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Updated: December 06, 1988 05:00 PM GMT
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Divine Word Father Francis Barboza, 33, better known as India´s dancer-priest, is the most recent of this culture-rich country´s many pioneers in inculturation to come under attack by traditionalists.

The unpopular trend to better interpret Christianity to local people through their own art and culture, initiated by early pioneers like Jesuit Saint John de Britto and Jesuit Father Robert de Nobili, was later enhanced with the stimulus given to inculturation and adaptation by Vatican Council II.

Traditionalist moves to stall such efforts have not abated as seen in the current controversy following a recent report in Illustrated Weekly of India.

The feature in the mass circulation magazine called Father Barboza an "oddity who has to bear the censure of two religions -- Catholic and Hindu."

Letters supporting or criticizing the priest have been published during the past few months in the Madras-based Catholic weekly, The New Leader.

As the controversy continues to stir, the priest has been performing before a growing audience both overseas and within the country -- such as in Bombay, India´s western metropolis, where he danced before an audience that included Auxiliary Bishop Ferdinand Fonseca of Bombay.

"If in the pseudo-spirit of inculturation and Indianization the bishops want to boost the dancing priest," Swami Kulandaiswami of Maharashtra wrote in The New Leader, "they should not forget that it is only in the Catholic Church and in no other religion that we find such a ridiculous phenomeon."

Such criticism has led the Illustrated Weekly´s Ratna Rao Shekhar to comment that "the Catholics hound him (Father Barboza) for dancing half-naked and for bringing pagan elements into the church, while Hindus frown upon a Christian stepping into their sacrosanct world."

Already used to criticism by Christians, the priest only notes, "Of the two, it was my Hindu gurus and audience who were tolerant of what I was doing."

V. Antony Samy of Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, asserts that "projecting a Christian theme through dance will pay rich dividends in India, where people approach it with a religious and not a secular mood." Dance performance by a priest, according to Samy, is in conformity with the teaching of Vatican Council II which wants all art forms to be adapted to the work of salvation.

"If a priest can be a teacher, printer or factory worker, why not a dancer, if it helps bring souls to Christ?" asks Paulist Father Alfonso Elengical.

Father Elengical adds that he sees nothing incompatible with priestly mission and activity in Father Barboza´s performance.

The Illustrated Weekly drew attention to Father Barboza´a Bharata Natyam, an Indian classical dance in which it sees another instance of Christian priests moving away from the traditional groove of tending the flock.

He has composed three Bharat Natyam presentations based on Christian themes: Something Beautiful for God, Nrityanjali with themes from the Acts of the Apostles, and Kristubhagavtam, on the life of Christ based on a Sanskrit epic.

"Liberation theology has converted many of them into activists struggling to initiate changes. Francis Barboza is trying to spread the Gospel via the unusual medium of Bharata Natyam," the feature report observed.

Such arguments, however, do not convince Kulandaiswami, who says the support given to the priest is "based on wrong premises and lack of knowledge of the historic and religious background of Indian dancing."

Kulandaiswami argues that the dance was confined to "Devadasis" (unmarried women who spend their lives serving temples and assisting at worship), who were socially and sexually exploited.

"Dancing was never allowed in high castes and good families for centuries until recent times when art and culture received a fresh impetus and dancing was accepted as a popular art," says The New Leader writer.

But Father Barboza, who was fascinated by the art form even as a young boy in his native village in Mangalore in southern India´s Karnataka state, claims that "to me dance is prayer, a meditation where the dancer experiences God and tries to share the experience with others."

Referring to criticism by traditional Catholics, he comments, "Those who tread the path of the unusual should be prepared to have stones cast at them."

Father Barboza says he took to Bharata Natyam "with firm conviction that true to our heritage, themes from other religions could be assimilated into this ancient temple dance with excellent fluidity and rhythmic refulgence."

Born and raised in a cultural atmosphere as his father played drums, he took part at the age of four in folk dances staged in his village.

"Something in me wanted to dance, but being religious, I also wanted to become a priest," he says. Believing that dance would be anathema to the priesthood, he suppressed his desire during his early years in the seminary.

With permission from his superiors, however, he continued his aesthetic studies soon after his ordination in 1977, and in 1983 he received an award from the Indian government´s University Grants Commission to do research on "Christianity and dance forms with particular referrence to southern styles."

Father Barboza later became director of of Bombay´s Gyam Ashram, a school of dance and music founded by a German Divine Word priest.

Dance critics Krishne Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi think highly of the dancer-priest. "His Christian themes are enchanting and his own ´mudras´ (signs) for Father, Son, Holy Spirit and other ideas are adept and convincing," they say.

An innovative presentation of the Mystery of Redemption in dance language won Father Barboza the Presidential Award from the Indian government in 1986.


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