Experimental ode

Raka Maitra’s idea of odissi is one with a contemporary twist. She also leads a teaching path with her own dance company.

A still from the production 'Blind Age'

Dancer Raka Maitra of Kolkata has inked a slightly different path by establishing a dance production company called Chowk in Singapore, with odissi as its base. Trained under renowned odissi exponent Madhavi Mudgal in Delhi and also in the Serraikella Chhau martial dance style under Sashadhar Acharaya, she, however, has chosen to lend a contemporary twist to the classical odissi.As Maitra says, “I started learning dance in Children’s Little Theatre (CLT) in Kolkata at a young age; my grandfather Samar Chatterjee was the founder.”

CLT, by the way, is an institution that has nurtured many talents through generations.

New realisation

Naturally, she grew up surrounded by dance, theatre and music. “I didn’t realise it then, but now I do, as the contemporary work I pursue is due to the open environment we had at CLT. As kids we started with rhythm and movement, and we went on to learn different classical forms, which is the base of the dance productions that we have performed at the dance festivals.”

“In my works, I draw from the odissi vocabulary, but I don’t know whether I could call it classical odissi; the roots are there, but it is contemporary work, so I have decided to strip it of all ornamentation so the audience can experience its nuances,” Maitra says.

For Maitra, the journey has been long — moving from intensive training in the classical form to a considered regard of its potential for expression and more importantly, its relevance and necessity in today’s globalised, postmodern world.

She started experimenting with contemporary dance in 2000 while living in Delhi. Boundaries, Dreams, and Beyond was my first full-length solo work that got recongnised, and people were talking about the distinct vocabulary that I had created from odissi,” she says.

Maitra moved to Singapore in 2004. “It was probably the best thing that happened; it gave me a distance from India and I could create my own dance vocabulary in isolation. I was also fortunate to get the support and be an associate artiste at the Substation in Singapore, which is an arts space that supports experimental artistes.”

The foundation

She founded Chowk in 2007. It has a centre for dance that offers dance classes and a dance company. Chowk’s artistic productions include full-length works that have been commissioned by theatres and festivals in Singapore. The productions have also travelled extensively in Europe, USA and Australia.

Maitra has done over 10 original works. “In my solo work ‘Boundaries, Dreams and Beyond...’ I had a clear structure of the vocabulary that I wanted to explore and develop.

This work travelled to many festivals, including a 10-days’ stint in Tasmania.

She followed with ensemble works like The Hungry Stones, The Circular Ruins, Khayyams Rubaiyat, The Blind Age, From: The platform and the three Pallavi series.

The Hungry Stones was Maitra’s first ensemble work. “After working as a solo dancer for a decade, when I was sure about my path as a contemporary choreographer did I start training dancers in my methodology and developed the work.”

The Hungry Stones (Kshudhita Pashan) is a famous short story by Rabindranath Tagore on the theme of rebirth on the background of Rajasthan. It was made into a movie by acclaimed Bengali director, the late Tapan Sinha.

How has she interpreted the story for her dance drama, you ask. “I worked with the strong images of women living together in a harem and what could have happened. I did not treat it like just a story; it was more about atmosphere and the stories that came out of the walls,” Maitra explains, adding, “I love reading and dreaming — all my works are influenced by literature.” This work was commissioned by the Esplanade, Theatres on the Bay, a performing arts centre in Singapore.

“In the Pallavi series of three pieces, I have tried to deconstruct and isolate some of the odissi techniques,” Maitra says.

In the first piece, Pallavi and Space, it was the chowk position that she worked with. In Pallavi in Time, she worked with the well-known tribhang position of odissi. In the last one, Pallavi in Stillness, the focus shifts to the torso movement of odissi.

Drawing interest

What about the expats? Are they interested in Indian dance? “Yes, a lot of Indians make their children join classes at Chowk to stay connected to their roots. Most of my students are Singaporean Indians or Indians who have moved to Singapore in recent years. We do have non-Indians, but only a handful. The number of students and the interest usually increases after they watch one of our dance productions. However, only those students who can go through the rigour and discipline of learning in a classical form, last.”

Funding is quite a headache, though. But Chowk has managed to survive. As Maitra says stoically, “I think as dancers with own companies we will always have funding problems, but we need to keep working and fighting.” Particularly if one finds “great pleasure in choreographing and creating dancers,” as Maitra does.

“I hope I can continue doing that with the support of the people and festivals,” she concludes on an optimistic note.

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