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Narthaki Review 2008

“Erasing Borders: Festival of Indian Dance” 
A Reflection   
- Diditi Mitra 
Review posted on www.narthaki.com — India’s leading online dance magazine since 2000.
Photo: Stephen Baranovics  
August 27, 2008 

The recent Indian dance festival sponsored by the Indo–American Arts Council in New York City concluded with a set of performances that varied in their content, dance styles and their choreographies. This review is based on the performances on the final evening of the festival. A total of six companies presented their works that evening. While the performances by Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company’s presentation of Bell Song and Sinha Danse’s presentation of Quebasian Rhapsody elevated my spirits with their thoughtful and exciting exploration of movement, space and music, the presentations of Sath Safed by Maria ColacoDance and Daak by Ananya Dance Theater Company forced me to focus on the disadvantaged workers of the developing world. In contrast, Carmine Bees presented by Sudarshan Belsare and Ardhanarishwara by Nayikas Dance Theater and Rudrakshya used mythologies from Buddhism and Hinduism respectively in order to challenge patriarchal social expectations. Together, the diverse dance forms and the diverse content of the choreographies compelled me to ponder the meaning and the possibilities of “erasing borders.”

Expanding one’s sense of self and space that embraces stories of people who are seemingly different is one pathway to “erasing borders.” Maria Colaco’s choreography on the Kashmiri carpet weavers attempted to do so by stretching the national and cultural borders to include stories of people that are clearly distinct from hers as a South Asian American woman. Similarly, Ananya Chatterjea’s performance on the ongoing struggle for land rights by women of Nandigram, West Bengal demonstrated a need to widen one’s world to include places and people who may seem disconnected from our everyday lives, but are certainly part of the global space that all of us inhabit. A global social consciousness and a desire to understand connections between multiple social realities that were evidenced in the choreographies of Colaco and Chatterjea are certainly commendable and much needed.

However, Colaco and Chatterjea’s choreographies would have been strengthened by a more careful consideration of the contexts in which the Kashmiri carpet weavers and the women of Nandigram are located. The costumes that reflected the aesthetic of the local were an important way in which the stories could have been contextualized. Whereas the dancers in Sath Safed wore costumes that are typically associated with modern dancers, the dancers in Daak wore costumes that reminded me of army fatigues. It was difficult for me to relate the bodies on stage to the people whose stories were being told. The static dance movements and the facial expressions, especially in Daak, may have also been a reason why I was unable to visualize and feel the people on whom the narrative was based. Additionally, the choice of background score exoticised the local. Burial and/or marketing of the local in order to imagine the global only silenced the voices from below and reproduced the very hierarchies that Colaco and Chatterjea set out to dismantle.

Using the available cultural tools to raise questions from within in order to question social boundaries is another avenue to “erasing borders.” This was precisely the intention of the performances by Sudarshan Belsare and Nayikas Dance Theater and Rudrakshya. Belsare’s work used Buddhist mythology based on the story of the goddess Kurukulla in order to question dominant notions of maleness as a prerequisite for the achievement of enlightenment. The performances by Nayikas and Rudrakshya, in contrast, used the dance idiom of Odissi to depict the idea of the Ardhanarishwara in order to critically reflect on the socially constructed borders of male and female that comprise gendered social arrangements. While a noble objective, the choreographers needed to place this “nonsexist” tool within the broader frame of sexism that is very much a part of at least Hinduism. Also, the sacred thread worn by the dancers in Rudrakshya that represent membership in the upper castes within the Hindu tradition challenged the choreographers stated goal of “erasing borders.”

Integration of diverse cultural forms for the development of something new is another way to break down barriers. I found Daniel Phoenix Singh and Roger Sinha’s mélange of at least modern and Bharatnatyam to be absolutely delightful. Their dancing reflected their versatility and their skillfulness as dancers. The ease with which they moved demonstrated their embodiment of both modern dance and Bharatnatyam. Their keen musical sensibilities were also reflected in their choice of music and its use as a tool to enhance their performances. The effective use of space by both groups of dancers further enhanced their choreographies. Through their choreographies, both Singh and Sinha, were able to show the importance of respecting the local for an honest attempt in “erasing borders.”
So, I come back to the two questions I raised in the beginning of this review. Firstly, is it possible to “erase borders?” The uneven global space that we occupy makes it difficult to do so. At least in the works of Chatterjea and Colaco what I presumed is a desire to erase signs of the local in order to make the product palatable to the “global” (read: Western) audience. This form of packaging of issues by both choreographers was likely to have fed the Western liberal mind that feels the need to rescue the oppressed, especially those in the Third World. In that case, instead of “erasing borders,” the existing ones are simply being reinforced. Secondly, what does it mean to “erase borders?” As the performances of Singh and Sinha show, it is necessary to attain deep knowledge and understanding of the local in order to build bridges and create a kind of global that is able to respect and grant legitimacy to all involved. To put it in a slightly different way, understanding the self, howsoever defined, is a necessary prerequisite for building relationships, and hence, it is also a necessary prerequisite for the eventual erasure of borders.

Diditi Mitra is a Sociologist, Kathak dancer, and a member of Courtyard Dancers, a Philadelphia based dance theater group.