap rents.

At Lincoln Center, with a reflecting pool standing in for the Saraswati or perhaps the Gowanus, the free, interactive performance will include a section during which viewers can participate in workshops that allow the culturally curious to sample a cross-section of the world’s art forms.

Like most goddesses, Saraswati has got around, not only in Asia, where celebrations of her gifts are commonplace, but in the US, too.

“I’d see her picture around in Little India and I thought, ‘I wonder who that woman with the swans is,’” said Jenneth Webster, who, as associate director of programming for Lincoln Center, produces the festival.

“And then one day I was talking about her to a composer friend and she said, ‘That’s my saint. I have her picture too.’”

“I discovered that Saraswati is really a kind of inspiration figure for many artists,” Webster said.

“And I thought someday it would be really interesting to create something about this concept of the energy of creativity.”

She approached Long, a specialist in intergenerational productions who has turned her Brooklyn studios into fertile playgrounds for those interested in experimenting with new art forms.

And then there was the link between the legend of Saraswati and the plight of the Gowanus, whose toxins linger from industrial abuse in the late 1800s but are now being flushed away through the efforts of organisations like the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corp.

At Lincoln Center, structures resembling shower stalls will represent shrines, so that “A Garland for Saraswati” will merge the exuberant pageantry found in religious festivals with the bustle of the marketplace. After an opening invocation adapted from a traditional Kathak dance, the audience can join the movement or dabble in workshops ranging from Latin and sword dancing to creative writing, knitting and mask making.

Viewers will be called to an improvised riverfront along the pool’s edge, Long said, and asked to create a personal offering — a poem, maybe, or a drawing — before ascending “the mountains” to a symbolic palace. There, the dancers will lead chanting from “The Book of Prayers”, a wish list compiled by a poet, Ellen Baxt, from interviews she recorded during a cross-country drive.

Long didn’t know a lot about Saraswati before she began researching her a year ago, but she admits praying to her new-found patron to make a couple of wishes come to fruition: a renewed desire in America for knowledge for knowledge’s sake, not to simply pass a test, and to see the Gowanus as “greener and vital and restored like the Hudson”.

And because she believes that even a goddess like Saraswati helps only those who help themselves, Long vows to keep fighting for these causes and to remain hopeful. Or, as her troupe will chant Wednesday night, “Everything will be OK in the end, and if it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”

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