Move away, norms

Ananya Chatterjea believes in ensemble choreography, in exploring the politics of space, of sharing space and rhythm

Sharp Dance scholar-choreographer Ananya Chatterjea.

Ananya Chatterjea is a US-based feminist, dance scholar and practitioner whose work focuses on social justice. She performed recently in India, dedicating her solo performance to little Asifa. She has also authored a book on dancer-activist Chandralekha, whom she admires. Excerpts from an interview...

You performed at the first Aavejak Avaaz festival organised by the Kri Foundation in New Delhi, presenting ‘Shaatranga: Women Weaving Worlds’. What was the work about?

Shaatranga means seven colours, like in the rainbow, referring to the multiple shades of emotion women weave even as they
grapple with the blues that dominate their lives.

How do you reconcile a classical art rooted in feminine beauty that has found expression in temple friezes to your social activism?

I grew up in Kolkata, where these juxtapositions are abundant. I trained in classical odissi with my guru Sanjukta Panigrahi, and sometimes, at the bus stop right outside the class, women’s groups performed street theatre, agitating against some kind of social injustice. The tension between these two was tearing my soul apart. I desperately wanted to bring the formal richness of my classical training and the urgency and the shared heartbeat of street theatre together. My work exists at the intersection of these two.

Ananya Dance Theatre (ADT) is composed of women of colour. Is that deliberate?

This is intentional. Racial and cultural differences are vital in understanding who we are, and they shape our experience as artistes, cultural workers and parents. In forming ADT as a company of women of colour, my intention was to build a space for listening to each other, learning each other’s stories, and creating a powerful movement towards justice.

The beauty of odissi solo performances is indisputable. However, I am interested in ensemble choreography, in exploring the politics of space, of sharing space and rhythm. In this, dance becomes a practice of how to live with differences.

You have chosen collaborative work over solo performances, which odissi  is known for...

The beauty of odissi solo performances is indisputable. However, I am interested in ensemble choreography, in exploring the politics of space, of sharing space and rhythm. In this, dance becomes a practice of how to live with differences. To move across swathes of stage, to dance complex intersecting footwork sequences without running into each other, and finding moments of unison and harmony — to me, that is a metaphoric manifestation of a movement towards justice.

How well has your work been accepted in India and in your adopted country?

I was humbled by the reception in India, particularly this time, because I could bring such a big company. In the US, much like in India, audiences who had come to associate Indian dance with bharatanatyam were initially puzzled by the aesthetic, but also intrigued. We now enjoy a good deal of community support.

You are also an academician who weaves her scholarship into her practice. Does that not require a discerning audience, thereby limiting the numbers?

I feel audiences, if encouraged, are fully able to think metaphorically. As an artiste, I work to create images from the depths of our human experience. My critical analysis and scholarship push me to refine the images and the choreographic arc, but at the heart of all this is a conviction about our shared humanity. But yes, we have to build relationships with
audiences.

What does Resistive Choreographies mean? And what is Chandralekha’s legacy in classical and contemporary dance?

Choreography as resisting the dominant ideologies in dance.
She is an artiste who jolted the global dance field in a whole new direction with her visionary reimagination of Indian dance.

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Move away, norms

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