There are dancers who travel the world, win laurels, bring glory to their art form, produce innovative choreography, build an army of competent students and then there are those who do all of the above and also create institutions. Parwati Dutta belongs to the latter category. An intuitive dancer, choreographer and arts administrator, she underwent rigorous training in Kathak and Odissi under the aegis of foremost proponents such as Pt. Birju Maharaj, Pt. Kelucharan Mohapatra and Guru Madhavi Mudgal.
Parwati’s solo performances began to attract appreciation and she was soon travelling the world with her esteemed gurus. Her passion for teaching and academic research further strengthened her understanding of form and evolved newer insights about the vocabulary of dance. Her work ever since has reverberated with fresh ideas unravelled through painstaking research into some of the most definitive musicological treatise such as Sangita Ratnakara. From Tagore to Odiya poetry to the sculptures of Ellora caves, her choreographic universe is eclectic.
Empowering the locals
A resolute Gandhian by faith and practice, Parwati nursed a strong urge to introduce arts education in socially and economically marginalised areas and empower the local populace through exposure and training in the arts. She quit Delhi for an obscure Aurangabad when invited by the Mahatma Gandhi Mission Trust to set up a performing arts institution. Needless to say that her journey has been strewn with numerous challenges, some constructive while the rest very bitter, to create Mahagami, regarded as one of the premier dance gurukuls in the country also recognised by UNESCO. Over the past twenty years, Mahagami has shaped into a nurturing performing arts space which trains talent from various parts of Marathwada and successfully birthed a culture of dialogue and critical enquiry around the performing arts through workshops, performances, artiste-in-residence programmes, summer camps and specially curated dance events.
Parwati has heralded a new movement, sown a seed which has now bloomed into lush vegetation in the otherwise arid cultural landscape of Aurangabad. She recalls: “My gurus felt that it was a hasty decision and that I would return to Delhi in a year or two. Nobody can dispute the benefits of a base in Delhi for a performing artiste. Also you are closer to your gurus for continuous guidance and assessment of your work. But I was never keen to just pursue a professional career in dance or teach some classes and start a dance school at most. I knew that I will eventually have to leave Delhi at some point to take my practice to an area which lacked mainstream dance education and exposure. In the summer of 1996, I came to visit Aurangabad for a day.
“Upon arrival, I realised it was just a vast expanse of barren land without any infrastructure whatsoever. There was a lone cottage which was to become my residence-cum-dance space and office. I wanted to leave immediately the next day because I did not feel any artistic vibrations from the space but I was also conflicted with the desire to create something afresh. I went back to Delhi to return within a fortnight and haven’t left since.”
Set in the drought prone Marathwada region of Maharashtra, Aurangabad is the tourism capital of the State. Its proximity to the Ajanta and Ellora caves attracts a steady inflow of foreign tourists. The region witnessed industrial growth and other allied progress. However, the classical arts remained invisible excepting some Hindustani vocal concerts. Dance was further confined to a couple of rudimentary Bharatanatyam classes. Perhaps a conservative mindset which held dance as lowbrow is to blame. There was a complete absence of discourse around the arts.
Parwati began her work in such a climate. Her efforts were viewed with suspicion and she encountered stiff resistance from the locals, which also included musicians who were surprisingly most unwelcoming of her presence. They did not want a ‘paraprantiya’ (outsider) in their midst. After all, how could a woman educate them about culture? Life threats from conservative fringe groups followed, phone lines were disconnected, and finally her cottage was ransacked with an ultimatum to leave.
The myth of the most welcoming small city was shattered for Parwati. “Perhaps it was their ignorance. This region has been deprived for decades and the orientation is very different. You will not think about music or dance when basic amenities are denied or you are faced with a drought. I thought things could only change with exposure and arts literacy campaigns.”
Thus began Parwati’s relentless travels across Marathwada to engage with the grass roots and introduce arts education to even the most deprived.
She made a series of multimedia presentations at prisons, slums, orphanages and areas as far flung as Pandharpur, Ramnagar, Beed, Hingoli where people had never seen a full-fledged dance recital. Pamphlets informing people about the artistic heritage of Aurangabad were distributed across the city and within a year, the campaign covered around one lakh population. Besides, she initiated a monthly baithak involving local musicians. Many of her students also performed at these events. A lecture series was then conceived involving experts from areas as diverse as ancient Indian science, philosophy and theatre.
Generating a dialogue
Soon the local people agreed to send their children to the gurukul for free training and also attended some of the sessions organised by Parwati . She explains: “The idea was to create kala rasikas and generate a dialogue which was completely missing. You cannot view art in isolation.”
After twenty years of persistent hard work, Mahagami has emerged as a symbol of pride for the city. Parwati was felicitated with the Wonder Woman Award through a popular opinion poll.
The Mahagami Repertory comprising local talent continues to present new work. Though her dream is partially realised, there is a lot to be done for Indian dance education and the city she now calls home, which has finally embraced the outsider as one of its own.
(Kunal Ray teaches contemporary literature at Flame University, Pune, and occasionally writes on art and culture)