Dancing across the Brahmaputra

Pragjyoti International Dance Festival saw a blend of mainstream classical forms and indigenous community traditions

The flagship fiesta of classical dance in Assam — Pragjyoti International Dance Festival travelled to remote corners in its tenth edition, with an emphasis on connecting communities with their arts heritage. This winter, the festival opened to a gala performance in Guwahati featuring the Ananya Dance Theatre (USA), moved to Jorhat with a line-up of exponents and local artists, and concluded in the quaint island of Majuli with performances and interactive sessions.

To find a discerning audience for classical dance in small towns is a challenge. An even greater challenge is to cultivate new rasikas in new spaces. Kalpa Society undertook this mammoth task a decade ago, as it conceptualised a unique dance festival that would take the classical arts across Assam.

Festival Director, Anwesa Mahanta, a young and dynamic Sattriya dancer and scholar, has nurtured this as an evolving project over the past few years. “Every year we try to touch newer dimensions of arts, life and society. I perceive this festival as an opportunity to learn, understand, and think anew.” The vision behind the festival is to activate the dormant cultural sites of Assam and revitalise the heritage of the state by exploring different performance venues.

Connecting communities

Collaborating with Kri Foundation, Delhi, the festival opened in Guwahati with the production by Ananya Dance Theatre, USA – Shaatranga: Women Weaving Worlds. Choreographed by Ananya Chatterjea, the work is rooted in women’s stories that are researched, remembered and imagined. Revisiting history from a feminist lens, the performance traces the ancient Indian trade routes running through Asia, Africa and South America, and focuses on the connections within these indigo-dyeing artisan communities.

The movement motifs of Odissi and Chhau blended seamlessly with contemporary dance technique to produce fresh patterns, powerful images and layered narratives. Divided into four sections, the production opened to the sound of the sea with the musical prelude of ‘O re manjhi’, taking the audience’s imagination into frenzied images of falling, holding, drowning and floating. Dressed in shades of blue, the dancers created hues of ocean and indigo, interspersing movement with voice. The second part of the performance led into a composition of repetitive mechanical rhythms emphasising the seduction and monstrosity of capitalism and the clamp down on critical thinking across the globe. The third section offered a spectrum of duets, trios and an evocative solo by Chatterjea choreographed to her own poetry. The final part of the production invited moments of introspection and participation from the audience, seguing into a shared vision of peace, justice and compassion.

Inviting artists, audience and students to engage more deeply, the festival moved to Jorhat with an interactive session titled ‘Voices’. School and college students got an opportunity to be in conversation with the artists before the evening performances. Avijit Das (Kuchipudi), Lucrezia Maniscotti (Bharatanatyam), Alexandra Vodopyanova (Mohiniattam) and the trio- P. Bilash Singh, G. Chandan Devi, Th. Parul Devi (Manipuri) shared vignettes from their journey as dancers, the inspiration behind their work and the challenges and opportunities of taking up dance as a career. Along with the organisers, the artists emphasised the importance of experiencing dance not only as an ‘extra-curricular activity’ but as an integral part of the curriculum, deeply connected with daily life and an important aspect of education. The evening performances featured the young classical dancers presenting the traditional repertoire along with multiple dance styles by the resident artists from Jorhat.

Island of Arts

The festival culminated across the Brahmaputra, in the island town of Majuli with an extensive programme across two days. An upcoming tourist destination, Majuli is home to numerous Sattras (monasteries) and has been the centre of performing arts in Assam. A large part of the Sattriya dance repertoire has evolved at the Sattras in Majuli. Both days featured the traditional Gayan Bayan invocatory compositions by the Kamalabari Sattra.

The featured artists from the Jorhat edition were joined by veteran artists – Prerana Shrimali (Kathak) and Madhuri Mazumdar (Kuchipudi). Highlighting this interweaving of the mainstream classical forms and indigenous community traditions, the festival concluded with a performance of Bihu by the Mising community from Majuli.

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