August 2, 2022
Freedom celebration censors Ananya Dance Theatre's social justice choreography
Ananya Dance Theatre rehearsal excerpts celebrate democracy, freedom, and the pursuit of excellence. Music score by Spirit McIntyre. Bols and choreography by Ananya Chatterjea. Performed by Kealoha Ferreira, Alexandra Eady, Parisha Rajbhandari, Ananya Chatterjea, Laichee Yang, Lizzette Marie Chapa, Noelle Awadallah, and Alexis Araminta Reneé.
by Ananya Chatterjea, artistic director
On August 15, 2022, India will mark its 75th year as an independent, democratic nation!
I was delighted when the curators of the Indo-American Arts Council, sponsors of an important cultural festival in New York, invited Ananya Dance Theatre to be part of their celebrations marking this important milestone. In reply to the curators’ invitation, I detailed the thematic focus of the work I proposed to perform on August 6. The work takes its point of departure from the 1979 Morichjhnapi massacre of large numbers of Dalit communities in West Bengal, and explores stories of loss and displacement. The piece is a tribute to freedom seekers everywhere, something that seemed in line with a nation celebrating 75 years of freedom from British colonial rule. I shared detailed program notes that were posted to the festival’s website early in July.
In my mind, our dance, though entirely different from other pieces on the program in its explicit political orientation, was offering the best of what I have learned from my Indian, specifically Bengali, upbringing – aesthetic clarity and power, spiritual fervor, an unquenchable thirst for freedom – as embodied in the dancework.
In my artistic life, I have chiseled my dance-making as social justice choreography, nurtured by my growing years in Kolkata, India, and matured through my work with exceptional professionals, primarily Black and brown artists, who comprise the company, Ananya Dance Theatre. My artistic work is not literal story-telling; it is metaphoric contemporary dance. I believe that the curators understood all of this.
A contract was agreed to, flights from Minnesota to New York were booked, and hotel rooms reserved. Intense rehearsals in Saint Paul ensued. This Friday, we would have been en route to New York, celebrating democracy, artistic freedom, and artistic excellence.
Then, a month ago, the IAAC’s board of directors canceled our participation, calling it an “ABSOLUTE NO” for their “birthday party” because it did not fit the mood of the festival. In conversation, I shared that, while the dance was not an overt, “joyous celebration” of the nation as they encouraged, it certainly moved through loss and pain toward a reclamation of freedom.
I invited the directors to watch a rehearsal over Zoom, specifically to witness how my choreography of a resistance movement ends in an energetic circle dance that celebrates liberation everywhere. They demurred, and instead proceeded to censor my work by removing us from their website and erasing my artistic voice from their celebration.
Multivocality and dissent are traditional in a democracy, and the legacy of India, a nation that had once been hailed as the largest democracy in the world is, in fact, protest. However, it is pertinent to note that, in the 2022 ratings on the Human Freedom Index, India has slipped to 119th place. (https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/freedom-index-by-country)
As I look out at the broad field of dance and, in particular, Indian dance, I notice how tropes such as “spiritual,” “sacred,” “mythological,” and “holy,” are being deployed to assimilate “Indian dance” to a particular and narrow notion of Hinduism, which belies the rich syncretism and multiple voices that are inherent in our cultural fabric. Censorship is a stealthy, slippery slope that slides across borders, aggressively snuffing out spaces for dissent globally.
Ananya Dance Theatre and its work that draws from traditional Indian forms of Odissi dance, the martial art Chhau, and Vinyasa Yoga, will not be performing with other artists of the Indian diaspora in New York this weekend.
Instead, I share the accompanying brief excerpts from our rehearsals as my contribution to this celebration of democracy, freedom, and the pursuit of excellence. My choreography chooses to remember and uplift histories we are asked to forget, such that democracy and independence can be protected in years to come.