Making a song and dance of it

Sangeeta Isvaran uses dance and theatre to give voice to underprivileged communities, writes Nithya Sivashankar

November 30, 2011 06:38 pm | Updated 06:54 pm IST

Stepping out of the box Abandoned girls paint a sari in Mexico

Stepping out of the box Abandoned girls paint a sari in Mexico

A few years ago, Sangeeta Isvaran met a 12-year-old Cambodian sex worker at a dance workshop. The little girl wrote a poem in her native tongue and presented it to Sangeeta at the end of the workshop. On her return to India, Sangeeta got it translated into Tamil by award-winning lyricist Vairamuthu. It read, “ Malarndhum malara malar naan/Ennai mannil kassakki veesadhey…Vinnai chchuttrum paravai naan/Ennai virka maaten naan.” (Loosely, translated, it means: “I'm a flower but yet to bloom//Do not crush and throw me away… I am a bird that flies free in the sky/I'll not sell myself.”) Sangeeta has now composed a padam (a piece of music composed for dance) based on these verses and she regularly performs it in her recitals.

Sangeeta is a dancer, research scholar and social worker. This Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar awardee choreographs many of her works based on such experiences. Her compositions are inspired by women she has met over the years. One of them is about a woman whose three daughters were killed and another is about women who are “constantly morally surveyed” just because they are single.

It was at the age of five that Sangeeta began her formal training in Bharatanatyam under Padmabhushan awardee Kalanidhi Narayanan. She learnt Nritta (a dance movement technique), Abhinaya, Nattuvangam, Kuchipudi, Carnatic music and Kalarippayattu. After finishing her undergraduate studies in Mathematics and post-graduation in performing arts, Sangeeta wanted to do research in dance. She says, “Young dancers are generally sent abroad after obtaining their degrees by their gurus. They work at foreign dance academies for a month or two, earn good money, return to India and start a dance school. I didn't want to do that.”

She did go abroad thanks to a research grant. “I went to Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, and worked on the theme of how the society perceives an Uttamanayika (chaste protagonist) and an Adamanayika (an immoral, unprincipled woman). The classical-dance-based project started out as a research subject, but it became a social project at the end of it.” During her stay in the East, Sangeeta interacted with many sex workers in order to understand the portrayal of the Uttama and the Adama. That was just the beginning of her career as a social worker and a researcher. She wrote about the dance forms of the East, secured a diploma in Cambodian Classical Dance (Rabam Boran) and performed with artists from that part of the world. Sangeeta then travelled to France, learned a few African dance forms that took her to West Africa, and then went to Mexico. In each of these places, she collaborated with local artists and choreographed works such as ‘Mayakkam Oxymore' (which involved dance, painting and contemporary music), ‘Ramayana in South East Asia' (which drew on the rich traditions of the Ramayana from Indian, Thai, Cambodian, Indonesian and Burmese styles of classical dance), and ‘To Kill or Not to Kill' (which discussed the ethics of war).

Sangeeta, who believes in using dance and theatre in social reform, has worked with UNESCO, World Vision, Oxfam, Handicap International and many other NGOs. “I have created performances to give voice to the marginalised and the underprivileged, especially sex workers, street children, landmine, tsunami and earthquake victims, refugees, juvenile delinquents and transvestites,” she says. Sangeeta has held workshops for these communities to create a space for self-expression. She encourages them to discuss their lives. In one workshop in Ambon, Indonesia, she aided the conflicting Christian and Muslim communities in the island to come together for a garbage clean-up operation.

Asked how she manages to make a living out of research and workshops, Sangeeta smiles, “Earning is less. Yearning is more.” She says research grants and some of her performances abroad help her make money. Sangeeta feels people in India tend to be elitist about the arts and she plans to bring together people from a wide cross-section of communities for her project with Aseema Trust – Mannvaasanai. The event, which will be held next August-September, will address education and polarisation based on gender, class and language.

The Ripple Effect

Mannvaasanai is the Indian edition of a four-pronged international event called The Ripple Effect. It aims to create a space to inspire people through the arts. A group of artists from across the world will gather in Chennai in August-September 2012.

These artists are pioneers in their countries in the field of community art and activism. They mobilise people to take the responsibility to act together and create vibrant, thought-provoking art.

Mannvaasanai will create a repository of information on different approaches to community art and social change which could benefit artists, art teachers, activists, communities and contribute to the current research in this domain. For details, call 094449-18692 or email .

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