Creative Transformations: an Evening with Pallabi Chakravorty

by Isa Mojares for The Dance Journal

Standing on a small wooden platform in a lush garden, surrounded by bushes of hydrangeas, Pallabi Chakravorty moves with a quiet intensity, inviting viewers into the story she tells through her movement. As she closes out her final gesture, the film cuts and shows Chakravorty again, but this time, she is seated in a velvet blue chair, speaking directly to us, her audience. Organized by Intercultural Journeys, this pre-recorded performance and talk with Chakravorty is the finale of the organization’s most recent artist talk series, Close Ups

A multi-hyphenate dancer, choreographer, company director, professor, and anthropologist, Pallabi Chakravorty’s approach to Kathak dance is rooted in what she recognizes as a personal “learning and unlearning” of the history behind this Indian dance form. The British ignored the various Indian dance styles’ nuances, with colonizers referring to all forms of dance as Nautch — regardless of Hindu or Islamic background, regional origins, or specific characteristics. It is in the space between this erasure of Indian dance history and contemporary affairs that Chakravorty works in, with Kathak as her medium

Throughout the lecture-demonstration, we are shown excerpts of three original works: Asunder (2014), Find Metiabruz (2017), and Witness (2017). Hearing Chakravorty speak about these inspirations and other pieces by her feels almost like a scavenger hunt. The way she incorporates her contemporary inspirations into final stage performances is incredible. Chakravorty spares no detail in her embodied narratives, whether it be integrating traffic sounds from Metiabruz to having dancers clad in Pakistani-imported costume fabric perform to a soundtrack created from the melding of Pakistani and Indian music as a testament to the cross-contact of cultures during Partition. 

Performance clips aside, perhaps the most resonant piece of the talk was Chakravorty speaking to how her company, Courtyard Dancers, came to be. Upon realizing that dancing solo would not allow her the space to explore the narratives and histories she sought to bring forward, she started to work with other dancers, beginning with her 2000 work, Silencing the Nautch. Through the white-washed history, which lumped all national Indian dance styles together, Kathak, an art form that originated amongst courtesan dancers, rose to the Medieval Mughal courts, where the upper caste performers solely began to represent idealized goddess figures. It was in this tension of female representation and unpacking that dissonance that Chakravorty expanded her work, leading to what she calls moments of “creative transformation.” In sharing and teaching Kathak to younger generations of dancers, Pallabi Chakravorty does not shy away from the colonial erasures and the difficult histories. Instead, she tackles these topics head-on, creating new stories and rewriting these antiquated versions of dance history. 

Her approach towards Kathak’s history and use of the style to move forward is a model of how contemporary artists can work towards the decolonization of dance histories. Chakravorty is a paragon of working through, rather than working around the narratives left out by the past. 

Close Ups: Pallabi Chakravorty was presented by Intercultural Journeys. The talk premiered on January 12, 2021, but can still be viewed (along with its subsequent live conversation) on the Intercultural Journeys YouTube page

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