Bahe Nirantar Ananto Aanando Dhaaraa... 
- Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Chennai 
June 22, 2007 

It was rather early in the morning in the streets of old Kolkata in and around Sealdha. Half-awake and half-dressed men stopped their frothy and frenzied tooth-brushing midway to see what is it that was bringing so much colour, music and dance into their narrow gullies this summer morning. Living in Kolkata, they are certainly used to rallies, traffic blocks, parades and slogan-shouting, but to start their day listening to some of the most fondly remembered songs of Rabindra Sangeet and watching a number of beautifully dressed dancers dancing along their nondescript gully, is apparently not a mundane experience to them. 

Dancers of Srinjan, a dance academy for classical dances and Rabindra Nritya (a dance-theatre style created by Rabindranath Tagore, taking influences from styles as varied as Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Odissi, Manipuri, many folks dance styles, etc.) decided that a three-day festival in an auditorium is not colourful or happy enough a way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their institution and dance company. Hence this rally along the streets of old Kolkata, dancing and singing in the heavy drizzle that kept descending the whole morning. Headed by Kohinoor Sen Barat, an extremely agile and wonderfully expressive dancer and actor and a director of Srinjan, the dancers, ranging from age ten to forty, took to the streets with the same, if not more, enthusiasm that they normally show on stage. The young girls dressed in lovely yellow Bengal cotton sarees could not wait for the rally to reach street junctions that would be just broad enough for them to spread into their formations and start dancing to the songs pouring forth from the loudspeaker following them in a three-wheeler! My dear friend Anasuya Banerjee, in charge of Bharatanatyam training to the dancers of Srinjan, jumps in, with an enviable ease, to do all the Rabindra Nritya pieces.

As for me, I was a spectacle already. There was no need to dance. They had implored me to come in a south Indian dhoti/mundu and a kurti. So there I was in a zari mundu and a kurti and standing out from the rest of the crowd like some small stone you sometimes bite into during your rice meal! The best part was when we went along streets where men were bathing in front of their houses. Soaped and lathered, they sat wherever they were, watched the tamasha that we were making, and went on with the rest of their ablutions once we passed by, rubbing hard on the lather that had begun to dry on them as they were being entertained in their bath! 

Once I was clear of these interesting distractions, I noticed that many office goers had no issues pausing to watch the dance. And I could also see many of them hum the songs, while pleasant smiles spread over their weekday-hassled faces smiles that probably came out of some memory associated with the songs or just out of the happiness at their sheer familiarity with the famous lines of their favourite poet; a moment of collective cultural resonance, perhaps. Like it happens when we listen to certain lines of Subramanya Bharatiyar, may be. 

The dancers that I have worked with in Kolkata, so far, are certainly not the same as those in Chennai or any other Indian city I have been to. The notion of professionalism is much stronger in Chennai. Which is very good, in certain ways. Everyone assembles for rehearsals on time, because everyone knows the rehearsal payments for the accompanying artists are calculated in very definite terms, because everyone knows there is money involved they may not get much of it, but that they need to be thankful if they do not lose money performing. Strange, but true. But there is this stiff competition and the neurotic exercise of profile-building. Where you dance, in which month, 4.30pm slot or 6pm slot or 7.30pm slot? Who is paying you are paying to sabha people for you to go dance there (strange, but true, again) or is the sabha actually giving you a bit? So what happens as 'dance' is actually a small portion amidst these complex discourses and practises. It almost does not matter how good you are really. 

In the lower-profiled dancers and dance groups from Kolkata that I have interacted with, I see some marked differences. Not all very pleasing, of course. There is certainly more of the joy of dance; the sheer joy of movement. And almost all the dancers and dance students I know in Kolkata so far are from very modest backgrounds, mostly also chief bread-winners of their families, who rush from their day jobs to the rehearsals and performances in the evenings, waddling through the deservedly infamous traffic jams of Kolkata. For me, personally, the most disturbing aspect is their constant looking up to Chennai for some kind of acknowledgement and approval of their practice of Bharatanatyam. I simply think it is not necessary. Chennai has its own self-appointed centres and peripheries in the dance scene. It is quite a politically charged space already. 

Kolkata has brilliant dancers. I think they should just relax and dance. The politics of approval and acceptance is a dangerous one to get into. Sometimes we end up creating new power centres and give them unlimited cultural powers. I think what we need is neither an unquestioning obsequiousness nor belligerent, reactionary politics. I would like to tell my not-so-popular, non-page-three (in fact, they do not figure in the pages of stardom at all!) dancer friends in Kolkata to just relax and dance.  Just as they danced that morning on the streets and roads, gracefully avoiding the tram tracks, the many gutters and cesspools.  

Aniruddhan Vasudevan is a performer-researcher-activist based in Chennai.