The Roles Dancers Play

Adapted from A Life Beyond Words: Dancing Religion: Performativity and Insider-Outsider Duality

 by Kaustavi Sarkar

Hands of a dancer

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

The identities of a dancer, researcher, Bengali, part of the Bengali diaspora, dance teacher and choreographer – are individually enough shape one’s life. In my case however, I have confronted and absorbed each one of them, accepting that each of these roles manifest individually or simultaneously within the context of the hour. Collectively, these various roles operate at different layers shaping my thoughts, my aspirations, my inhibitions, and hence my overall evolution.

My identity as an Odissi dancer and the connectedness to Odissi is the most prominent, and affects my other roles in varying degrees. It influences my inner aspirations, their manifestations in the real world with regards to my profession, and my relative social position in my world (be it a culturally sensitive Bengali, promoting “Bengaliness” through dance, or as dance teacher for my students ). I take this opportunity to observe these different layers and their interplay in my identity. There is no conscious attempt to infer but inevitably, plain deconstruction of patterns is both insightful and enjoyable.

The role of a researcher is the most strategic role of this phase of my life. I am working to earn a degree that the world will recognize; a certification that will equip myself not only with knowledge, but also with an acceptability and stability that dancers often lack. The research is my response to work around the accepted mores of the world, so that I get the lifelong space to work on my passion, my dance. While the research is an important life goal and which consumes much of my time, here in Columbus where I generally practice alone, the hours of Odissi practice, are a major source of contentment. The aesthetic joy and the inner rhythm give me the fuel to carry out my other responsibilities and play my other roles with hope and a logical connectedness.

Odissi also comes into play when I cherish and protect my Bengali heritage, especially as part of the Bengali diaspora, which has a much deeper connect with everything cultural and aesthetic. Odissi gives me the deep satisfaction of living up to the implied expectation of being a Bengali of being aesthetically aware and fulfilled. For us Bengalis, culture and performance is “Ei toh Jeebon!” literally translating as “this is life.” As an Odissi dancer who is part of the Bengali diaspora, the responsibility of creating an atmosphere of joy and performance inevitably falls upon me. The Bengali diaspora, on the other hand, considers dance as an expression of unbounded joy and thus has no reservations for or against classical dances. When kids of the Bengali diaspora in their strong American accent ask, “Amader Odissi shekhabe?” translated as “Will you teach us Odissi?, “I am elated and bewildered at the same time.

In this role, I also become a choreographer, maintaining a fine balance between the dual priorities of maintaining the purity of classical dance versus the practical need to enthuse the dancers and the audience. For example, when I was requested to produce authentic “Indianness” with about forty-nine amateurs and one professional dancer, I knew that two months of rehearsals would present a diluted manifestation of Indian classical culture. Odissi requires at least a year of rehearsal for stage presentation. In order to find the best possible solution for this temporal constraint, I composed a piece based on Shankar Gharana—an Indian dance style formulated by the danseur Uday Shankar. This style is often used in Tollywood—the Bengali film industry in West Bengal, India. This move is inconceivable by a puritan. However, I believe that the vitality of dance depends upon continuous reinterpretation and re-embodiment by contemporary artists.

This role inevitably, took on a new role as a teacher, treading on an interesting social dynamic of being a research student on campus while also being the teacher of their [my professors’ and colleagues’] students. The role of maintaining the rigour and discipline of a group as against managing the conflicts and fears of the parents was yet another interesting facet to explore. Here again, my experience and instinct as a classical dance teacher dominates the other role of being a genial sociable community person. The instinct to be stern to protect the dance is reiterated by the Odissi persona.

Being a researcher and the frameworks we learn to understand and analyze a particular situation is yet another interesting role. I am sometimes delighted, and other times disheartened when I, in a third person relate to different researchers and the research papers when examining my different roles. I have been amused when I found myself using literature and Natyasastra’s Rasa theory[1] to analyze the (deeply innate and subconscious) ritual of Durga Puja as described by Vatsayan. Or when I ponder while adapting an India classical dance in its “claimed antiquity, asserted authenticity, well-intended chauvinism, and middle-class purity” (Hamera 293), to fit into the contextual mood. I especially find it bold when UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures notes that classical genres have come to their robust existence by eradicating the populist forms, using political arrangements, institutional investments and power structures.

Overall, I am amazed by these different roles and how they interplay. On a day-to-day plane, they are all on autopilot, in an occupied day when one role automatically gives way to the next role in waiting. When I realize how much my life and the turn of events have been impacted by my Odissi identity, it is quite baffling. The very fact that I could have easily limited the impact of Odissi in my life as a school -time hobby and taken a different path, intrigues me. The very fact that I continued to pursue it, despite the odds has given me great joy. The different roles and identities related to it, the influence it has had on my life, and the influence I have had on the social plane because of it, collectively form my persona and give me the greatest joy of being myself.


[1] Rasa theory describes ways, in which the various human emotions in performance lead an artist to a transcendent inner experience which can be affectively disseminated to the audience

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