Many forms, One Vision

Gitanjali Dance Academy has been an innovative space for dancers, seekers and dance enthusiasts of Shillong. Here’s a story on the dancers who, collectively, believe in innovation and constant experimentation.

Monica Chanda owes here versatility in dance forms from many revered Gurus. She learnt the Manipuri dance under Tampasena Sinha and the late Senarik Sinha. She learnt folk dance forms under Mukunda Bhattacharyya, the phenomenal archivist of folk-dance forms. Ashit Chattopadhyay of Kolkata known for his Uday Shankar style and Bharatnatyam trained Monica on both dance forms. Gayatri Chatterjee and Anita Mallik also shaped her understanding of dance.

Growing up in Hailakandi shaped her in a different way. While people did not speak of dance as a career, there was a sense of freedom to explore what one’s calling was. In Class X, she was given the responsibility of directing a folktale. Until then, she did not realise that her training in Manipuri dance would inform her dramatic sense. “That experience changed my life.”, she said.

Badal Sircar, noted theatre personality, would go on to play a big role in her journey. Working with him in the ‘Third Theatre’ workshops and travelling to remote places with ‘Nukkad Natak’ found here, a place in innovative pieces like Suryoday and Parampara.

She is the recipient of the National Fellowship from Sangeet Natak Akademi, Ministry of Culture, Government of India on “Traditional Dances of Meghalaya”, under the guidance of Dr Helen Giri.

“All I knew was that dance was at the core of my being and I wanted to invest my creative energies in dance. That’s how Gitanjali Dance Academy came to be”, she says. Being fearless became very important for her art.

A journey of collaboration

As a mother-daughter duo, it’s a world where theory meets practice. While Madhubanti refers to texts, Monica goes back to her practice-oriented early influences. Two world-views reach a melting point and that results in a beautiful collaboration.

Diverse influences taught Monica to blend the elements. While classical dance gives her structure, her most imaginative pieces come from her understanding of theatre spaces.

Narration has been a distinct aspect of their dance recitals. By sound, she also means the ‘voice’. In ‘Parampara’, for instance, Monica used narration in such a seamless manner that it was hard to know where poetry blended into narration and vice-versa. “My mother believes in building a relationship with the audience”, Madhubanti says.

Then came ‘Suryoday’. Here, they used Yoga and Bharat Natyam in a simple concept of “From Dawn to Dusk”. Light design was the hallmark of this production. What made this so meaningful was the use of silhouettes to reveal the appearance of dawn, the shadow effect caught the moment of the Sun rising. Women were depicted as sensual and languorous, using Yogic movements. It finally ended with dusk.

Costume is another facet. The saree pleats, if done tastefully. add grace to a woman’s body and allows a great range of mobility. Elements from yoga and martial arts would find space in the costume design and Monica designs them.

Artists of the Gitanjali Dance Academy look at history and the possibility – what came before and where can a concept end. Breaking tradition, thus, has been an important facet of their collaborations.

The “Nayika”

“I believe graceful movements require innate strength. If there is no strength, there can be no grace. You need to have a solid core. Grace is also a little about asymmetry as well. What makes a curve very appealing is its ability to withstand that asymmetry. To be able to form curves and to hold on to a certain position for some moments requires mental and physical strength.”

With these words, Madhubanti spoke about her love for dance and academics. For her, the two are inseparable and one feeds into the other. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. For me, everything comes from a space of undivided wholeness.” This engagement with both worlds adds nuance to her art.

Having completed her Masters in Art History from MS University, Baroda, the past is a continuous dance into the present. She wrote a thesis that connects dance and architecture, a subject that resonates with her deeply.

Architecture is an expression of power and dance ushers in a transformation in temple architecture. The deva-dasi culture had a profound and lasting impression on dance as there was a certain philosophy and aesthetics behind it. “Dance also emerged as a factor to project kingly power. Look at the magnificence of Konark and Lingaraja temples,” she added.

On a solo trip to remote areas of Orissa, Madhubanti was trying to see the shift from smaller to bigger temples. Being inside the “nat-mandir”, where dance was performed, she felt transported back in time.

“Once I was inside these spaces, I imagined what it was like to be there. The dancer-spectator relationship fascinates me. It gave me a somatic understanding of the body and the space.” She recalls how a shift happened in her solo performances then.

People have often asked Monica Chanda on her visual presentation of womanhood. For her, the ‘nayika’ is rooted in strength. Having gone through transformative periods in life, being self-reliant is key to her approach in celebrating womanhood. “Every woman is a Devi. Crisis leads to creation”, she believes.

Madhubanti recalls how in school, one of her teachers, Ms. Lyngdoh shaped her early life. Following a personal tragedy, she told Monica to be strong for her daughter. Something as simple as this advice changed both their lives.

Towards the Radical

Monica Chanda collaborated with Pynter Folk Orchestra in the Calm Festival (2014) and came up with a piece which started out as a folk-tune, inspired by the Khasi folktale of a mother forbidding her son to go out after dark. Neither does he listen to her nor does he return.

Movements were contemporary and the visual experience showed life in rural Meghalaya – the agrarian life– and ended with a rendition of ‘Saare Jahan se Achha’, showing the shift from mountains to the State; the ‘undulating mountain’ became a political metaphor.

Gitanjali Dance Academy has also collaborated with Benedict Skhemlong Hynniewta, a renowned musician and painter at the 18 Degrees Festival (2014), organised by the Arts and Cultural Department, Govt of Meghalaya.

In a Facebook live performance last year, Madhubanti looked at the concept of the Nayika. Deeply inspired by the deva-dasi culture, whose legacy she feels, “flows into all of us”, the nayika became the lover, waiting for her beloved. She started reading the Geet Govind and verses showing Radha as the assertive lover.

Using metaphors for a cosmopolitan audience who did not know Sanskrit, she showed the Nayika braving the rain to meet her lover at Wards Lake. The lover does not turn up and we see the woman transform from being afraid and confused to becoming the rejected and angry lover.

Inspired by the story of the migrating blue worms of Mawlyngot, she recently explored their journey in a small production last month. In this piece, Madhubanti imagined what it would be like if one amidst the swarm would stop to “smell the rose”. That life is fragile and there is a continuous interplay between life and death became a recurring image. The poem, accompanying this piece is written by her.

We spoke to Damerbha Rumnong, the only Khasi dancer, learning Bharat Natyam, under Monica Chanda for 6 years now. A grade X student, she looks at dance, “as being spiritual and not religious”. Her love for the dance has grown and she feels that, “it should be connected to the soul, not caste or religion.”

Initially, people would question her on her choices, but there was no discrimination. She hopes that more women from the Khasi community will explore different dance forms. “One need not belong to a particular community to learn Bharat Natyam or any dance form.”

Every year, Gitanjali Dance Academy works with the prisoners of the Central Jail on August 15th. Working with the prisoners has further shaped their philosophy.

Dance and Gender

The late Sandip Mitra was the first male dancer who explored gender through his body. He politicised himself, exploring the concept of grace in relation to gender, among other themes. That invited criticism from certain sections of people in Shillong.

Shayan Nath has been learning dance from the Academy for the last four years. He was interested in dance but never learnt it. While in high school, he attended a workshop. He knows for certain that he cannot leave dance. He faced ridicule too. Initially, people made fun of him, but now, the same people praise him. He does not blame them, for he says they have not discovered the path yet. “Time changes perception”, he says.

He also mentioned how he views himself as a dancer and not “as male or female,” adding how Lord Shiva is a man. “Grace is not limited to gender at all”.

On the issue of gender, Madhubanti believes that form is the outer manifestation of the psyche. “What dance does is bring you to an amoebic stage where you can be full of your gender or sense the lack of it. You can be the ‘other’ as well as ‘nothing’. You can be the starting point of everything.”

She does not understand the fuss on gender being a limiting factor. “Dance is so transformative and you feel so full that it becomes a non-gendered space.”

Our conversation concluded with the dancers telling us that dance is for everyone and the only way to flow beyond limitations is to engage and experiment.

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