It all began as an experiment, say siblings Aishwarya and Priyanka Kali, both students of English Literature at Delhi’s Lady Shriram College. Sometime in August 2016, they wanted to help their 13-year-old sister prepare for her upcoming Bharatanatyam exam. And so they requested two friends, Swathi Gangadharan and Tirna Sengupta – both trained classical dancers – to perform adavus (steps) which their sister was struggling with and recorded them on video.
“When we saw those videos later, we thought they looked strange, initially,” said Aishwarya Kali. “Our friends were dancing in their regular clothes and not in the traditional Bharatanatyam costume. They were dancing in a classroom and weren’t even wearing ghungroos. It was nothing like what we know Bharatanatyam to be like. And yet, there was an aesthetic quality to the performance that persisted. It was, in fact, surprisingly beautiful.” And the idea grew into a documentary-series called Bharatanatyam in the Wild.
Traditionally, the codified classical dance form, considered to be sacred and divine, emerged from the temples only to be safely escorted into the auditorium. Through time, experiments that have dared to take the form out of the auditorium have been met with mixed reactions both from practitioners and the audience.
An aesthetic experiment
Intrigued with their initial work, the Kali sisters decided to shoot more videos. They managed to convince their dancer friends to participate and soon shot them dancing at the basketball court, the library, the classroom and even their housing complex. “Both Tirna and Swathi are from the same dance school,” said Aishwarya Kali. “So, their dancing too had a synchronous quality to it and looked striking. It was purely an aesthetic experiment for us when it began.”
What fascinated them was examining how the dance form looked when it was performed in a non-traditional space. Around January 2017, the group stepped outside the safety of their college and their apartments into the city. It was only then that they realised that there were other dimensions to their experiment – aspects that involved their relationship both with Bharatanatyam and the city.
“Classical dance is considered high art and here we were taking it to very mundane places like bus stops, footpaths, metro stations, trains, etc.,” explained Kali. “We began to realise that what we were attempting to do was demystify the dance form.”
The dancers admit that there was a sense of hesitation. “I found myself grappling with rules I had internalised and had believed to be non-negotiable – about wearing ghungroos outside on the road, dancing in non-dance clothes,” explained Gangadharan. “It has been drilled into us that Bharatanatyam is sacred. But the truth is nothing happens to the form itself even when these rules – ones that are extraneous to the dance – are challenged. The form is rich enough to be able to tell all kinds of stories in all kinds of contexts. I realised that most of these rules have served to police the dancer’s bodies, in a sense. Dancing outside felt freer.”
Stage performances used to make Sengupta nervous – “On stage, you are supposed to be perfect,” she said. “Performing on the street felt a lot more liberating. If we made a mistake, we could just start over.”
Together, the four of them explored a range of sites in New Delhi – the Connaught Place market, metro stations, malls, bus stops, flyovers and even a mosque. They kept the dancing simple – often a pure nritta piece [rhythmic movements that convey no mood or meaning] and tried to tailor it to the architecture and background of the site they were performing in.
For instance, they performed a piece on the Hindu trinity of gods in front of a mosque. “It was meant as our take on communal harmony and co-existence,” said Sengupta. “We took a very traditional Bharatanatyam piece on the trinity from the Hindu pantheon of gods and wanted to see what it would look like if it was performed with the mosque at the back. We also invited a bunch of dancers of other forms like Kathak and Mohiniattam and did a piece in the garden under the INA flyover on the distortion of news and media today. We formed a circular pattern and the choreography was such that each dancer took something from the dancer next to her and distorted it before passing it on. The circle of flyovers behind us was meant to accentuate this idea.”
“The experiment brought to fore a number of ideas that we had thought about as dancers at some point,” added Gangadharan. “For instance, as a traditional Bharatanatyam space, the stage is deliberately kept bare. It is supposed to be an ahistorical space in which a dancer can assume dramatic roles. Now, when you take the same form outside into a space like the bustling street, the dance acquires a modern or a contemporary character. It was just loads of fun to explore that.” The only non-negotiable aspect of their experiment was maintaining the form, she stressed.
With time, Sengupta began to see a larger goal for the experiment – “When we are taking Bharatanatyam out of the auditorium, we are at once changing the way it is looked at or challenging where you would normally find it. But what is this normal after all? One must remember that there is a lot of disturbance through which Bharatanatyam has survived over the years. The typical Hindu Brahmanical stranglehold that is there right now over the dance form which also influences the way it is presented, understood and received wasn’t always the case. Bharatanatyam or Sadirattam was a lot more erotic and subversive, both in its content and performance. It wasn’t performed by the upper caste women that have become synonymous with the form today. I guess, our larger endeavour is to reclaim those subversive qualities of the form.”
The decision to compile the videos into a documentary series came about after a conversation with one of their teachers who suggested that as the girls read about the theory and history of Bharatanatyam, they create a documentary instead of writing down their conclusions.
That’s how Bharatanatyam in the Wild, the documentary series was born. The Kali sisters shot the conversations they began to have with their classmates and teachers who had seen their videos or their public performances and interspersed these clips with those of the dancing. “We are not trained filmmakers obviously,” said Kali. “The guerrilla quality to the series is more because we are literally just holding the camera in our hands and walking around and thinking aloud.”
Reclaiming public places
The other aspect that they stumbled on when they stepped out into the street is the fact that they were a bunch of women on Delhi’s streets who were not just standing at bus stops, railway stations and markets. “As a woman, one is used to getting from point A to B quietly and without ‘inviting trouble’, as they say,” said Gangadharan. “But here, we were dancing – we wanted to be seen and we wanted to interact with our surroundings through our dance.”
To add more context, Kali turns to the Why Loiter campaign, which aims to reclaim public spaces for Indian women and explains that “women’s access to public places is predicated on a) demonstration of respectability and b) legitimate purpose. Our project we realised, was in a sense allowing women to finally be at home outside their homes”.
Sengupta spoke about how terrifying it would be to just undertake the commute from her campus accommodation to her dance class. She even realised how ironic it was – that while dance class would allow her to feel liberated, getting to it was anything but liberating. “The message with Bharatanatyam in the Wild is for women to occupy more such places such that people will being to see you there, get used to it and adapt to it. Dance adds a whole new dimension to the goal of reclaiming public places. Dance grants you visibility. You are moving. You take ownership of your body. You are being erotic, sexy – it is deeply empowering.”
Three episodes of the series are available on YouTube and the four students, despite now living in different cities after their undergraduate course, want to continue pursuing the experiment. The one thing that is still on the dancers’ mind is the fact that many of their teachers still do not know about Bharatanatyam in the Wild.
So far, the team has got a variety of responses to their project – from absolute awe from classmates to complete apathy from fellow citizens to outright denouncement. “Most people think it is some kind of a film shoot and ignore it,” said Gangadharan. “But we have had people tell us we are not allowed to dance in malls, for instance. We even had a man come up to us outside a metro station and tell us that it is a god’s dance form and we must keep its sanctity intact.”
Kali added, “We’ve had security guards tell us that we can film with our phone but not with our camera. We are just four of us on the street – no music, no speakers, just us by ourselves out on the street dancing.”