The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

The Dancer’s Language

Kiana Manian, Class of 2021

We often throw around catchphrases like ‘the language of dance’, but seldom do we understand their true meaning. The Centre for Writing and Communication organised a unique lecture-demonstration last week that explored the parallels between language and dance, and its relevance today. Thinking Body Dancing Mind by Srijani Bhaswa Mahanta explored these intricacies through her breathtaking performance. She brought out enriching perspectives, enlivening and educating the audience in unexpected ways.

The poster for the event | Courtesy: CWC

Srijani is currently pursuing a Masters in Political Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has been practising Sattriya, one of the oldest Indian dance forms originating in Assam, since the age of six. It struck me how I had never heard of this dance form before I began my research for the interview. I learned that despite being practised since the sixteenth century, it had only been recognized by the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT) in 2000. Sattriya, like most dance forms, has a particular form and style, but what stood out was the idea of ‘grammar’, which she suggested was innate in all styles of dance. Srijani introduced the idea of dance being a language, drawing parallels to the evolution of movement, the basic grammar that exists in each style of dance, and even a lingua franca and vernacular that was discernible when analysing how messages are communicated through dance.

The talk revolved around the creation of layers of meaning in various forms of communication, specifically dance. The choreography, performance and ultimately the audiences’ reception create new levels of what the dance might have meant; each is as significant as the other, and each informs the other in a cyclical pattern. Srijani incorporated a level of self-awareness in her lecture by informing the audience that she would ask for interpretations of her performance as soon as it ended, so as to understand how the final layer of meaning was formed.

Srijani Mahanta during the lecture-demonstration | Photograph by Samim Asgor Ali

I had the opportunity to speak with her about her performance, her life, and perspectives on dance. In our conversation, her personal relationship to dance became very evident and added yet another level of depth to my engagement with her performance as an audience member. Counterintuitive as it may be, by learning that I couldn’t speak the language of dance, I learned just how much could be said through it.

Kiana: Were you introduced to Sattriya as a child, and was art and culture very important to you in your formative years?

Srijani: I grew up in Barpetta Satra where my father used to practice Sattriya as a child, so it was a big part of my life early on. I would visit my ancestral place often, and I was drawn to all the people I saw rehearsing Sattriya. It was never something I was made to do, but I was interested in it very early on. And yes, my father was into filmmaking and my mother is a poet, so art and culture was always a very important part of my life.

Kiana: Often times, young adults are forced to make a choice between academia and performing arts because they are seen in opposition to one another. You are an MA student at a prestigious university and have managed to keep Sattriya a prominent part of your life. How did you not only strike a balance but find the intersection?

For me, it was never about finding a balance. These two fields weren’t in opposition, either to me or my family. And in many ways, both helped each other. I definitely studied better when I danced. In fact, as a child, when I did well on my exams, I would ask my parents to allow me to stage a drama or a performance as a reward.

In that vein, is there a close relationship between your understanding of what you study and your dancing?

Yes, absolutely. In fact, we have a course called Political Thought in MA Politics and International Studies. One of the units, Language, Reality and Representation, was concerned with concepts like the creation and reception of meaning, and coding of messages. My reading of those texts was always informed by my understanding of dance and its meaning. This talk, too, has been heavily influenced by what I learned.

You spoke about the creation of meaning and how it takes on something new in every stage of encoding and decoding. What does a piece mean to you — after it’s choreography and before it’s reception — as a dancer, what meaning do you derive?

When we perform with live music, the chemistry between the musician and dancer is something else. The scope of improvisation is higher, and I can extend it as long as I’d like. Today’s was a recorded piece and did not allow for any real freedom, but often I’ve improvised, and my guru has appreciated it. It is very intuitive, I might make a decision to deviate from what I have been taught and do something which I feel is more appropriate to the piece and the place. With every performance, something is different, the environment and my own presence of mind always change the piece and my experience of it.

When going through the process of choreographing a piece, do you find yourself restrained by the canonical texts and myths, or is there freedom to decide how you’d like a story portrayed?

I never sit with the texts. I always have an understanding of them and how they might inform a piece, and I’m aware of the grammar of the form, but I do not sit and refer to the actual text while choreographing. My guru and I sit together, he tells me the stories, we talk about the characters, and in that space, we will decide where a movement might fit in, or how best to depict a scene. But I’m not restricted and nor is the performance dictated by the texts.

Lastly, Sattriya is the latest of the major Indian dance forms to have been recognized. How do you view the relative lack of knowledge about North-Eastern culture, and how would you suggest it be addressed?

When I auditioned for the dance society in Lady Shri Ram College during my undergraduate years, the president did not know of the existence of such a form. She had never heard of it! It was recognized in 2000 and I auditioned around 13 years later, and I didn’t expect her to know the nuances or the details, but at least have some vague knowledge or awareness. But we cannot only blame those in the northern belt, but we as a community also cannot be complacent. We must make efforts to have our culture known and there is a level of activism which is necessary on our part.

Srijani Mahanta during the lecture-demonstration | Photograph by Samim Asgor Ali

Within the dance community in India, there is a sense of how the language of dance is understood and communicated. Questions from trained dancers in the audience, even though they might have never heard of Sattriya, were more informed than those of us who were outsiders to the world of dance. It was a live example of the close relationship dancers have with their craft, and how integral narrative is to a performance.

The idea of linguistic patterns emerging in dance can be applied across art forms and impacts the way we communicate and create art ourselves. Much of our experience with traditional art is rooted in the past, with seemingly little room for evolution or reinterpretation. As awareness of Sattriya grows, and I truly hope it does, maybe we can all learn to appreciate some classic stories with a fresher understanding. And, in the same way, form new narratives in the traditional styles that persist in each culture.

The author is a staff writer for the Arts & Culture column of the Edict.

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