A look at Gaudiya Nritya, the abandoned indigenous dance form of Bengal, and which brings it back to life
Posted on 05/23/21 12:05 AM
Tamil Nadu has Bharatanatyam, Andhra Pradesh has Kuchipudi and Odisha boasts of Odissi … But what is the classical dance form of a state as culturally rich as Bengal? âIt’s Gaudiya Nritya, but not everyone recognizes him,â says Rachana Kar.
The 24-year-old has taken on this forgotten form all over the world. In addition to regular performances in Bengal, Kar performed Gaudiya Nritya at a Unesco dance congress in Tokyo, during the 54th World Dance Research Congress in Athens. When I met her, and it is true that it had been a long time since Covid-19 had intervened, she was packing her bags to perform at the Venice Biennale.
Gaudiya Nritya is a classical Bengali dance whose name derives from Gaur, the capital of Bengal once; it is now a ruined town on the Indo-Bangladesh border. This form of dance is an amalgamation of theater, poetry, colors, stories – all based on sculpture, literature, scriptures, guru-shishya parampara dance traditions and historical evidence.
âOnce at school, I saw different dance forms performed at an event. There was Bharatanatyam, Kathak, even folk dances, but no form of classical Bengal dance, âsays Kar. Her research introduced her to Gaudiya Nritya and now she wears her pride wrapped around her ghungroos, âI am from Bengal and this is the classical dance form of Bengal. Why should I learn other forms of dance when my own culture is so rich? “
Kar says it is his guru Mahua Mukherjee who revives Gaudiya Nritya and is the chief pioneer of the form. Kar is a student of Gaudiya Nritya Bharati, an institution founded by Mukherjee, former professor of Rabindra Bharati University and former dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts. This form also contains elements of the Chhau, Nachni and Kushan dance forms of Bengal – all in which Mukherjee is formed. With her husband Amitava Mukherjee, she has worked for 40 years to revive the almost extinct Gaudiya. Mukherjee has traveled extensively in the interiors of Bengal and studied the dancing sculptures and carvings of various terracotta temples, some of which date back to the 4th century AD.
To give an insight into the history of what happened then, Mukherjee, 63, says: âThis dance has its roots in Natyashastra, a 2,500-year-old Sanskrit text on the performing arts. The text details the different requirements of performing art: composition, structure, body language, ornaments, make-up, costumes, musical scales and notes.
Mukherjee points out that the dance form has never been lost, only its practice has been reduced. âAt the time when I wanted to learn Gaudiya Nritya, there were no practitioners,â says Mukherjee and blames it on the Turkish invasion of Bengal in the 12th century. âIt was Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who then revived Gaudiya Nritya,â she says. This explains the use of musical instruments such as the kohl, a two-sided terracotta drum used to accompany the kirtans, in this form of dance.
It was at the age of 14 in the 1970s, when Mukherjee, while traveling with friends to the famous Hangseshwari temple in Hooghly, noticed something. âThere is a 17th century terracotta mandir – the Ananta Basudev temple – full of beautiful dancing sculptures. It intrigued me to explore the dance form they reflected, as the only dance forms we knew at the time were Manipuri and Rabindra. nritya, “she says. This inspired her to study Sanskrit, History, guru-shishya parampara and finally this form of dance. She learned the different mudras of sculpture from literature.
While browsing young Kar’s Facebook page, we can see photos of her in different poses and expressions. With alta around his fingers and toes; swinging two flying whips dressed in a red Baluchari sari; performing a mudra standing on top of an earth handi.
Kar and Mukherjee both insist that Shora (Earth handi), pushpadaali (flower basket) and chaamar (flying whip) are essential elements of this form of dance. “Shora means prithibi (Earth). To dance on it is to dance on earth. If you go to Bankura, the temples have carvings depicting this. Dance with the chaamar means paying homage to the five elements – air, fire, earth, water and space, âsays Mukherjee.
When asked why Gaudiya Nritya has come to interest young people like Kar for now popular Western dance forms, Kar smiles and instantly replies, âThese dances are just entertainment. It is entertainment steeped in history and culture. She further talks about various Gaudiya Nritya “dance articles”, such as Ardhanareshwar – dance half Parvati and half Shiva; Dasavatar – 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu; Shiva Nabapalli; Chandi Bandana; Ganesh Bandana etc.
But what I am learning is that simply reviving Gaudiya Nritya was not enough. The struggle continues because it is not recognized as Indian classical dance by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Ironically, his study is eligible for scholarships from the Union Ministry of Culture.
Kar is a Senior National Fellow at Gaudiya Nritya. She said, âYou see the contradiction. While the ministry gives us scholarships, an organization under the ministry does not even accept us. They award prizes, send dancers for international exchanges for other forms of dance but not for Gaudiya Nritya.
Mukherjee recounts how they received appreciation from people all over the country and abroad. âPeople are practicing this all over India now. Bengal has at least 2000 Gaudiya Nritya dancers. Even if the authorities do not want to give an identity to this dance form and do not accept it in Bengal dance festivals, they cannot stop people from dancing, âshe said.
Gaudiya Nritya would probably have been lost to us without the efforts of a few like Mukherjee. But it’s now a reborn, revived, and running form.
Kar was scheduled to perform in Paris and Cannes. She says: âIt has been my dream since childhood to bring this form of dance to all countries. The journey has only just begun. Covid allows it.