With dance, Odissi artiste Meghna Das wants to break barriersRekha Balakrishnan
With wide-eyed wonder, the Bengaluru-based artiste speaks of how receptive foreign audiences are to Indian dance forms.
Meghna Das was in Cambodia for a performance on Independence Day a few years ago when she ended her recital with a particularly intense piece depicting Radha’s heartbreak on learning that Krishna spent the night with another woman. She was worried about performing this piece in a foreign country and wondered whether a non-Indian audience would understand it.
After the show, a young mother in a hijab came up to her, held her hand tight, and said with tears in her eyes, “I don’t know who the woman was in your piece, but through you, I felt her pain.”
For a Bengaluru-based Odissi artiste, this was a special moment. “It made me realise it’s possible for art to completely dissolve barriers between all kinds of people, and it completely changed the way I looked at storytelling and choreography, she says.
Born into Odissi
Meghna was born into Odissi: her mother, Sahana Das, who was a student of Guru Mayadhar Rauthwas, was her first guru. “I grew up watching her dance and teach Odissi. I started formal training under her at the age of four. When I was about 14, I joined the Nrityagram city classes and had the privilege of being trained by them for four years,” she recollects.
She is currently learning under Madhulita Mohapatra at the Nrityantar Academy.
She performed on stage for the first time when she was just three years old. “I remember thinking it was a very big deal, but I can’t say it was some pivotal life-changing moment. Those came a little later for me. I didn’t always love performance. I avoided stage for a long time. It’s only after my teachers started pushing me that I learnt to discover that side of learning dance.”
Taking art to different audiences
Meghna has taken Odissi abroad and performed in front of diverse audiences.
“I’ve travelled a little bit. Not as much as any other artistes, but enough to have fallen in love with it. Every country is a unique experience and I could recount so many stories. I find that foreign audiences are very receptive. I remember teaching at a workshop in Bogotà, Colombia a year or so ago… where I found myself in a room with 20 Latina women, with such an overwhelming and heartening interest in Indian dance; so unexpected and amazing. But more than half of them didn’t speak English. So they had invited a translator – a young man – to translate every word I said, as I said them. It was a pretty unique experience,” she quips.
Fusion and collaboration
Meghna believes fusion is a difficult thing to do with conviction and authenticity. “It’s easy to just pick a piece of music and have two dancers improvise, but in reality, I believe it’s important to ask specific questions about what defines a style and what allows it to interact with another style. I have done collaborative or ‘fusion’ work before, and I’ve always found it an exciting challenge to decide where to position oneself as a practitioner of an art form in work of that nature. Of course, it can be and has been done very successfully across art forms, but it is a difficult process that takes a lot of training, time, conviction and a strong rapport between collaborating artistes,” she says.
She also feels that art is a very personal thing and therefore it’s important to choose one’s collaborators carefully. “I tend to choose to work with people I relate to, both as artistes and as human beings. I believe in working with people that I like. I’ve worked with kathak and bharatnatyam dancers in India, and ballet, butoh, and jazz dancers overseas. It’s an exciting process to create new work from scratch and learn more about other styles, and one’s own in the process, and I hope to do lots more of that in the future,” she adds.
Inspirations and influences
Meghna has been inspired by a number of people who have helped her push the envelope and follow her heart.
“My mother and first guru, Sahana Das, just because of the way she pushes herself and me to always do better and set high standards. This means that the learning process is never complete and there’s always a new goal, a new target, a new tweak here or there, or new questions to ask in order to do better. She’s never afraid of questions or debate and that has allowed me to really delve into anything I do with her,” she explains.
Meghna says she owes a lot to Nrityagram and the incredible dancers and teachers – Surupa Sen, Bijayini Sathpathy and Pavithra Reddy – there who taught her to aim for the stars.
“Simply by being such exquisite dancers, and by breathing the dance form every day, they set a standard for me that I will always strive for. They are scholars and redefining so many things in dance theory, choreography and production management, and this has helped me ask many questions about my own work as a young dancer and I will always be grateful for everything I have learnt and continue to learn from them.
“Madhulita Mohapatra [an accomplished Odissi artiste], in many ways, is the reason I took the leap into dancing professionally. She inspires me every day to keep my eye on the goal.”
Dancing into the future
Meghna says that she has always been conflicted about whether she was ready to take on the responsibility of teaching. “I have a few students who have trusted me with that, very few. And I’m a difficult teacher, in many ways. But maybe at some point in the future, I will teach more. As of now, I’m investing in the few who invest in me, and I’m learning how to be better at it every day.”
As for her future plans, she is keen on completing her PhD in the next couple of years, while continuing to delve into her work, explore and discover more about Odissi and Indian dance every day. “I hope to contribute to the incredible world of classical arts, in some way, someday,” she says, signing off.