Nūn Gherāo: Surrounded by Salt

Nün Gherāo uses a 1978-79 massacre on the Marichjhapi Island in West Bengal, India, as its point of departure to explore betrayal, dispossession, and exile, and the desperate global resistance against great odds that fuels hope and survival. This work becomes activated through shared breath and rhythms, practices of mourning, overlapping time cycles, ritualized movement, dances of fire and of personal connection that tag different sites of memory through meditations on dancing in salt water, where one’s tears meet the rising and warming oceans of our world.

World Premiere: September 30th, 2022, at the O’Shaughnessy at Saint Catherine University, Saint Paul, MN.

Running time: 90 minutes, without intermission.

Concept, Choreography: Ananya Chatterjea
Stage Director:
Marcus Young
Composer/Sound Designer/Instrumentalist/Vocalist:
Spirit McIntyre
Mimi Mondal
Noelle Awadallah, Lizzette Chapa, Ananya Chatterjea, Alexis Araminta Reneé, Alexandra Eady, Kealoha Ferreira, Spirit McIntyre, Parisha Rajbhandari, Laichee Yang
Costume Design:
Annie Cady
Lighting Design:
Kevin A. Jones
Scenic Design and Construction:
Chelsea Warren
Prop Design and Construction:
Kezia Florence
Media Design:
Darren Johnson, Northern Dawn Media

Nün Gherāo is structured in three movements.

  1. Mātam / Grieving
  2. Kriyā / Acting at the edge of transformation
  3. Moriyār Shāhosh / Desperate Courage / They were dying like fish, So we rose like tigers.

The artists of Nün Gherāo are loosely imagined through archetypes:

Forest Deity: Spirit McIntyre                               Holder of Time: Lizzette Marie Chapa
Demonic Force: Ananya Chatterjea                    Holder of Space: Alexandra Eady
Priestess: Alexis Araminta Renée                        One who carries grief: Kealoha Ferreira
Conjurer of Memories: Laichee Yang                 One who carries suffering: Noelle Awadallah
Unlocker of Portals: Parisha Rajbhandari

from Ananya Chatterjea, artistic director, choreographer
The terrible massacre of Dalit refugees at Morichjhapi has haunted me for years. In my imagination, that history became overlaid with the poignant lines from Agha Shahid Ali’s beautiful poem, Farewell: “Your history gets in the way of my memory.” I have questioned again and again the entanglements and contradictions of official Histories, memories, archives.

Stepping into the world of Nün Gherāo with my valued collaborator, Spirit McIntyre, I realized that all kinds of life forms – tigers, snakes, birds – are part of this work. And when Cyclone Amphan (2020) devastated that region of the world again, I was forced to reckon with the inevitable coincidence of historic and political violence with ecological disaster.

The process of creating this work has also been an unceasing investigation of writer Mimi Mondal’s piercing and insistent question “who are you?”, often repeated in rough Bānglā, “ke re tui?”. Dancing my solo as the demonic force inside us, born of the rage festering in the forested underworld, I have thought constantly of Rohith Vemula’s last letter (2016): “I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster…I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature…My birth is my fatal accident.” His words resonated for me with those of young Black Lives Matter activist and community organizer, Marshawn McCarrel, whose suicide note read: “My demons won today. I’m sorry” (2016).

With every rehearsal, I understood beyond forgetting, the deadly weight of intersectional oppressions lodged in our cells, the burden of silenced rage on our skin, and the heart-felt pressure of impossible promises to hold each other in the face of tremendous violence.

Gherāo: the long standing practice in community organizing, whereby protestors encircle authority figures demanding answers before they are allowed passage.

I offer Nün Gherāo in the spirit of unwavering resistance, tremendous love, and promise of transformation, together.

from Spirit McIntyre, composer, sound designer, instrumentalist, vocalist
When describing this work I use the word soundscape to intentionally differentiate it from more traditional music compositions. I am tasked with composing a three-dimensional world made of sound that holds the multiplicity of our collective histories; a world that is dynamic, emotional, energetic, metaphysical, ritualistic, and spiritual. As you witness this work I invite you to actively listen to and feel into the sounds, be with the textures that you hear both in a literal and figurative way. Allow yourself to be engulfed by that which is familiar and intrigued by the unknown. It is a true honor to take seemingly disparate sounds – tigers, crows, bears, thunder, snakes, stalagmites, rocks, clocks, cello, and voice to create a world so uniquely nuanced and fully formed.

There are particular elements within the Nün Gherāo ecosystem that hold the intersection of culture and ritual that I’d like to highlight: the conch shell – blown before many spiritual ceremonies to rid a space of negative energies and evil spirits; my vocal hauntings – symbolizing the communication of Ancestors and/or deities through snippets of melodies; the uulation – a long, high-pitched sound accompanied by a rapid back and forth movement of the tongue and the uvula, used to express grief or joy; bols – derived from the Hindi word bolna ‘to speak,’ a mnemonic syllable used in Indian music to define the tala or rhythmic pattern; and the Mardala/Pakhawj – a barrel-shaped, two-headed drum, originating from the Indian subcontinent, in this piece it is the central drum of the last circle dance.

from Mimi Mondal, writer
Part 1
Living on an island is kinship.
Island, Kinship
Every creature your species
You are the only ones standing aloft on this handful of earth,
heads gazing beyond the horizons that have wrapped you on all sides…

On the island your gods emerge from the sea.
Your gods face out to the sea.
Your gods nourish you in saltwater.

Saltwater sloshes in your belly.
Saltwater runs in your veins,
Permeating your scriptures.

Island life is one heartbeat
One footfall
Listen in your blood for the waves and ruptures underfoot.

On this island, we choose the kinship of tigers.

Part 2
Who are you?
I’m the flesh of your flesh, blood of your blood.
(Don’t you recognize me?)

Who are you?
The will to survive, not to sleep before it’s dark.
The fates of my ancestors, the destiny of my descendants

Who are you?
The will to survive, not to sleep before it’s dark.

Who are you?
Human…just like you were.


Choreographed by Ananya Chatterjea and performed by the artists of Ananya Dance Theatre, Nün Gherāo features the work of an exceptional team of collaborators, including sound artist Spirit McIntyre (performing live), stage director Marcus Young, lighting designer Kevin A. Jones, costume designer Annie Cady, scenery designer Chelsea Warren, props designer Kezia Florence, writer Mimi Mondal, and filmmaker Darren Johnson.

Nün Gherāo was commissioned by the Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov.

Nün Gherāo was created in part during a residency at the Pillow Lab at Jacob’s Pillow.

Nün Gherāo is supported by the Marbrook Foundation.

Nün Gherāo is supported by the City of Saint Paul Cultural Sales Tax Rehabilitation Program.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

Ananya Dance Theatre is supported by the Regional Cultural Treasures Fund of the Minneapolis Foundation, Ford Foundation, and McKnight Foundation.