Between modern and traditional

Amita Dutta in performance. Photo: Prashant Arora   | Photo Credit: 08dfr amita

Acclaimed dancer, choreographer, scholar and professor Amita Dutt has recently been conferred the fist Uday Shankar Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance by the West Bengal Government. Trained in Kathak under stalwarts like Pandit Birju Maharaj, Pandit Vijay Shankar and Bela Arnab, Dutt, the erstwhile Dean of Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University, has also been conferred the prestigious Uday Shankar Chair at the University after a gap of 17 years. Dutt, also Director of Performing Arts at the University, has performed and taught extensively at home and abroad and is striving to establish a Bengal gharana of Kathak. Excerpts from an interview:

You have been conferred the prestigious Uday Shankar Chair at Rabindra Bharti University after years. What edge do you think you have over others?

It is not for me ‘to reason why’. One external expert did ask me, how Uday Shankar was important to me as a classical dancer. I had answered that he taught us how to present our dance before a modern audience, on a proscenium stage. Earlier, dancers were engrossed with technicalities and grammar of dance. They did not view the presentation from the angle of the audience. The use of the stage space, lighting, costumes, patterns formed by various dancers and the attention span of the audience were all very important for Uday Shankar. And he was constantly seeking new avenues of expression through dance, never being satisfied with simply copying something that was learnt. In fact, Tagore had also advised Uday Shankar not to be confined within one geographical area or one historical period, but to thirst for new creative expressiveness. I have constantly endeavoured to adhere to these tenets and make my performances attractive and acceptable to a modern-day audience spread across the continents.

Do you feel any emotional identification with this position?

Yes, I do. My relationship with the great artist is not through blood but through thoughts and ideas. I always consciously carry with me his legacy. Incidentally, there have been many occasions when his name was associated with me. I am the professor in the Uday Shankar Chair, I performed in the first Uday Shankar Festival of the State Government and received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Dance from the Government this year.

How have you justified Uday Shankar’s creativity in your choreography? I have choreographed many dances using different dance styles. In them, I have gone beyond Kathak. I have used my knowledge and with the inspiration coming from god, Tagore and Uday Shankar, I created many new presentations under the banner of my University. These have been presented in many important festivals across the country.

Your Kathak boundaries have not stretched beyond use of formations...

Yes. I have brought in many creative formations in my choreography. In my presentation on Ganga, I have tried to emulate the movement of the river — sometimes torrential, sometimes meandering, and also the ideas and images associated with the river: both natural and religious. I have also blended our traditional Kathak movements and rhythmic formations within my new creations. The sound of falling rain is shown through footwork and onomatopoeic rhythmic compositions.

How else would you suggest one should expand the boundaries of Kathak? At times, dancers have stretched the boundaries so far that the audience failed to identify the dance numbers as Kathak.

You began to choreograph with works of Tagore, Atul Prasad and Nazrul and then D.L. Roy. How was the creative (setting to music) process different from the classical form?

The creative process is similar. I have always worked on songs and music that have appealed to me, whether traditional or modern, classical or light, eastern or western. Actually, when you are creating a dance piece, you don’t calculate or think with your left brain. Ideas, images, rhythmic compositions and movements dawn on you. Of course, they usually emanate from your storehouse of knowledge, what you have learnt or seen or imbibed. But at times, ideas and images have come to me through my reverie or even my dreams.

Is the use of the celebrated literature a precursor to your establishing the Bengal gharana?

Yes, while working on the various literary works, the idea of an independent Bengal gharana dawned on me. Initially, I had started choreographing on these songs because I loved them. The fact that the audience responded with equal enthusiasm gave me an impetus. And one leading to the other, now the concept of our Bengal gharana has gradually started taking shape. The majority of my performances are for the Bengali audience who enjoy hearing well known Bengali songs. And songs of the last century are still very much alive in the popular Bengali consciousness. In fact, members of my audience participate in D.L. Roy’s patriotic and romantic thoughts more than in Awadhi thumris, chaitis and kaajris. The difference between the Lucknow and Jaipur gharanas was tangible at one time. Today, they are blending into each other as the repertoire is being borrowed or copied and the styles influencing each other. The present-day Benaras gharana artists have learnt from stalwarts of the Lucknow and Jaipur gharanas and there is more of an influence of these gharanas on their dance than an adherence to the precepts of their founder Janki Prasad. I, too, have learnt from stalwarts of the Lucknow and Jaipur gharanas. But what I perform today is not a mere copy of what I have learnt. I have evolved a style of my own which is more melodic than rhythmic, more interpretative than abstract, more lilting than staccato. And I have a large body of choreographic creations on Bengali songs: Tagore, Nazrul, D.L. Roy, Sachin Dev Barman, Salil Choudhury, as well as the traditional Baul songs and kirtans.

Will you be choreographing other poets’ work of that era?

Yes, I wish to. I am working on the lyrics of Vivekananda and Rajani Kanto.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2021 8:29:26 PM |

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