Why I became a classical dancer. Indian Bharatanatyam exponent Sohini Roychowdhury narrates her journey
Some love stories, like gypsies, travel – from place to place, from heart to heart, from sun to snow, from Tanjore to Spain…Colombia…New York. Austria…Croatia…never settling down…like Nature…from Tagore to Tkaichokvsy to Tyagaraja.
My journey into, and in, the world of dance is one such love story… a labour of love and passion, hope and distress, sprinkled with moments of epiphany and leaps of faith.
Born to sitar maestro Pandit Subroto Roychowdhury, breathing in the notes of Ahir Bahirav, Jhinjhoti, Desh, Behag and Rageshri, dawn to dusk, any deviation from ‘gharanadaar’ classical music was almost blasphemy. When I was around 4-years old, my father was in the process of popularizing Indian classical music in Europe, while directing the music of Hans Gunther Higmeh’s ‘Antigone’, an Indo German production, Hermen Hesse’s Siddhartha, a Swiss production, the Russian film ‘The Could’, a French Jazz production with Steve Lacey, Raga Music fusions with the Birmingham Conservatoire, collaborating with the Beijing Opera, and with the Austrian Philharmonic Orchestra.
It was a very exciting and interesting phase of my life, where, along with the taste for Shnitzel and Frankfurters, the flavour of Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Brahms, and the first seeds of the connectiveness of civilisations through music had got into my blood – and forever injected my soul and my entire being with a world view like no other. At around the same time in my very young life, I was, fatefully, witness to a live Bharatanatyam performance by Yamini Krishnamurthy. Utterly fascinated and enthralled by that resplendent sight of the legendary dancer, at the height of her prowess as the definitive exponent of the Tanjore style of Bharatanatyam, in all its three-dimensional magic, I immediately demanded to learn this dance form. Fortunately, without dismissing it as the transient whim of a child, my parents acceded, and I embarked on a journey that was to define my whole life.
Intensive training of Bharatanatyam in the Tanjore style, under revered Gurus Tankamani Kutty and Kalamandalam Venkitt, continued unabated for the next several years, hand in hand with the normal academic rigours of a typical Bengali household. Somewhere along this rigorous path, I realised that my training, combined with an inherent ‘feel’ for the dance and my natural talent for it, could become more than a serious hobby – it could, and it did, become my career and my overwhelming identity.
My dance to me is a magical melting pot of poetry, protest and prayer. It is the voice of empathy that connects all of humanity, without frontiers of geography, religion, gender or society. It is a living manifestation of the freedom of the soul. It is the ethos of the Devadasis, of Sufi philosophy, of Tagore and Rumi’s world views of life, love and humanity. My dance is where traditional Gandhara art freely mixes with the passion of Flamenco, with the Gypsy trail of Andalusia that connects India to Spain, with the beauty of ballet and the formless freedom of folk dances, with the bounty of nature, with the Shakti movement, with the oneness of the Universe.
This world view, indeed, this philosophy, finds constant reflection in my performances and choreographies – both as a solo artiste, as well as with my multinational World Dance Opera troupe – Sohinimoksha. I believe I have, over the years, taken this most ancient dance form of India, to places where it has seldom been. Not merely geographically from the Americas to Adelaide, but also in its myriad representations with traditional and world music, in its role as a mesmeric tool for storytelling the universal mythologies of India through mudras, in its form and factor defying amalgamations with dance forms from across the world, without losing the core essence and its centuries old traditions.
I am fortunate, and humbled, to be recognised as a premier ambassador of Indian culture for the last several years. My performances in India and across the globe – solo and with my troupe Sohinimoksha, consisting of my students, and dancers, from all over Europe, Latin America, USA and India — have been garnering tumultuous audience appreciation. My audience, and reviewers, have frequently highlighted my unique choreography and stagecraft, my ability to adapt and fuse the best that the world of International dance and music has to offer, with my classical dance-based choreographies, my culture and language bridging communication skills, all of which combine to create the unique world of Sohinimoksha. Celebrating the Humanism of Rumi, Sufi mysticism, the mesmeric quality of Vedic and Gregorian chants, tracing the cult of the Mother Goddess from its Egyptian roots through pre-Baroque times to the Latin countries to India, the timeless message of Gandhi – all come together in my stagecraft to underline my world-view and mission: Connecting Civilizations.
I am a fervent believer in universal humanism and empathy, and frequently weaponize my art to help eradicate the many ills and inequalities that plague our society. I try to be a tireless front-liner in the global wars against poverty, gender-inequalities, LGBT discriminations, child exploitation, sex-trafficking, and education in-access – through my numerous pro-bono initiatives in India, Europe, and South America.
My dance is the storm in my soul – now and forever! It is the free spirit, my world view, my passion, my rage and my furious desire to communicate…. the tsunami of my soul and my ghungroos…my Flamenco-natyam, my Moksha.
Towards the beginning of the global lockdowns of 2020, forced to forgo my return to Europe from Kolkata, I was pleasantly surprised to be approached by Monidipa Mukherjee and Sutapa Sengupta, two erstwhile Creative Directors of India’s premier advertising agency, HTA, for permission, and content contribution, to enable them to write and design a coffee table book. A book purportedly on Bharatanatyam, but in reality, a look at the dance form through the prism of my life on stage, and my unique presentations and interpretations that have contributed to expanding its global footprint.
My acceptance of their proposal, and the subsequent coming on board of Roli Books as the publisher, resulted in ‘Dancing With The Gods’, a truly positive outcome of the COVID-19 year, if there ever was one!
‘Dancing With the Gods’ is a pictorial ode that captures the rich heritage of Bharatanatyam, celebrating its traditional moods and movements, but also pausing to delve into the lesser known, the truly exotic and the startlingly global. The book’s magical meanderings will transfix and entice even a casual browser into Bharatanatyam’s ‘cursed brides of God’ Devadasi roots, the fascinating tale of the transgender Shikhandi, the French Sara La Kali, the Mesopotamian Ishtar, a Greek God and his Indian doppelganger, a familiar Ganesha, and then perhaps a completely unknown Aranyani.
Designed to reflect the spirit of a popular cultural raconteur, engaging the reader without pedagogy or scholastic strictures, but with a lightness of touch that entertains while it informs, Dancing With The Gods weaves information, anecdotes and trivia together to validate the role that art plays in connecting civilizations. Within its pages the body and soul converge, and dance becomes drama!
The book derives its inspiration, and most of its rare photographs and researched writing, from my performances, talks and the archives of Sohinimoksha World Dance & Communications.
What are Gharanas and who is a ‘gharanadar’ musician?
Gharanas in Indian Classical Music is an age-old tradition. All the Gharanas have distinctive styles and manner in which they sing the notes. There are different Gharanas based in different regions of India, and their specific styles are also highly influenced by the creative style invented by one master that goes on to be emulated by his students. This Guru-Shishya concept is called ‘Gharanas’ in Hindustani Classical Music.
A ‘gharanadar’ musician is therefore one who sings or plays as learnt from their guru, and the specific style and variations handed down and taught through the ages under that specific ‘gharana’.
Sohini Roychowdhury is a dancer, choreographer, speaker and teacher. www.sohinimoksha.com