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Mahatma through dancers' prism

July 19, 2021

Trust the ace Odissi dancer Sharmila Biswas of the eastern metropolis to think "out-of-the-box" whenever chance comes! She has spent a lifetime already in teaching talented students and choreographing on several unusual themes, besides researching on Odisha's indigenous culture of singing, musical instruments, life of Devadasis and sundry other Odisha related subjects.

And, as a conscious citizen, she kept a note of some of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi over the past couple of decades. Mahatma's political, social and spiritual journey through life, his constant quest for truth and his steely determination never to make a compromise - even under the most adverse circumstances - had made a deep impression on her thinking self as on every conscientious Indian. She had often toyed with the idea as to how she could bring them to bear upon a dancer's performance persona.

Now in the prevailing fractured times, she took upon herself to set up the Mahatma Project Online for some senior students of hers, for whom she laid down the following "do's" and "don'ts":
Understanding & expressing the concept: They were given a few quotes to choose from, none of them connecting to dance directly, and asked to produce work in 24 hours, showing a glimpse of their "first understanding" of the theme.
Dance movements: They were asked to use Chhau, Odissi and folk techniques in novel ways and "discovering" their potentials.
Music: They were forbidden to use any professional quality music and asked to create "soundscape" specific to ideas and movements themselves.

Explains Sharmila, "The entire exercise was to give hurdles, thereby forcing them to think on their own within a very limited time. This was the reality in our lives, and also when we were pursuing careers in dance. Through this exercise, they were expected to structure the process of choreography themselves."

The outcome is an astonishing spectrum of what best can be described as reflex responses of today's millennials to deeply felt thoughts of a great soul whom they could only contemplate on and read about, apart from the audio-visual media exposure. The reflex responses led to a wide choreographed range of emotions: muted panic; of inner resolve surfacing within a while; of determined thoughts of resistance against onslaughts on life and liberty; and even of joyous release from tension after inner defence mechanism takes over. While they are all very valid reactions, this critic would suggest they should be viewed as work-in-progress, and another chance be offered to let the participants come out with a version of more thought-out choreography without honestly taking any outside aid, now that some time has elapsed for their deeper reflection on Mahatma's valuable thoughts.

Interview with the director Sharmila Biswas:

Sharmila Biswas

How many students were involved and with average of how many years of training? Was any experience of choreographing own programme/s before a pre-requisite?
There were 14 in the senior group and 12 in the intermediate group. Seniors were mostly with a training of at least 20 years and were mainly performers. A few have some experience in choreography.

Could you provide a template on Mahatma's messages that you gave your students?
Violence - This can be of many forms, such as:
1. Violence- taking birth...from inner conflicts
2. Violence - from fear and insecurities
3. Violence - emerging from inability to gain personal freedom
4. Violence - silent, subtle and corrosive
5. Violence - non communication
6. Violence - spreading from person to person; community to community, nation to nation and enveloping the whole world
7. Violence- emerging from a deep sense of rejection setting boundaries all around.
Where is the boundary line? Turning away from any person who creates that line.
Man is the maker of that line and therefore he can break it.
I hold that non-violence is not merely a personal virtue. It is also a social virtue. What I ask for is an extrusion of it on larger national and international sale.
Whenever men begin to see beauty in truth, art will arise. All true art is the expression of the soul. The outward forms have value only in so far as they are the expressions of the inner spirit of man.
I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is, underlying all that change, a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and recreates. That power or spirit is god. I worship god as Truth.
I know too, that I should never know God, if I do not struggle with and against evil, even at the cost of life itself.

To produce "work within 24 hours" seems a little too drastic for concrete thinking and planning on choreography -- any specific reason?
The entire exercise was to give them hurdles, thereby forcing them to think out of the box, within a very limited time; to encourage them to focus intensely and to be spontaneous; to avoid over thinking; and to borrow other people's thoughts. Time is limited - this is the reality in our lives, and also the reality when we are pursuing a career in dance. Hence to know their strengths and weaknesses, and choose a career path, this was important.

The same question for music -- did they have any music background, as such?
Primarily dance music comes from the dance concept. The audio has to be conceptualised by the choreographer and not all music are melodious. It is soundscape effectively used to enhance concept. Dancers hide behind someone else's music, and are usually not good at listening. Developing ear for music, realising the need to understand music etc., was also the purpose.

Could you provide any other helpful information, particularly what your own assessment was of the outcome?
Choreographic process can be objectively studied and used. Awareness of this is not always there. Whims and fancies do not produce great work. Logic and communications are needed to develop.

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.

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