I seem to find Soumita Bhattacharya, on my list of Facebook friends, an interesting person. When she invited me to view some of her creations showcased in a modern dance form, I agreed readily. Soumita’s husband is called Soumit, a rarity to find namesakes in a married couple, and they are dedicated photographers who specialize in shooting various kinds of dance forms. Soumit is more inclined towards classical dance while Soumita has a penchant for modern and improvized dances. Sadhya, a group based in Delhi was the subject of their still photos and it was to a live show of Sadhya’s dance that I went to.
Modern dances are not always easy to follow and especially when they are so highly stylized as in the avant garde. Sadhya’s creation called Chaitanya is a modernized version of the Chhau dance of Mayurbhanj area and strongly resembles all dances that are basically born out of forms of martial art, including the Tai Chi. I happened to visit Sri Lanka, thanks to Mahalakshmi, an associate professor of ancient history in JNU, where I saw the Kandy dance. Tagore wrote about the Kandy dance decrying it as being excessively physical and lacking in finer sublimities as perhaps his favourite form, the Manipuri has.
I saw deep similarities between the Chhau and the Kandy dance and why not because the present population of Lanka are migrants from eastern and central India. A look at Soumita and Soumit’s photos helped me to understand why the two forms of dances seemed so similar to me because both essentially evoked sensations of watching birds in flight. The flying bird was the central motif in these dances and dancers jumped, fell, rolled over, glided and slided all across the stage with violence, I noticed how silently they raised and released their weight. Such a vigorous movements and yet so noiseless !!! It is easy to see the level of control that the dancers have over their bodies.
The still photos by Soumita and Soumit, under their brand Art Imagerie are astounding. Rarely have I seen stills that convey so much of movement and flight. Usually photos of dance forms are of motions that have come to a standstill and appear as frozen moments. But these photos produce a strange feeling of a state of frozenness from which action will emanate at any moment of time and creates an eager anticipation of movement. Each pose has a sense of levitation, floatation and totally detached from any kind of centre or origin. I was wondering how the actual performance of these dances would look on stage and I realized that I was in for a rather different experience.
To viewers like me who tend to classify all kinds of visual experiences into neat categories, this particular dance of Sadhya fell neither into the classical nor into the folk form. I tend to look at classical dance as one in which the performer, usually a lone one, centres herself on the stage and brings into her location the forces of the Universe floating around her. In case of a folk dance, usually conducted in a group, the dancers move around the centre invoking the laws of the Universe into this empty space. In either case, whether through the body of the dancer or through the empty space created as being surrounded by a group of dancers, the forces of the Universe descend on to and anchor themselves on the earth. The movement is therefore from the ether to the earth and sometimes, in the very intense forms, into the nether. The interesting variation of the improvised dance forms wherever they are performed, is that the movement is from the earth into the ether, into floatation, levitating in the empty space defying and eventually free from gravity. Sadhya’s performance was in this vein.
The dancers moved sometimes swiftly, sometimes idly, sometimes in slow motion and sometimes cracked with the speed of lightening, but always noiselessly in utter silence. The movements were irregular as if the bodies were free floating particles in the vast space of nothingness. The dancers moved about with deadpan expressions seeing nothing, feeling nothing, as if they were souls of persons released from the world and floating about homelessly sometimes coming together and sometime drifting away, without a pattern or a design as if in a kaleidoscope and totally without any bodily sensations. The dissociation of movement from rhythm ensured that the dance had nothing to do with the world of the living or with Existence at large. I wondered why the production was called Chaitanya because all the while the creation wanted to move past anything that had to do with the human body and surely consciousness was not a feature of a disembodied soul.
The appeal of Sadhya’s production lies in its utter dissociation from anything to do with our existence. It is not even transcendence because it has no reckoning of what is to be transcended. It is the darkness of the space, the nothingness before creation and the emptiness after it. Sadhya is thus a total darkness, gravity-lessness, beyond light, beyond sound, beyond life and beyond Creation. The black and white costumes heighten this sense of emptiness and with a music and lighting to go with it; one moves into a world of extra ethereal senselessness, much of what is described as Brahma, or Time, or the Darkness of origin stories.