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Updated: April 9, 2011 20:37 IST

Dance of the ancients

KUMUDHA BHARATRAM
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Dr. Mahua Mukherjee: Reviving ancient arts.
Photo: Special Arrangement Dr. Mahua Mukherjee: Reviving ancient arts.

Though she holds a doctorate in botany, Dr. Mahua Mukherjee has dedicated herself to reviving the classical dance forms of Bengal.

What would a doctorate in botany, passion towards one's culture and a craving for classical dance lead to? Discovery of a new classical dance form would, perhaps, be the last guess. Dr. Mahua Mukherjee, Director of Gaudiya Nritya Bharati and Mitrayan and Head of the department of dance at Rabindra Bharati University, has revived Bengal's very own classical dance form, Gaudiya Nritya.

Many classical Indian dance forms evolved in a comparable manner. Besides their roots in the Natyashastra, the similarity extends to being temple arts initially. Listening to how the historical evidence went into fat books as syntax of Gaudiya Nritya was definitely more breathtaking than reading or ‘google-ing' the subject.

In a conversation during a three-day arts festival ‘Traditions Engaged' in San Francisco, she made 30 years of research sound easy and interesting enough to make one want to go home and get started on it. Excerpts from an interview:

The obvious first question: A Ph. D. in Botany and discovering Gaudiya Nritya. How do both fit in the same life?

Time, space and rhythm are concepts from science that are basic to dance. My Ph. D. taught me to see the art form scientifically. The culturally rich Bengal kindled the interest to delve deep and unearth the existence of dance in literature, scriptures, paintings and sculptures.

A visit to Ananta Vasudeva temple in Bengal's Hooghly district with its beautiful sculptures of dancers and musicians set me thinking about the dance tradition that must have existed in my native land.

Like Rukmini Devi, your first steps were in a different school of dance from the one you dedicated your life to. When did you receive your formal training in classical dance?

There was limited exposure to classical dance in my childhood but I loved to dance. During Durga puja or any other festival, I participated and was applauded too.

I was collecting these little droplets until my marriage, after which I started learning Bharatanatyam. Later I had the good fortune and support to learn Kirtan Nritya, Purulia Chau and Nachni.

Talking of support, your husband Amitava Mukherjee, a scholar and singer and able vocal accompanist to your performances, must have been a blessing in your journey. Can you also tell us about your gurus?

My gurus were Padmashri Gambhir Singh for Purulia Chau, Shashi Mahato for Nachni and Narottam Sanyal for Kirtan Nritya. Along with my husband, I travelled from village to village in Bengal for my research and invited gurus from whom I learnt, sometimes from 4.00 a.m. to midnight. I was able to continue my journey with the blessings of my gurus and my husband's support.

What characterises Gaudiya Nritya?

The antiquity of Gaudiya Nritya is based on literature, sculpture and paintings. The Sri Hastamuktavali and Sangeet Damodar are rich resources for the theory of the dance form. The margam (repertoire) begins with the vandana with a chaamar (whisk), pushpadaali (flower basket) and shora (clay pot). The nritanga (adavus), bhava and rasa are elaborate.

For example, each nayika bhava is subdivided into eight to give 64 varieties, with specific personality and costume. The dance form also has a variety of chakkars, which is characteristic of Bengal, where even the language has rounded pronunciation.

Why did this art form vanish in the past, while others gained prominence?

Lack of patronage and political disturbances led to the decline of Gaudiya Nritya. Many art forms were under an eclipse during foreign rule.

There has also been social stigma attached to some dance forms like that of nachnis. I was one of the first few women to learn Purulia Chau. Gaudiya Nritya includes some aspects of martial arts, which may be physically more demanding than the other forms it co-exists with.

With few senior practitioners of Gaudiya Nritya, are there opportunities to share ideas and techniques among peers? What about its future?

The sharing of thoughts and ideas happens irrespective of style. Learning abhinaya from guru Kalanidhi Narayanan was one memorable experience. Gaudiya Nritya Bharati conducts classes and brings out books, audio and video on this art form. A study centre for this dance form is being run under Rabindra Bharati University.

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