Asian Music and Dance

An East Wind

Those who have attended a few Bengali song-and-dance programmes, including those presenting themselves (justifiably or not) as ‘dance-dramas’, have doubtless also acquired a fairly sure sense of what to expect from these occasions. A richly-costumed dancer – usually solo, sometimes in a small ensemble – executes movements of fluid but reserved grace, illustrating the actions or natural scenery depicted in a Rabindrasangit delivered mellifluously by a singer sat behind a harmonium. The effect can be charming, and this kind of programme reliably satisfies a certain kind of Bengali audience, bringing together a community in celebration of the icons of its homeland. Ambitious, exacting or startlingly original are not, however, words that spring to mind. Yet they were the right adjectives to describe this particular Sunday evening of dance, inspired and accompanied by the songs, poems and spirit of Kazi Nazrul Islam, the proverbial blazing ‘comet’ (dhumketu) of Bangla literature to Rabindranath Tagore’s sun. SOAS students from the institution’s Indian Dance Society, now three years and four productions old, were directed with flair and precision – the more impressive considering half the group had no independent dance training – by Debanjali Biswas, currently writing her PhD on conflict and dance in Manipur at King’s College, London. Though the capacity of the Pinter Studio in Queen Mary’s English department was small, it was evident to those who looked on that the boldness of choreography and dramatic conception here would amply justify larger stages.

The production’s twin themes of ‘revolution’ and ‘belonging’ inspired a weave of more traditional romantic and nature imagery with the abrupt impetus of political, even martial, determination. Nazrul was the ‘rebel poet’ (bidrohi kobi), a one-time soldier, revolutionary, political prisoner under the Raj and opponent of fundamentalist prejudice in all those forms (whether caste-, gender- or religion-based) that are now beginning to reassert themselves across the globe. It is a good time to be cultivating his robust, rebellious kind of sympathy. Yet merely transposing the physical repertoire of Rabindranritya or Tagore dance to the presentation of Nazrul is clearly not enough to show that side of him. Instead of reusing smoothed-out gestures borrowed from classical Manipuri, Debanjali danced out Nazrul’s poem Bidrohi (The Rebel) with menacing, invigorating choreography derived from the Manipuri martial art thang-ta – a choice of influence aptly combining her two themes. And with a text filled with war-lust and weapons (even if some of them – Parashuram’s axe, Shiva’s trident – are mythological), why dance empty-handed? Here the whirl of cudgels, standing in for swords (thang), echoed the acrobatic spins of the dancer’s own body.

Other sources of inspiration came from chhau dance, an energetic folk form shared between West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand, and from the insistent rhythms of Japanese taiko drumming. The formation of eight or nine dancers moved together in step to the drumbeat, repeating minimal, abstract gestures in unison, simply lit and dressed in almost uniform black, red and purple costumes. Words and melody became superfluous: we were fixed purely on the next strike of arm against air, stick against skin. Even in the more lyrical solo passages, the clichés of Bengali dance-drama were spurned in favour of subtle odissi (Tiyasha Dutta Paul) and neatly-executed bharatanatyam (Maanasa Visweswaran) made to ‘belong’ amicably to the context of the whole by emerging turn-wise from the seated circle of the rest of the group. In place of distracting polychromatic lighting, we glimpsed sparse back-projected natural images moving behind the dancers – clouds spiralling and swelling in time-lapse, a boat struggling through heaving seas – derived from Nazrul’s texts (faultlessly recited both in Bengali and in English translation by Priyanka Basu, John Green and Shabana Charaniya). Musical accompaniment was no less carefully considered as part of the total effect. Shem Jarrold dextrously alternated sarangi and violin, a welcome relief from the otherwise ubiquitous Bengali combination of harmonium and electric keyboard, allowing the classical seasonal ragas Paraj Basant (Nazrul’s Elo oi bonante pagol boshonto) and Megh Malhar (the bandish Bijuri chamke barse) to blossom and flow in the voices of Dipanwita Ghosh, Shreya Sinha and Dripto Sarkar. As the finale of Mora jhonjhar moto uddam (‘We are as impetuous as the storm’) brought the rhythmic enthusiasm of Nazrul’s choruses to the fore, one could not help but be caught up in the boundary-breaking energy that his work embodies – and which this exciting, forward-pointing production transmitted with exemplary force. 



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