Life's little pleasures

Life's little pleasures

She was born to dance the intricate and lucid movements of Odissi. Sharmila Biswas talks to Ranjana Dave about her passion for the form that has left an indelible impression on her psyche.

It’s true, what they say about the small joys of life. Early mornings suffused by classical music streaming out from ancient record players left vivid impressions on Sharmila Biswas’s childhood in Kolkata.

An accomplished Odissi dancer and choreographer, music has enriched her understanding of dance and life. Even now, there is an elevated register of excitement in her voice as she speaks of learning music along with students at her dance institute, Odissi Vision and Movement Centre.

Biswas is a colourful raconteur. Her dances are layered by the tales she weaves around them — tales of people, places and traditions she has encountered in the course of her research on the regional performance practices of Orissa. Every moment of her dancing reflects this research — in its spontaneity and exuberance, and its unique approach to structure and form.

This year, new and old discoveries come together for Biswas at a poignant juncture, for she is in the midst of creating a curriculum for Odissi dancers. This project emerged from a personal desire to hone the training methodology for Odissi. With an obsessive focus on growing technique and vocabulary, classical dance training can be skewed, paying little more than lip service to its complements — music and poetry, for instance.

Biswas stresses the importance of this undertaking. “We no longer have one or two great gurus teaching everyone. There are many schools and teachers, and they have limited time. So it is important to give a little more structure to the teaching methodology. Else, there is so much we are exposed to that our vertical growth is constricted,” she explains.

Early impressions

As a teenager, Biswas spent time at the Children’s Little Theatre (CLT) in Kolkata, where students were encouraged to cultivate a wide range of performance interests. They learned the dances of Uday Shankar, and listened to the music of tribal communities from Bastar — thus beginning to appreciate dance and music from an early age. It was here at CLT that Biswas first encountered Odissi.

In an earlier interview, Biswas described this moment. “I must have been 13 or 14 and I saw a simple dance piece — Saraswati Vandana — and fell in love with it. It was an inexplicable love at that point, but I now feel that Odissi was the only classical dance that was close to my heart,” she said.

Biswas went on to train with the renowned Odissi guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. As she delved deeper into the form, periodic workshops in Kolkata were not enough for her. So, in the early 80s, she went to Cuttack, where Mohapatra lived with his family and a floating population of students who sought to immerse themselves in dance.

By then, he had choreographed most of his major works and was beginning to revisit them, imbuing them with refined ideas of grammar, structure and logic. For Biswas, watching Mohapatra configure abstract ideas into dance was an invaluable learning experience.

Watching him live his life was an even greater revelation. She elaborates, “He showed me how one can live so simply. Sometimes, we forget why we wanted to dance. If I am unhappy with my dance because I am not getting invited to perform at a hundred programmes in one year, I am missing the primary objective of dance. And unhappiness often stems from things that are unimportant.”

A different take

This understanding has steered Biswas through her years of laborious research. Her personal style evolves from the belief that Odissi’s movement aesthetic is rooted in how the people of Orissa move and work. Locating the folk aesthetic in classical dance is a long process.

“The festivals, the clothes, how the feet move, how the body arches — these details make up the human rhythm. A classical dance is stylised and codified into transferable movements that will function in largely the same way in Kolkata, New York or anywhere in the world. But the same is not true of folk dance; it has not evolved from grammatical analysis. It is fluid and regional,” she explains.

Her philosophies are best reflected in performance; in her recent work, Avartan-Vivartan, the unbridled joy of children playing a game after school becomes the basis of a complex narrative that encompasses Tagore’s ideas of tala and Biswas’s own preoccupations with rhythm, grammar and language. One watches in wonder as a game that begins as a multiplication challenge dissolves into an exposition of Odissi talas, becoming a canvas for intricate and explosive movement combinations. 

Biswas’s work also reflects her affinity for mythology’s oft-misunderstood female characters. Her Katha Surpanakha, for instance, tells the story of Rama and Surpanakha through the latter’s point of view. Seen through Biswas’s eyes, one is compelled to empathise with Surpanakha, for she is a woman in love — consumed by this emotion, she fails to see Rama’s true feelings for her, and this leads to their gory encounter in the forest and Ravana’s revenge.

Biswas’s next project furthers this fascination; she is creating a piece about Vedavati, an ascetic who is reborn as Sita. The piece will premiere in January 2015 at a dance festival in New Delhi. Vedavati, like the others, will emerge from an enduring creative process. Biswas puts it best when she quips, “The material churns inside me. Ultimately, it gains form.”

In the course of her career, Biswas has found inspiration across a range of artistic disciplines. A few years ago, she choreographed for acclaimed director Rituparno Ghosh’s film Chitrangada. Ghosh himself played the protagonist, a choreographer who stages a grand performance based on Tagore’s story of the princess Chitrangada and her romance with Arjuna. Biswas’s professional relationship with Ghosh soon metamorphosed into something more personal.

After the film, they collaborated on three dance pieces based on poetry from the 12th century love epic Gita Govinda. Ghosh’s reimagination of the pieces focused on simultaneously abstracting and populating the narrative suggested by the text, while stripping the dance to its bare essentials.

She reminisces about the experience, “As dancers, we literally translate the words of the dance into movement. Rituparno helped me find the core of the song, and reflect on what the nayika is thinking. I began to ask — is this movement actually expressing something or is it just a pretty movement? The resultant abhinaya pieces are meant for intimate viewing, where we speak to the audience and then dance. It’s a different kind of exploration.”

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