Dancing Away The Demons

Ananya Chatterjea's art tackles India's ethnic riots and Kashmir's missing

Ananya Chatterjea is crouched on the floor in a studio at the University of Minnesota, where she both rehearses and serves as an assistant professor of dance. A Sufi song by Reshma streams from the stereo. She rubs her hands together, glances upward, and salutes the sky. Her face is still, but her eyes express anger tempered by anticipation. She begins to dance, relying on Odissi, a percussive technique from eastern India that is similar to Bharatanatyam but relies on a freer use of the hips and less precise movement of the eyes. When the hypnotic music builds, her dancing, always controlled, becomes increasingly defiant.

Chatterjea is performing "Making Rain," a work created in response to riots incited by fundamentalist politics in the Gujarat region of India. This is the place where more than 2,000 Muslims were killed last year in a paroxysm of ethnic violence, a decade after the mob-led destruction of a contested mosque. This is also the state where Gandhi honed his practice of nonviolence. Half a world away, the diminutive Chatterjea decries the destruction wrought by the clash of faith and politics. And so she dances, and dances hard, to exorcise those demons. This is, after all, the same choreographer who once created a solo work in which she recast Sita, the dutiful wife of the Hindu epic The Ramayana, as an underground activist for peace.

Chatterjea, who will present Dancing from the Shadows this weekend at Intermedia Arts, has never shied away from confronting politics through dance. Her work is a form of activism as well as art, and in Chatterjea's mind these are not mutually exclusive concepts. Her 2001 piece A Wife's Letter, for example, explored the body as battlefield in the context of domestic violence. "Making Rain," which is part of her new program, explores the difficult process of finding reconciliation. And then there is "Women of Lost Homes," an emotionally devastating work set to the powerful words of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz that explores the underreported phenomenon of disappeared people in disputed Kashmir.

"My issues are not big," explains the 38-year-old Chatterjea, interviewed at her apartment near Dinkytown a few weeks before the show. "These are ordinary issues of ordinary people. What motivates me is that it could happen to me, my daughter, the people I love. The anger is very everyday. This is not a sentimental thing about losing a child. It's a critique of state policy."

Chatterjea, who explains that many Kashmiri go missing after speaking up about political problems in the region, draws parallels to the disappeared in Argentina. To this day the mothers of the missing march in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. "How can you believe in truth, law, and government if that is what has gone on in your life?" asks Chatterjea. "There's no possibility of sitting on the fence about this. Your silence is acquiescing."

Although Chatterjea, and her subject matter, are undeniably intense, she emphasizes that her show follows "a trajectory from hopelessness to hope. Not just spiritual hope but hope that is labored for." The third work of the evening, "Encounters," created with Boston-based choreographer Thomas De Frantz and composer Akili Jamal Haynes, explores the process of creating solidarity with someone different from you. "I'm a straight South Asian woman and Tommy's a gay African American man," says Chatterjea. "How do we make our alliances? We talked about our histories. Mine is a story of immigration while his is of the forced migration of slavery. It's not simple to think deeply and intently about our shared struggles."

"In order to coexist," she concludes, "You can't be where you were. We have to think about precisely those things we cannot afford not to think about."

 
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