Asian Music and Dance

Post Natyam Collective: Negotiating Space in Making Contemporary Indian Dance

The Post Natyam Collective, whose members met at the Department of World Cultures and Heritage, UCLA, combines art-making with academic research. Although now based on three continents they continue to build an impressive body of works long-distance via the internet.

Ketu H. Katrak, Professor of Drama at University of California, Irvine has watched the Collective from its inception and gives a detailed account of their ideology and working methods.

The Post Natyam Collective began in Los Angeles in 2004 with dancer-choreographers Shyamala Moorty, Sandra Chatterjee and Anjali Tata-Hudson. More recently, in 2007–08, Cynthia Ling Lee has joined the Collective as a core member. Sangita Shresthova is their affiliated media choreographer. The Collective’s unique combination of creativity with scholarly research challenges the lines dividing ‘art-making and academic scholarship’. Even as they connect to today’s global reality, they remain attentive to ‘historical erasures and aesthetic constructs embedded within our traditions’ (www.postnatyam.net).  

‘Their innovations include using voice, script, multimedia, creative writing, theatre tools …’

Their innovative movement and theme-based creations “range from the subtle emotions of contemporary abhinaya,” remarks V.R. Devika, “to unexpectedly funky transformations of classical Indian rhythms … [the Post Natyam Collective] sheds light on the notions of home, cultural hybridity, longing, and translation” (Times of India, January 1, 2010). 

The Collective’s members have technical skill in multiple movement vocabularies – Indian classical dance, modern, post-modern dance, contact improvisation and yoga – that appear in their solo, duet, and ensemble choreography. Their innovations include using voice, script, multimedia, creative writing, theatre tools, and collaborations with visual artists and musicians.

Multiple movements have been part of the Collective’s hyphenated identities – Shyamala and Sandra are part-Indian – Shyamala’s mother is Caucasian, and Sandra’s is German. Shyamala grew up in Northern California, Sandra in Germany, Anjali (both parents from India) in Southern California, and Cynthia of Taiwanese heritage in Houston and Southern California. Shyamala’s early training in ballet was followed by bharatanatyam as an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Sandra studied kuchipudi in Germany from a young age; later as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, she imbibed Polynesian dance (hula and tahitian) and the “hapa, i.e. mixed way of being” in which, she notes “oppositions meet but not in a binary way” (www.postnatyam.net). “What attracted me to hapa is that there was a definite space for ‘half-ness’, someone who is mixed.” Anjali studied bharatanatyam from a young age in Los Angeles. Cynthia was trained as a modern/post-modern dancer and discovered kathak while an undergraduate at Swarthmore College (US), later studying in India. 

Their artistic journeys overlapped during their graduate studies in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures. This academic ambience encouraged a productive connection between creative and critical approaches to dance, within which these young artists developed skills in making intercultural work. 

In 2004, there were few artists working in collective structures. Post Natyam’s impulse to work together was guided by a shared resonance of exploring diverse movements and common concerns of hyphenated identity, gender and sexuality. Even initially, they negotiated distance “but thought we actually had to do the creative work in person,” remarked Shyamala, “which is why we did a lot of duets until Meet the Goddess when we all met for a week in LA, brought together our solos made separately though with overlapping content and intertwined them into a group piece”. Now, with members in Los Angeles, Kansas and Munich/New Delhi, their new creative process via the internet, communicating administratively and creatively via video posting, blogging, teleconferencing, email, and shared online documents “allows more interacting between all of our work,” continues Shyamala, “instead of creating isolated from each other. We are constantly influencing each other and being able to see how the work overlaps from a distance.” 

Since 2008, their collective process of ‘long-distance choreography’ begins with a member giving an assignment to which the Collective members respond within a month, uploading video of their choreography (or other media). Feedback questions require responses within a week. This method, described as “Documentation of and Reflections on the Creative Process behind our latest Collaborative Project”, (http://postnatyam.blogspot.com) has given their work “clarity and direction”. 

Initial brainstorming of their different interests revealed a shared concern, namely to interrogate the history and legacy of the ‘courtesan’ in the Indian subcontinent exploring sensuality in the female body connected politically to contemporary South Asian women’s stories where the female body is on the line – ranging from exotification to violent encounters, sexual trafficking, and other forms of abuse. Shyamala’s solo dance and theatre piece, Carrie’s Web (2009) draws from stories of domestic violence in the South Asian American community. And this current project, Sunoh! Tell Me, Sister (working title) aims to coalesce contemporary stories with the historical figure of the ‘courtesan’. 

Each Collective member is skilled and experienced to undertake this topic as they have probed multiple dimensions of the female body, sensuality and sexuality in previous dance creations. Meet the Goddess (2006) co-choreographed by the Collective (except Cynthia who joined later) was selected by the prescient presenters of Chennai’s ‘The Other Festival’, Anita Ratnam and Ranvir Shah who for over a decade have provided a platform to innovative dance and theatre artists. Trace (2009), choreographed online by the Collective combines movement with artwork and installation performed with local collaborators. Cynthia’s academic article, ‘the erotic trace/erasure of the courtesan in kathak dance and thumri music’ has provided the research for an artbook entitled Harassing the Sanskrit Heroine (2009) where she explores ‘the form’s … troubled eroticism by combining poetic text and photographic image’. Cynthia’s ‘alternate way of investigating’ issues incorporates writing with performance, and poetry with creative movement.

‘…women-centric themes ranging from sensuality and shame to freedom…’

Anjali’s one-woman work-in-progress Womb Stories explores intimate arenas of the female body ‘in relation to [her] recent experiences with conception, pregnancy, miscarriage, labour, childbirth and mothering . . . how these issues intersect, collide, and harmonise with being a dance artist’. Sandra’s choreography in Waiting for Rasika (2007), in Echo (forthcoming), and in Lajja (2005) reflects inter-linked concerns where ‘female identity is fragmented via movement and visual art’ (postnatyam.net), and the female body’s conflicting feelings of shame and desire. Shyamala’s choreography in Sensitize (2003) probes female desire and pleasure. Devika Natarajan praises their ‘women-centric themes ranging from sensuality and shame to freedom’ (The Hindu, 6 December, 2006).

Among Collective members, Shyamala is adept in fostering creative alliances in the Los Angeles artistic community such as with the multi-ethnic and community-based TeAda TheatreWorks, and with South Asian Network (SAN), a non-profit community organisation that addresses health, literacy, immigration and violence facing South Asians. TeAda has partnered with Post Natyam as a producer for Sunoh! Tell Me Sister slated to premiere in spring 2011. The Collective has invited Toronto-based Contemporary Indian dancer, Hari Krishnan, as Director.

Defining ‘courtesans’ for their current online collaboration Sunoh! Tell Me Sister is an ongoing discussion. For the time being, recognising the word’s problematic connotations and its generalised usage, they settle for the following: “the devadasis, South Indian temple dancers who were involved in systems of sexual and economic patronage,” notes Cynthia, and “the high-class tawaifs and baijis of North India and Pakistan, and even modern-day sex workers” (postnatyam blog). In addition to the courtesans’ significant preservation of art forms, “We are interested,” remarks Cynthia, “in how the stories of the courtesans’ lived realities might explode the poetic surface of what we’ve learned as classical dancers.” 

In May 2010, in Long Beach, California, Shyamala and Cynthia presented ‘Post Natyam Unveiled’ about the ongoing creative process behind Sunoh! Tell Me, Sister at the Khmer Arts Salon series. Shyamala and Cynthia introduced (virtually!) Collective members Sandra (in Germany at the time), and Anjali (in Kansas) via ‘Cyber Chat, Cyber Spat’.

‘The process of choreographing online… became an ongoing series of [layered] transformation…’

The process of choreographing online, comments Cynthia, entailed “a technique of ‘translating’ each other’s material, so that choreography became an ongoing series of [layered] transformation instead of the co-creation of a single product”. Cynthia illustrates this via a thumri from which she erased phrases exploring gaps and ‘erasures’ especially of ‘oral history’ in general and that of courtesans in particular. Then Cynthia “riffed off of a single word in (her) poem, ‘wrist’” that inspired Kansas-based Anjali to translate the text into a dance-for-camera piece . . . (where) Anjali’s piece used the camera to zoom in on her hands”. In the lecture-demonstration, text appears: ‘one child bride’, and later ‘a widow in white’. Shyamala uses Anjali’s video on her (Shyamala’s) body in live performance in response to an assignment “to depict the real-life story of a child widow who escaped familial abuse of her in-laws by becoming a courtesan”.

Video clips of this work can be viewed online. Shyamala’s back on which Anjali’s hands are projected transform the plain whiteness of the widow’s saree, capturing an active rather than a stereotypically defeated widow’s body. White is also the colour of a bridal dress; here, marriage is a burden for the widow. An audience member comments: “The combination of the video with the hands and the movements of the body were like trying to release that bondage . . . I just loved how dynamic it was to see, first of all, this projection which is something coming from outside onto your body.” A video of Cynthia’s fingers playing in wet sand and making furrows evokes sensual images. The piece ends with the widow shedding the white saree and transforming into a femme fatale in red (petticoat) and dark green (blouse). The piece, still in progress, will continue with her further incarnation into a courtesan. 

The Post Natyam Collective’s success is rooted in negotiating space – physical distance as well as giving space to diverse viewpoints. Each member is rooted in her individual, varied dance training, and geographical context, and as an autonomous artist takes on labour for the Collective. They share their learning from different avenues, for instance Shyamala and Sandra have been in Dance Intense in Birmingham, Shyamala also in Toronto, Cynthia in Kolkata; Anjali worked with prominent choreographer David Rousseve on Saudade (Portuguese word referring to missing, longing for someone dear to one) that toured across the US.

Prior to online projects, collective members have co-presented work such as Sandra and Shyamala’s 2 in 1 (2001) including Shyamala’s Balance of Being (her iconic piece where one side of her body does ballet and the other side does bharatanatyam), and Sandra’s Hapa expressing hybrid identity and belonging. Co-choreography by Shyamala and Cynthia is showcased in not two not one (2010), by Shyamala and Anjali in Hold on (2004), and Natural Music (2004). 

Solo work continues in each Collective member’s repertoire: Shyamala’s dance and theatre piece Rise (2003), that uniquely uses a plunger as a weapon attacking not only toilet waste, but violence fuelled by religious fundamentalism, comments powerfully on the 2002 Hindu/Muslim ‘riots’ in Gujarat. Anjali’s Jathi Revisited (2008) portrays rhythmic structures of bharatanatyam nritta and post-modern release; Thrillana (2008)  “expands the traditional notion of space used in bharatanatyam”, and Time Out (2007) “longs for a moment [when] this superwoman can stop (and step outside) the chaotic daily grind” (postnatyam.net). Sandra’s Malika (2010) “is a garland of dances choreographed to Oliver Rajamani’s music. (A) polyglot movement language . . . stage(s) a multi-layered nomadic female body” (www.oliverrajamani.com). Sandra’s Bollywood Scratches Project (2008) “is a structured improvisation that worked with electronic music and a video live feed . . . redefined in a real-time way of digital manipulations” (postnatyam.net). 

Cynthia’s darshan (2009) with musician Lenny Seidman is “a site-specific installation and performance (that) explores ways to restage the encounter between performer and audience”; her tour de force movement and text choreography in rudda (rude, huh?) (2007) uses “‘false translations’ of traditional kathak compositions, where North Indian rhythmic dance syllables transform into nonsensical English gossip, (and) where idiosyncratic post-modern movement suddenly shifts into classical kathak” (postnatyam.net).

‘A significant foremother for the Collective is the late Chandralekha…’

A significant foremother for the Collective is the late Chandralekha – using the human body, working from within Indian aesthetics and philosophy. The Collective takes the exploration of the body in post-modern directions – deconstructing it, subverting the gaze, questioning stereotypes of femininity and restrictive social codes, and openly though subtly exploring female desire and pleasure. Their work as a Collective, their use of new media to make work across geographical distances and their collaborative spirit are the wave of the future and can serve as models for other twenty-first-century artists.



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