Choreography with a question

By Shanta Gokhale

First Published in Mumbai Mirror on October 02, 2014.

Sharmila Biswas

It has to be admitted that, in the case of some artists and their work, we find the process of creation as fascinating as its product. You watch an Odissi performance; you are impressed by its technical perfection, and you go home thinking of the unlimited possibilities of the human body. You watch another Odissi performance which, besides being technically perfect, also touches you deeply; and you go home with a song in your heart. Then you watch an Odissi performance which, besides being technically perfect and touching your heart, also excites your mind, and you go home with questions buzzing in your head. Sharmila Biswas is one such dancer, whose choreographies stimulate questions. It was therefore a privilege, offered to us by the nascent cultural organisation, First Education Arts, to have a tete-a-tete with her in the elegantly proportioned, gracious K R Cama Oriental Institute opposite Lion Gate. It is unfortunate that more people didn't take advantage of this opportunity to meet an innovative and questioning mind whose talk was peppered with dry asides like, "You don't want to wear a costume that is so decorative, it makes you look like a bride or an apsara."

The very name of the research and teaching institute that Biswas has founded in Kolkata, the Odissi Vision and Movement Centre, tells you something about her approach to dance. Codified steps, gestures and postures are the superstructure of Odissi, or of any classical dance for that matter. Their base lies in the forms of movement that have always existed in the region. Returning to those forms in order to reanimate the code, you need a direction, a vision. So there you have it, in the name.

Biswas said to us, "I didn't go to guru Kelucharan Mohapatra only to learn dance. I went to discover his philosophy of dance." Kelubabu himself had spent years studying the earliest forms of Odissi that resided in old manuscripts, on temple walls and in the bodies of the Maharis, Gotipuas and tribal dancers of the region. He drew on this storehouse of movement when he helped to codify Odissi during the post-Independence resurgence of the arts. In time, the roots disappeared from view and only the superstructure remained. "Most students came to guruji to learn dance items. So he taught them dance items and stopped talking about his ideas," Biswas said ruefully. If she wanted to get to the roots of her dance form, she would therefore have to retrace her guru's steps and search for them herself.

We saw brief snatches of her research in the demonstrations that six young students of OVM, dressed in tightly wound blue saris and green blouses, gave. The verve and understanding they brought to their movements, showed how deeply they were invested in what they were doing. While studying the traditions of music and dance that had contributed to Odissi, Biswas had absorbed the entire spectrum of talas that Odisha's mardala players practise. Her dancers presented a scintillating tala piece for us in which three girls moved and clapped to one tala, followed by the second group responding with a modification of the same tala. They also demonstrated the transformations that have taken place from folk dance movements to movements in Odissi.

Biswas showed us interesting video clips as aids to her talk. Besides some taken from her choreographies, there was one of the two maharis whose singing and dancing she had studied; and one from Rituparna Ghosh's film Chitrangada - the Crowning Wish, on which she had collaborated. We thus saw the entire scope of her work, stretching from research into the roots of her dance to collaborating with an artist from another medium altogether. In Ghosh's film, he was playing a choreographer of modern dance who is directing Tagore's play Chitrangada, using Odissi as the basis for his choreography. He was looking for a collaborator who would lead him into the intricacies of Odissi while still being open to new ideas. It turned out to be a mutually enriching project.

We could have continued listening to Biswas and watching her dancers' lively demonstrations for hours longer. But, like all good things (forgive the cliche), this too had to end. The only sad thing was that more people had not taken advantage of the stimulating opportunity that First Education Arts had offered us. Fortunately, the organisers did not appear to be too disheartened. They had done what they believed in; and for the moment, that had to be their reward.

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