A sprawling, old mansion in North Kolkata became the protagonist in a collaborative project by Sasha Waltz and Padmini Chettur

Jorasanko Rajbati, the sleepy, many-layered 250-year-old sprawling, unadorned, dark pink palatial building at the Ganesh Talkies crossing of Chitpur Road in the congested Burrabazar area of historic North Kolkata was brought alive by the path-breaking German choreographer Sasha Waltz together with her Indian colleague Padmini Chettur and their dancers accompanied by soloists of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with the project “Dialoge-2013 Kolkata”, an event of “Germany and India 2011-2012: Infinite Opportunities”.

The interdisciplinary projects titled “Dialoge”(Dialogues) are important and creative works of Sasha Waltz. Architecture is an important protagonist itself in Dialoge, hence the extensive search from August last year for a suitable building, finally closing in on this Rajabati, leaving out the several ornate ones along the narrow lanes of this area. As in all these palaces, the rooms in which occupants lived and worked are built around a large courtyard. At the furthest end is a largish recess known as a “thakurdalan”, fronted by a row of columns connected with arches. At one time Hindu gods and goddesses used to be worshipped here with much pomp and splendour. A unique and exclusive feature of this building are the four medallions in a row with fading painted images of deities on the walls of the thakurdalan. This outer house with the several rooms along the verandah was the site-specific performance space. Next to this thakurdalan, separated by a wall, was another courtyard, hidden from public gaze, which serves as the living quarters of many of the descendents of Raja Ramchandra Roy, a merchant prince of Posta, close to Burrabazar. The building, as many other heritage ones are, is in urgent need of repair but is a perfect site to vivify images, tell stories, recall the past with kinaesthetic imagery and expressive resources of contemporary dance by 13 dancers of the company Sasha Waltz and Guests, and Padmini Chettur with her ensemble.

The short but very intensive encounters between musicians, artists, dancers and choreographers take place in the rooms on the first floor — some dusty, unkempt, some with polished mahogany furniture with old photographs or oil paintings (some torn) on the walls and the courtyard. The performance on the first evening began amidst the noise of the clanging trams, shouts of the shopkeepers of the milk market across, with the lights gradually falling on the three dancers crossing over from the verandah in front and standing on the parapet-like statues facing the main entrance. The large crowd waiting around the marble fountain lighted with earthenware diyas inside the small once-upon-a-time garden patch in front rushed in as the main door opened with the sound of a brass bell (ghanta).The thakurdalan in line with the main door was visible, lit a dreamy blue, arches gradually visible out of darkness, a few of the female dancers moving slowly from one end to another with the mild refrain of Rajeswari Dutta’s Rabindrasangeet “Ananta Sagar Majhey”. Later, a circular kaleidoscopic light kept rotating on the rear wall of this performance space for a major part of the dialogue. A clock on the wall at the portico raced anti-clockwise to transport the viewers back in time. Water dripped from a pitcher on a percussion-base drop by drop, the sound resonating inside. Two hourglasses made of sand dropping from a huge bag on a large brass plate (bogi thala) were placed at two ends of the gallery, along the courtyard, where the dancers gradually moved alongside as if awakened from a deep slumber and then lined up in front of the thakurdlan holding hands, then rolled on the floor with legs and hands entwined with each other to form a line, then a circle and, finally, a human mound with the sound of a Bengal drum, the dhak. It was as if the phantoms, ghosts or spooks had been evoked from the past by the dancers.

The viewers had the freedom to move around, peep into the rooms where a violin and cello accompanied two dancers engaged in a tango or waltz or a father was putting his children to sleep or a dancer performed an abstract crazy movement atop an old wooden dusty almirah bending down to caress one near her on the ground. Yet in another room a charged love act was on an old writing table through wavy, stretched hand movements by two dancers, extending them to cling on to an old ceiling fan. The imagery of captivity in love emerged through a rib-caged gesture of embrace highlighted by holding on to the caged lovebirds.

The choreography was structural imagery with the movement patterns blending with subdued lights and music. A dancer dusting old books was symbolic as the dance with a framed photograph on the face. Equally mystifying was the inaccessible room where dramatic shadows in reverse of life, perhaps of the old occupants, were projected, only visible through the closed shutters. Only on one occasion did Chettur’s dancer break into classical mudras while sitting around a marble table. Sasha’s richness and fullness of choreographic expression, with the body as base, gave complete freedom to the dancers.

The costumes were loose gowns, a sort of Indo-Western wear with fanned sleeves for the female dancers and kurta or angarakhas with pyjamas or loose pants all stitched in Kolkata. The video installation by Tapio Snellman and lights by Martin Hauk supported Sasha Waltz’s direction and concept, collaborated by Padmini Chettur for this unique event.