Ananya Chatterjea (AC)
For sure, I’m not in this career for money, and one of the things I care deeply about is how we see each other: the way in which we travel through life and this profession, either we’re not seen at all, invisibilized, or we’re hyper-visible. In my experience working from traditional form but in a complex contemporary, transnational and social justice context, either I’m perceived as speaking up too much or it is expected that I should only do ‘traditional’ work. This pull can make me so angry. Visibility; [real] visibility, that ‘complex-standing-there’— is what I want so much.
The ‘complex-standing-there’. Because, in fact, we are standing in multiple places at the same time. I want to be seen as drawing my aesthetic lineage to my long-term collaborator Laurie Carlos, and at the same time to my guru, Sanjukta Panigrahi, to June Jordan, my friend and collaborator Janice BadMoccasin, and to many cultural workers and organizers. Part of this complex lineage is interweaving the legacy of beautiful dance that I studied with lived histories of struggle for justice. People who have gone through a civil rights movement understand my work much better – they resonate more readily with the ideas conveyed in my work.
This idea of complex-standingness, of embracing multiplicity while being clearly situated: I want to be clear that I am Bengali. I’m brown. I can’t pretend to be anything [else]. I know first-hand the grittiness of struggle that is part of everyday life based on my experiences, and this helps me understand Felicia’s story and Hui’s story [Ananya Dance Theatre company members].
If anything, dance has given me that ability to understand
shared resistance and find resonance with others’ struggles.
Dr. Ananya Chatterjea is a woman of many accolades, including award winning choreographer and performer, a 2011 John Simon Guggenheim recipient, an acclaimed author and scholar, a tenured Professor, and a transnational feminist and champion of women’s right. Just as significant, Ananya is a mother, having raised her daughter while building a grass-roots community of dance activists and organizers and founding a contemporary dance company in the middle of the US, thousands of miles from her home of Kolkata, India.
Chatterjea’s artistic journey in the United States (US) began three decades ago when she applied to Columbia University in New York City to escape: “I didn’t want to dance the pretty classical forms and there was little space [in Kolkata] to do the kind of experimentation I aspired towards--bringing together the street theater that women’s groups and ensemble theater groups were creating, with the formal clarity of classical dance. That is, there was nothing in place to cultivate an ongoing contemporary creative practice in the way I wanted – so I applied to Teachers’ College, Columbia University [New York, New York] and I was accepted.”
I was studying [dance] and I was trying to make space for a contemporary form. And, (a) I didn’t have the money, you know, my family was not rich, so I couldn’t really get anywhere within dance in the way I wanted to. And (b) I really didn’t want to dance about the goddesses or divine lovers who populated the world of classical dance. At the same time, within my environment, there was not the kind of investigation of contemporary dance that I was looking for. I wanted to travel and see what existed. I came to New York with the hope that I would meet these artists from all over the world.
Up to that point, Chatterjea admits that she had no specific training in how to create a dance, but soon realized that the Eurocentric western format she was learning at Columbia was not suitable for her artistic vision. She wanted, no, needed, to be able to transform seminal stories of everyday women into dance.
This idea of how to ‘make dances’…it was new to me. I wanted to do this whole dismantling thing and when I was at Columbia, I was sent to take classes at Barnard with Janet [Soares], who was one of Louis Horst’s students. But, my god, did we have some trouble. She finally said to me one day, “I guess you’re just not what I want to see.” And my colleagues would routinely say, “Ananya, your face just says too much.” Now, facial expressions are crucial to me as part of holistic bodily engagement, so I just didn’t know why to them it was too dramatic. Whatever it was, I knew that I had not really learned to choreograph, and I knew that, whatever it was that made a Western form of a well-made dance, I didn’t want to do that.
So where do I go to make my culturally located, contemporary dances? For months, I really just studied videotapes of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, my guru’s guru, composing repertoire for my guru. And, I realized that this idea of taking a few lines of poetry and interpreting them over and over and over again in different ways and exploring, “Oh, what might happen if?” is itself a structural device. It’s not the telling of a linear story, but the invocation of an emotional landscape, where many different states of being are juxtaposed against each other. I also explored the tool of using rhythm, which, for me, articulated emotional energy… I started deconstructing rhythmic arrangements, moving away from the harmonious cycles that characterized the classical dance, and embracing jagged time signatures, dhe dhe dhe dhe dhe, fouuuur, something like that. For me, this conjured emotion like that. And, my commitment to social justice really, really taught me to choreograph. I began to think about that creative commitment to story first of all, but then I asked myself: What stories do I want to juxtapose? How do I want to weave it together? So basically, choreography is, for me, a self-taught process … and I will thank my teachers for pushing me to know what I did not want to do..
In 1992, Chatterjea entered the doctoral program in Dance Education at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Here, she was under the astute guidance of many distinguished dance educators, particularly Dr. Brenda Dixon-Gottschild who has become a life-long mentor. It was during these years that Chatterjea would begin to find a distinctive artistic voice and hone her take-no-prisoners scholarship that supports the dimensionality of her work. From the start, Ananya made her presence known at Temple and elsewhere. Many were curious about the petite Bengali woman, who was steeped in Indian classical and folk dance forms. It soon became obvious that here was an artist who was a force to reckon with. She had already began breaking the mode of her classical training by deconstructing familiar tropes of “Indian dance” to inform her rebellious impulse and create dances with authentic verve. And, she courageously embodied a revolutionary spirit of resistance and liberation in challenging the obvious bias entrenched in the academic curriculum being taught at that time.
Although small in stature, when Ananya spoke, her ideas, inquiry and critical analysis were immense. Soon, she had large numbers of the doctoral cohort in her workshops dancing outside of a 4/4 time signature – leaning into a music scale of 7 notes accentuated with 13, 15 or 20 count phrasing. In her classes, dancers were allowed to use embellished facial gestures, an articulated neck and swivel of the head, an off-set hip, and the modular use of their fingers. In Chatterjea’s workshops, movements that were generally relegated as unsuitable in the western canon of modern dance were valued and had meaning. In her scholarship, activism in building community, and creative embodied practice – one rhythmical nritya of the feet at a time – she made a definitive impression.
Ananya came to the US carrying ancient Indian dance traditions in her body and consciousness. Her dance path was charted by courageous women who pioneered their destinies in spite of many challenges, who made “a way out of no way,” who dared to speak out, be bold, and to lay a foundation for others to follow.
Violence, Memory and Recovery
I’m Bengali, which means I’m from the eastern side of India, a country that has some open wounds from the long anti-colonial fight, because that state, Bengal, and the state to the north-western part, Punjab, were the two provinces that were cut in two by the British during Partition in order to separate the Hindus and the Muslims. And people from either side crossed over, with children in their laps, walking the long, long miles, people left with just the shirts on their backs, and people died, children died; people left thinking they would come back, never to return.
The kind of mess that was created by these masses of people moving across these imagined borders in search of “home” still resonates through the culture. Women paid the price of that kind of war because inevitably they were captured and assaulted, and once they were raped by enemy soldiers, they had nowhere to go. So, there were these huge refugee camps of just women who had been sexually assaulted and accepted by no one except each other. We have never finished amending that. So much patriarchal violence...
Pivotal to Chatterjea’s work is the idea of recovery from embodied memory, the physical price that women pay in multiple ways through trauma as the body keeps score. In Women Weaving Worlds (2018), Chatterjea lays bare a danced-journey across the Indian Ocean, connecting Asia, Africa and South America through the production and trade of indigo, and colonial violence that led to the disastrous Indigo Revolt of 1859. In this work, Chatterjea’s story-telling is directed through bodies remembering and disremembering, struggling to disentangle from indigo blue cloths of bondage – an agonizing process of trying to erase memories and experiences that are too painful to think about.
We Bengalis are a mixed people. My father was an ebony hue, my mother was like me, or a little lighter than me. We just know that we are Bengali. We are valley people, we eat rice, we eat green chilies, we eat fish, and we love our poetry. This is what I know.
How important is that distinction in regard to your artistic voice and creative work?
Very. I’ll tell you why – because in post-colonial India we start to distinguish forms designated as classical from those marked as folk dance forms, an incorrect English translation of the margi (organized in a clear repertoire pathway) and desi (local, more loosely put together). The first form to gain prominence in post-colonial India was Bharatanatyam, and it began to attract much of the national resources. Odissi had to fight to get its share of national attention. Now, Bengal does not have its own classical dance form, but we had some of the great poets, like Rabindranath Tagore, who created a space for dance dramas and creative dance. Tagore was instrumental in opening the door for women to enter dance, a field that gained much disrepute in the colonial era. Then we had Uday Shankar, who is often known as the Father of Modern Dance in India, very much exoticized in the West. His experiments, sometimes combining film and dance, opened more doors. What emerged in Bengal was a creative way of weaving together elements from many dance forms.
Also, of particular importance to me is the aesthetic of the hand-loom cotton sari and flowers in our hair. I’m not romanticizing it, I’m drawing attention to the simplicity of the aesthetic as opposed to the silk and jewels that have become part of what people think of as Indian Dance. And, for me, I tried to bring that in to my work, not the realness of the sari or the flowers in the hair, but the idea of simplicity and poetic narrative.
Although, her work is grounded in traditional and classical Indian dance and yoga forms, still, Chatterjea is a definitive contemporary dancer, choreographer and performance artist.
What do you mean by contemporary in the context of dance?
I think contemporary dance for Asia and Africa (I can’t speak for Latin America) becomes a way to push back both against Tradition and against European modern dance – most of the time. It is a very important genre for people in global communities of color. It does seem to gather an inevitable association with avant-garde, hence it’s a highly contested category. Generally, when people say contemporary dance, what they mean is white contemporary dance. My new book interrogates this assumption.* What we have to remember is that contemporary dance parcels out broad universal signifiers … as a means to really establish a particular white supremacy aesthetic.
I’m claiming the label of contemporary choreographer
– only, I do contemporary Indian dance.
That is why it is important that I didn’t follow the western model of making dances. I had left India because I was interested in talking about contemporaneity – not the stories of gods and goddesses, not the stories of divine lovers or love-lorn heroines, but the stories of our daily-ness as women.
I reject the western model of conceptual non-dance. I follow my mode of contemporariness in structuring a mosaic of non-linear stories. And, I created my own technique, Yorchha™, in order to be able to articulate my culturally specific contemporariness.**
A few years after coming to Temple University, Chatterjea met Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and the Urban Bush Women, Inc. (UBW) dance company. Here was a dance theatre determined by women, and about women dancing in community with ideas of resistance and liberation at the core. Chatterjea quickly realized that the work of UBW resonated with her artistic vision, and Zollar became one of the primary subjects of her dissertation research. This collaboration would ultimately result in the publication of Dr. Ananya Chatterjea’s seminal work Butting Out: Reading Resistive Choreographies Through Works by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Chandralekha (2004). Similar to Zollar’s process, concepts of resistance, liberation and community building are at the core of Chatterjea’s choreographic process.
When I came to Minnesota [after graduation] I sent out a call to women of color, and I think about 45 people showed up. Fifteen years ago, there was really nothing around in terms of specific companies for women of color in Minnesota. Obviously we couldn’t take everyone, and once they saw the amount of work that was required for training, everyone couldn’t commit, which was okay. At that point, some of us just automatically rose to the top as leaders and I convened us in what we called a Steering Committee, for lack of a better word. This is also me improvising a company structure, because I had no knowledge about how to do this formally, but I knew how to build community.
A Mandate to Organize
What level of critical consciousness prompted or inspired you to start a dance company after having earned several advance degrees, started a family, and been appointed to a university faculty position?
I had grown up with two kinds of dance modes in my training, one was that of the classical artist, who was at this point primarily a soloist, but I was also part of these other ensembles. Bengal had a strong legacy of People’s Theater and I used to dance as part of some fora of revolutionary artists associated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association. They called themselves Radical Humanist artists, which indicated that we were reframing our folk culture through a politics of liberation.
One of the singers and songwriters that we worked with was Hemango Biswas … one of his classic songs is Shankhacheel, where the seagull becomes his voice imagining of the bombing [atomic] of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (during WWII). I feel that my transnational consciousness was born really while working in Kolkata. The choreographer we worked with was one of my teachers, the Bengali folk dance artist, Shambhu Bhattacharya.
My choreography evolved from what I experienced growing up, a tension that threatened to tear me apart. There was the classical world which was beautiful, ordered, which I studied at my guru’s center, and then, at the bus stop right across from it was the street theatre lead by women’s groups and the ensemble theatre groups. When I came here to the US, my interest in form quickly forged into a study of ensemble choreography, encouraged by my studies of feminism—and I was nurtured by the women of color feminists whose words were burned into my consciousness. I came to my commitment to the notion of community on stage.
I want to dance with others. Togetherness, with great difference,
has been my search my whole life.
Like so many choreographers who are at the vanguard, Chatterjea is creating a dance language to support her choreographic practice and artistic vision – a foundation for its visibility and the complex-standing-there.
Because I believed it was urgent to mark my difference through aesthetic specificity, I have created a very solid training system. Moreover, the dancers must bring a state of mind that can build emotional stamina. Often, the work is about stripping away modes of dancing, understanding how a plié is different from a mandala, and learning how to go down even deeper – to root the pelvic floor nearer to the ground. I don’t believe that everybody must look the same, but I am committed to aesthetic and cultural specificity and that is why I have to remind people [the dancers] “do not point your feet, set your weight down, find the heavy pelvis”. These concepts that are core to my aesthetics.
Why is that important?
Because aesthetic specificity allows them [dancers, students and audience] to see a different way of approaching dance, so dance can also actually become a barometer for understanding, for studies in culture and aesthetics, for society and power and gender and race.
In some ways, you could say that I have retained the core of traditional practices. For instance, I love the philosophical and conceptual belief of classical training that your body is your world and that there is so much space inside. That’s the idea when we do all of the subtle torso movements of Odissi. You don’t have to do huge jumps and leaps to create exciting dance. You can move space and time through footwork, rhythm and isolation, it’s just a different philosophy of dance.
Chatterjea believes that dance is an active practice and “a practice of activism” and “radical practice” when grounded with rhythm and purpose to develop complex-standing-there and resistance.
When I’m in it, in the dance, I’m in it fully and it kicks my ass and I must allow the work to be grounded in the rhythm and sustained by our shared emotional stamina. This grows from my choreographic process, how it is based on the synergy of listening to each other.
We [the dancers of ADT] are all together but not the same.
This is my choreographic principle that I call Shawngram,
resistance and struggle as an activating principle.
This idea encompasses complexity that holds both dualities and everything in between. This is also the name of the Ananya Dance Theatre’s Shawngram Institute for Performance and Social Justice in the Twin Cities.***
Shawngram allows me space to demonstrate solidarity AND reveal difference among us. I make dances because I want to be in community and dance with people - that is exciting to me- but I recognize we all arrive from different places. It also allows me to defy nationalism, which might box me into “Indianness.” I see nationalism as an ideology about dividing us, not unifying people. Differently, this juxtaposition of difference within a shared rhythmic frame allows me to stage transnational feminist convenings.
The Work is the work!
Chatterjea’s acumen and keen sensibility to write and create work about the world as she sees it – using an unfiltered approach to hone in on disrupted truths and lay to bare unspoken realities can be unsettling for the faint at heart. Oftentimes, painful realities – when spoken out loud are delivered with anger and rage – emotions that women are taught to suppress, yet Chatterjea uses them as fuel to ignite the creative forces behind the raw narratives in her work. For example, in Shaatranga: Women Weaving Worlds (2018), an evening length work in four movements, Chatterjea dance a solo, Anthem, wherein she interrogates a deep-seated pain of the collective experiences of people persecuted on many lands. It opens with Chatterjea upside down and sprawled against a backdrop of red, as if mangled and discarded in a pool of blood. Here, Chatterjea’s every movement is a cry, a plea for help and a struggle to stay alive. Her movements are that of a tortured girl-child yet references the pain-body of womanhood that she is yet to experience. It is a riveting solo, ably performed by Chatterjea. The program notes offer additional contexts for the work:
Repeatedly, our creative process for this work has been rocked by news of violence and injustices from across the world. We hold this pain, struggle, and devastation in our hearts as we dance Shaatranga. I dedicate my dancing of Anthem to Asifa Bano, murdered by hate on January 17, 2018 at 7 years old. (Chatterjea 2018)
On the other hand, Shyamali (2017) is about women who speak against injustice to help sustain community. It was influenced by ADT’s on the ground justice work and standing in solidarity with communities across several regions.
After Jamar Clark [shot and killed by Minneapolis police on November 15, 2015] was murdered, we were at the 4th Police Precinct protests here [Minneapolis, Minnesota]. Being there at that time, seeing what was happening – those voices of dissent right there, and then, around the same time going to Standing Rock [North Dakota] and standing in solidarity with my Native friends [Sioux Nation], were formative experiences for this work.
Inspired by the courage of women around the world, “Shyamali” means “dark green” in Bengali, and invokes the resilience of grass, which springs up when trod upon.
The work is about women’s voices of dissent, organized to effect change. As the work opens, a singular constant is the definitive sound of feet striking the floor, continuous from a gentle brush to thunderous stomp – always polyrhythmic, accentuated with syncopated hand claps or punctuated with ululations and chants. Chatterjea is a contemporary choreographer fully invested in the process. Dance critics are careful to pen their descriptions of the work with precision, aiming to elucidate the nuanced realities they’ve witnessed. ‘Shyamali’ traces the evolution of belief in one’s personal power. Its three acts represent a journey from subjugation to freedom.…The dancing contained a multitude of emotions, from mourning and tenderness to focused ferocity.” Caroline Palmer, Star Tribune
Spatial clarity, with the juxtaposition of symmetry and asymmetry, bodies forming polycentric movement being driven by polyrhythmic feet – punctuated with breath-chants and original text. One frame of choreography is encoded with enough personal testimony to cover a lifespan. Chatterjea creates movement landscapes of blurred duality – compression and expansive, oppression and liberation, pain and joy, gender specific and gender neutral – not this nor that, instead this and that, demonstrating the luminosity found in the balance.
Mooreechika: Season of Mirage (2012), which is the last piece that Laurie [Carlos] performed with ADT, elicits an emotional response from Chatterjea. We briefly talk about the loss of her colleague, close Sista-friend and dramaturg Laurie Carlos (1949-2016). After a moment of reflection, Chatterjea finds strength to refocus.
In this piece we worked with shadow puppets and teased out this concept of contamination of our food … basically this idea of surrender – to these larger powers of production and consumerism. We have this whole rice set-up on stage and this creates a sort of chaos over food scarcity. It’s a devastating moment because rice is spilling out all over and we are desperately trying to pick it up, but the rice has become uneatable. In the performance, it’s a hard concept to fulfill because we have to use [real] rice yet we didn’t want to be wasteful, so we used very old rice – that was being thrown away by the store. After each performance the rice would stick to our bodies, but we would re-collect it, put it in containers and reuse that same rice over and over again. At the end of the run we composted it, but it was significant for us in that it taught us a whole new way of learning to work with materials – and understanding our politics through it all.
This work brings together many stories about global consumption of the earth’s natural resources, particularly oil and the irresponsibility of destruction of the land and ecosystems. At several points in the work, the dancers whisper Saro-Wiwa’s courageous words, “dance your anger/and your joys/dance the guns to silence/dance, dance, dance.” Set to the mesmerizing sound score of vocalizations, meditative chanting and text by the late Laurie Carlos.
“ … The work evolves into a welcome healing ritual when rice showers down from the rafters, a reference to the cries for sustenance so often drowned out by the demand for fuel. The performers, and audience members invited onstage, contemplate the transformed space.” September 7, 2012, Caroline Palmer, Star Tribune.
What does Chatterjea’s work look like when anger and resistance are not at the core? Is there space for ideas of hope and celebration of the human spirit in her work?
Heck yes, I want to dance about joy, and life. It’s all connected to the creative process, the ideas, the engagement of the artists. For me, as a transnational feminist, ensemble dancing unfolds an emotional map of women in solidarity within the narrative. My job is to understand how I stand in relationship with all the women of the world. I resonate with many stories yet realize fundamentally that all stories are not mine. It is so important not to fall into the trap of the “savior” complex. I create space to facilitate the hearing and interpretation of multiple stories at the same time. It is my job [creatively] to remain open to receive these stories – ultimately, embracing personalization and depersonalization at the same time. And, this is really the essence of abhinaya—the expressive tradition in classical Indian dance--being able to transmit energies and stories. The training allows for the work to embrace this duality yet remain buoyant.
Chatterjea choreographs dances that are evening length works – 90 minutes or more, without intermission. These non-linear narratives are conversations of discord and balance carried by the dancers as narrators and the audience as responders. Her works are performative experiences, grounded in an observer-participatory framework, wherein she offers interactive workshops and invites participants to contribute to conversation – either afar or by sharing the stage. It is a choice – not required. Nonetheless, the viewer will be immersed in the experience. The exceptional mixed media – images, visuals and sets create a 3rd dimension breaking the fourth wall of the proscenium. The viewer becomes a part of the dance as life-like images and participatory interactions engulf the theater. This synergy of many voices in reciprocity through dance and call and response is palpable and requires a continuum – no breaks, no interruption – no intermission.
“It’s a singular stream of intersecting non-linear narratives, the juxtaposition of different stories, and they’re held together by this energetic tension between them. They need to be experienced as a whole continuous conversation, not with a break between them.”
Talk about your level of productivity – author, educator, dance leadership-activism, a touring company and performer – how do you manage and sustain all of the moving parts, and how are those parts supporting the whole?
Even as it is difficult, I could not do any of those streams of the work apart from the other. If I was just dancing and not using my critical faculty, then the dance would not be what it is. It is rich because I have read deeply. I know what June Jordan means when she says, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” All of that comes from understanding that my scholarship and my creative work are actually completely intertwined. And, because I feel so strongly about dance being a mode of organizing community, I feel like that’s completely part of my teaching and artistry – the hybridity that I bring to my students, to the studio. There is a rigor to what I do, hours of training and creating in the studio, and that level of practice inspires disciplined thinking and analytical curiosity.
Chatterjea the author and acclaimed scholar is adept at interrogating the world through multiple lenses in search of equity and balance. In a moment of reflection, she admits that her creative labor is for her daughter and young women throughout the world.
“I’m a feminist because I’m a parent and because
I want a better world for my daughter,
for next generations of global women of color.”
When I began working within a social justice process, one of the things I realized was that in order to be effective, you cannot just do the ‘flash-in-the pan’ mode, one project and then move on. I started building multi-year works. I did a trilogy on women of color and environmental injustices. I did a quartet on systemic violence and women. Recently, I just finished a five-year series about the ways in which women work to sustain and push forward their communities, imagine and conjure most just worlds, but this unmarked labor is seldom acknowledged.
Ananya is currently touring Shyamali and Shātrangā and offers insight into her musings these days in the development of a new work titled Sutrajaal (networks of connection).****
Do you feel that icy wind blowing around your heart? Watch out. This city tends to hang icicles on our dreams.
Look above you though. Dignitaries whiz past in closed-circuit containers through extreme highways built over most of the urban areas. These flyovers are efficient short-cuts to places of work, entertainment, habitation for the special people. This is Upper City, Shiny, yet Old.
Below lie the circuitous streets and dense pathways of the Broken City, paved with mangled dreams. Hope sprouts from cracks in the cement only to perish. Despair lurks around every corner.
Yet, there is a kind of haunting, a haunting of these lonely streets, overrun by shadows. And if you look carefully, you might catch sudden glimpses of a once-vibrant history: the imprint of so many women who held this city with care. Marks of their labor, their loving, haunt this city. These moments of beauty always fade away as soon as you catch a glimpse. But they return, flashes of dynamic movement, testament to lives lived full, even if they fade irreconcilably.
The poet walks lonely through these streets all night. She has waited for the visions of memory coded in these broken walls so many times, hoping to catch them in her rhymes, so she can share them with others.
She does not know that, in another corner of the city, the dancer languishes, unable to connect to the bells that brought vibration to her feet years ago.
In yet another isolated corner, the painter weeps, unable to pick up the colors that once danced across her palette.
Snow falls silently in piles of desolation.
- Ananya Chatterjea