Fourteen months ago, Ananya Chatterjea had an idea for a new work inspired by The Algebra of Infinite Justice by Indian poet Arundhati Roy. The choreographer, activist, writer, and University of Minnesota associate professor wanted to bring together several women for a performance, and she got the word out, thinking five or six dancers would express interest. Now, just days before opening Ananya Dance Theatre's newest work, Bandh: A Meditation on Dream, at the Southern Theater, Chatterjea is leading a cast of 21 African American, Latina, South Asian, and East Asian women ranging in age from 9 to 64, not to mention a team of international collaborators including Indian composer Shubha Mudgal. "It's been like bringing the earth and sky together," Chatterjea laughs appreciatively during a recent telephone interview.
All of this has been possible, she explains, thanks to the fierce dedication of her company members, many of whom had never before danced professionally, let alone tackled a complex classical Indian dance form like Odissi, Chatterjea's specialty. They formed a steering committee and raised funds to keep the work going. They went from rehearsing once a week to nearly every day. They learned yoga. Some cursed when Chatterjea made them do 500 sit-ups and spend hours devoted solely to footwork. She asked for a commitment to artistic excellence and soon found herself mentoring a new community of artists who are already planning their next project.
Chatterjea's repertoire includes works addressing domestic violence, gender inequality, and religious fundamentalism. She challenges the status quo by fusing 21st-century feminism and activism with classicism. "Women affirm life," says Chatterjea. "They are constantly in peace movements. This is a way of honoring and remembering them." The show's title, Bandh, means "barred" or "stop" in several Indian languages, but it also refers to a "strike," a nonviolent protest. Through dance, Chatterjea sees a way for "women to reclaim their bodies and articulate their voice," and wonders aloud, "What does it mean to labor for that dream?"
To develop a strong collective voice, Chatterjea and her cast engaged in extensive discussion. "We are 21 women of color but we have discrepant understandings of race, gender, and religion," she says. Consequently, the cast members had a frank discussion about which racial groups would stand together "when the shit hit the fan." "We also looked at the divisive legacy of the women's movement," Chatterjea continues. "How do we end up speaking the same language? Those conversations were difficult, but the project would never have gone to this extent without people [in the cast] emerging as leaders."
Chatterjea also explored the aesthetic tension that accompanies her cultural heritage. According to one of Chatterjea's favorite passages by Roy, one should "never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of the world around you," but instead "pursue beauty in its lair." So much of Indian dance, however, says Chatterjea, is objectified to the point where beauty cannot exist without allusions to exoticism, and some have suggested that she no longer perform in a sari--or at least deconstruct its meaning --in order to avoid that situation. "I can't give up my sari!" she exclaims. "It's about access and the beauty of Odissi. Why should I give that up?"
For Chatterjea, reclaiming the original meaning of the dance and then placing it in the context of a new era is a way to keep the form alive and relevant. She recently published a book, Butting Out: Reading Resistive Choreographies Through Works by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Chandralekha, that considers, among other issues, how western culture struggles to address nonwhite artists who expand beyond traditional forms.
Chatterjea challenges those who would abstain from commenting on a culture--and particularly its art--solely on the basis that they do not share it, thereby ignoring the art altogether. "I can't stand that idea. It's a subtle form of racism," she says. "This is a global culture now."