Why you should care

Because moving into the future requires undoing and redoing. 

In the hunt for the next underground thing in India, you might wind your way through the streets of Mumbai or Delhi, picking up names at music festivals or the few and far between avant-garde film screenings. You will probably be looking for a place filled with young people and the hipsterdoms they inhabit.

In doing so, you might miss what’s happening in the northeastern city of Kolkata, the erstwhile capital of the British Empire that’s generally considered a sigh of its former self. Industry and intellectuals alike have been trickling away since the political turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet a few holdouts remain, and they’re redefining certain fields — such as the five women comprising the thoroughly contemporary dance group PraatohKrityo. These millennials are, on this particular night, deep into rehearsals for a show they’re calling a demonstration of urban ritual, a dance performance about the experience of women moving through city space.

PraatohKrityo translates from Sanskrit roughly as “the work one does first thing in the morning.” (“If that means shitting, then it means shitting,” says one dancer, 24-year-old Satakshi Nandy; indeed, in Bengali, it usually means shitting.) The group sold out its first shows in Kolkata and hit Delhi last month. (One reviewer in the capital wrote, “PraatohKrityo shat on patriarchy last night while you weren’t looking.”) “They’re part of a larger movement to think about women and urban space,” says K. Frances Lieder, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who’s interviewed PraatohKrityo as part of a dissertation on performing femininity in Indian public space.

Each of the young women in the group holds unique backgrounds — distinct forms of classical training, martial arts experience, acting; they’re dotted with master’s degrees in esoteric fields. They are, in aggregate, an example of the contemporary dance and larger arts world in India: Their job is to build on the past, update it for the present and add a dash of the political.

We should — I should — have control, the right over my own body.

— Sreejita Mitra, PraatohKrityo dancer

In the industrial Howrah district, the ladies are at work. They operate in a manner to make any anarchist, leaderless movement proud. The director is out today and Nandy subtly leads, in a sweet, firm voice, correcting her fellow dancers’ somersaults but allowing everyone to warm up in her own way. Some take to a punching bag; others do downward dog. Sreejita Mitra, 23, is trained in classical Bharatanatyam and a folk martial art; her body is inevitably influenced by the traditional form, but she’s also working against its impact today. “They would all say this is how you dance,” she says of her former teachers, one of whom told her to stop learning to fight because it clashed with her body. “I was like — what the fuck? We should — I should — have control, the right over my own body.”

And then there is the increasingly socially conscious art world. Vishwa Kiran, principal dancer at the Bangalore-based contemporary dance company Nritarutya, says the country is seeing a burgeoning interest in more “progressive Indian dance work.” But what’s contemporary, what’s Indian, what’s Indian contemporary? Often, says Kiran, dancers are melding classical training with Westernized movement languages. Other times the form is influenced by commercial performances or even the ubiquitous reality television shows that pit dance hopefuls against one another.

The trouble with the old ways, he says, echoing Mitra, is that classical forms limit what content dancers can “discuss” on stage. Bharatanatyam, the ancient temple dance, for instance, focuses on devotion, certain stories of the gods and mythology. “What contemporary dance offers is very beautiful — it gives you the freedom to say what you want in whatever way you want.”

And what do PraatohKrityo’s women want to say? For one, they want to undo some classicism, like the legacy of Indian temple dancers being banned from public spaces. You can see it in the fervor of each dancer’s movement — as Mitra moves, her torso unleashes something pent up; not fury but raw energy. Debarati Sarkar, 23, a long-limbed performer with no previous dance experience, makes her way across the stage with a kind of innocent curiosity, as though she is wondering what her body can do next. Nandy is power, like the female goddess Shakti; her training in the Kerala martial art Kalaripayattu is obvious.

That’s what comes out visually. But these women are also, in some ways, screaming political messages. The daily movements they hope to integrate into dance are gestures they take from the social conversations at play here in Communist-influenced, liberal Kolkata: caste rights, female empowerment, battles over defining national identity.

It has never been easy to convey social messages through art. “We are about 20 years behind,” Kiran says, “very much backward from what is happening in Europe and America” — where audiences may be more tolerant of the abstract. India’s contemporary dance scene is still puzzling through that political messaging, he says. Some companies supplement their performance with lengthy explanatory pieces of text so the audience can situate their work, he says. But is that pure art?

Whatever it is, it’s happening both onstage and offstage. And perhaps talking alongside the movement can help translate the sometimes-murky meaning of performance. Says Nandy, “It’s about a certain trance” — the trance of normalcy, of being told what to do and how to live — “and then the possibility of breaking away.”

This article has been updated to more accurately describe the economic conditions of the Howrah district.

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