Of all the tawdry and infamous red-light districts around the world, Kolkata (Calcutta), India, is home to one of the worst. A notorious south Asian hub for the trafficking of young girls, the neighborhoods teem with dangers and despair, as chronicled most notably by the children of prostitutes in the Academy Award-winning documentary Born into Brothels. Despite miserable conditions, daily health risks, and abject poverty, the thousands of women who toil in the sex trade in Kolkata have found a way to organize and demand their dignity.
In response to a government that did not provide for their safety or recognize their contributions to the economy, the women unionized as the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee. Durbar (or Duurbaar, which means "unstoppable" in Bengali) stands for respect, reliance, and recognition. The group presents conferences, provides HIV prevention messages, offers vocational training, and inspires sex workers in other locales to follow its lead. These women, who were once dismissed by society, are now recognized as extremely effective advocates for their well-being and valued as public educators.
"They had the vision to create a better future, a new horizon," says Ananya Chatterjea, who grew up in Kolkata, a cultural and political center in the West Bengal region of India. Chatterjea, a petite woman with a bright and animated voice, sat for a recent interview at the Longfellow Grill dressed in a loose T-shirt and pants—her post-rehearsal garb. Her 10-year-old daughter Srija nibbled at a plate of fish and chips by her side. "They are talking in their own terms," she continues, "and saying, 'Don't speak for me, I can speak for myself.'"
Chatterjea, like the women of Kolkata's mean streets, doesn't allow anyone to put words into her mouth. In fact, the choreographer, activist, writer, and University of Minnesota associate professor has developed an aesthetic that revolves around speaking up and demanding justice in works that tackle difficult issues like domestic violence and war. No less important is to offer the audience moments of beauty and hope.
This mission includes the 22 women who make up Ananya Dance Theatre. The company members are African American, Latina, South Asian, and East Asian. They span generations, with the youngest performers in grade school and the oldest in her sixties. They follow different religions and have different sexual orientations. Many are still relatively new to dance yet they study Odissi, the demanding classical Indian dance form that Chatterjea combines with other kinetic approaches including yoga and Chhau, a rigorous martial arts discipline traditionally performed by men.
Most important, however, the group has an investment in Ananya Dance Theatre that goes beyond simply attending rehearsal and learning steps. According to Chatterjea, their own experiences inspired the narrative structure for Duurbaar: Journeys into Horizon, debuting this weekend at the Southern Theater.
"We started doing the story collecting and it took us a year to train, do workshops, and get the emotions out," she says. They also worked with Mexican theater artist Dora Arreola who promotes a theory of "performance as vigilance."
"People were really talking about where women come from in their families," says Chatterjea. "Not geographically, but rather is it a place of tears and sadness? They talked about their mothers and grandmothers but also historical and political figures as well. I asked them, 'What do women do to make better lives?' and the answer is 'What don't they do?'"
Chatterjea recognizes that her approach is often ghettoized by the perception that community-based work is more earnest than exceptional. "There is a sense that this work can't be good," Chatterjea explains. "The women work so hard to bust that stereotype. We can build networks of support and at the same time strive for excellence. My one plea when people come to see the show is to remember that it's about making sure we are creating an active citizenry for dance. This work is about ordinary people's lives, not gods and heroines. That's why I don't do traditional dance."
Duurbaar also contains a personal journey for Chatterjea, one that finds her moving forward at the cost of leaving something behind. Earlier this year she lost both of her parents, one after the other, and arrived too late to say goodbye in person each time. Early in the piece, she performs while Pramila Vasudevan shadows her as a somewhat menacing presence—albeit one with a slight smile on her face. Chatterjea explains that Vasudevan is "the figure of death, but she's not very strong. She's not there to take revenge on me. Death doesn't come to take revenge on anybody; it's there for itself. But I'm unable to let go." Later Srija comes onstage for a slow duet that is a blend of yoga and contact improvisation, reminding Chatterjea again of "the face of life after seeing the terrible face of death."
The work offers many poignant moments such as these, set to vocals by Shubha Mudgal and percussion by Aneesh Pradhan. It also features an unusual scenic element. Toward the end, parts of the stage floor flood with water. The women must move carefully, the sound of small splashes accompanying their steps. Chatterjea has an intent in this section that rubs against traditional expectations about the relationship between women and water. She explains, "I wanted to make sure it wasn't glorifying womanhood," or falling into a dreamy new age ritual. "It's more about rebirthing. There is a story about loss and then connecting and regenerating ourselves through a sort of work or labor that transcends into a place of joy. There's also the metaphor of water and contamination, and in this day and age, who we touch is very important."
Chatterjea expands on her subject, adding, "The body is an intensely political ground, especially women's bodies. How do you acknowledge that, given where the Supreme Court is these days?" She perceives artists as holding a special accountability, as members of civic society, to address the current state of affairs: the oppression of women, genocide, epidemics, racism, the culture of fear.
Still, Chatterjea firmly believes the dance community is lagging behind in its response. "Nobody can be complacent in this world," she concludes, rising to pay the check. "Lives are at stake and I always think about what art can we make when lives are at stake."
Srija, meanwhile, has her own vital girl's work to do. Fueled by root beer and an evening filled with dancing and cartwheels, she's playing on the patio in the cool breeze. She remembers her jacket left behind at the table, and Chatterjea holds her portable video game while she scampers off to retrieve it.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.