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PallabiChakravorty Pallabi Chakravorty

Pallabi Chakravorty is a Kathak dancer, choreographer, and visual anthropologist who teaches in the Department of Music and Dance at Swarthmore College. She is the founder and artistic director of the Courtyard Dancers, and has studied classical Indian dances under legendary gurus such as Bandana Sen (Kathak), Bal Krishna Menon (Kathakali), Shankar Narayan (Bharatnatyam). Pallabi has been involved with the Asian Arts Initiative for over a decade and says the relationship has been critical in the sustenance of the Courtyard Dancers as a progressive Indian dance ensemble engaged in the discourses of tradition and modernity. She has performed as part of many Initiative programs, and curated the national Live Traditions Festival in 2005.
www.pallabi.com

What was your first experience wth the arts?

My mom is the one who took me to a dance school when I was 6 or 7 years old. She is a great enthusiast. And I went to an institution called Children's Little Theater. It was a theater/dance company and it's very sort of modern in its perspective. So we learned a lot of styles and one of the directors of this theater institute used to write plays for young people. Those used to be choreographed by professional dancer and performed in different cities in India. So we used to tour as a group . . . And I loved the friendships that I had through that, with others in the group. Some of them, they are still my friends. Many of them are choreographers, dancers of international repute now. So the thing is that dance was always there. And it was "normal." It's also common for girls to dance-so it was expected that I'll be learning how to dance, but I was also going to have another career.

One interesting fact is that I was born in this house that the dancer Uday Shankar also lived in for a time. In fact, he's the most famous Indian modern dancer. And he has an international reputation. So it's very interesting that just accidentally my childhood was kind of shared in that way with his adulthood. He was quite old then, actually. But my mother said later that-because then I became so interested in dance-what my mom used to say was, when I grow up, she's going to write about my life, and just write about how I used to do pee pee on his bed when we would visit him. And they would discuss different styles of dancing . . . It's interesting I'm mentioning this. Most of the time I don't even remember to actually share this with people.

What issues are important to you as an artist?

India is going through a very important moment in their history. And they are experiencing growth, economic growth as they've never experienced before. And there are humongous crises that are unfolding right now because of that kind of growth. On the other hand, here there is another kind of kind of transition going on. A transition maybe, which is almost like-this used to be the global power, so now there is this energy crisis-and so India is kind of emerging as one of the powers . . . while America is kind of trying to figure out where to fit in to this thing. So there are many social issues that are crisscrossing.

It's very easy to say, "Oh I want to be energy conscious. I'm all for environmental-you know, make everything green." But on the other hand, there are lots of people who have been uplifted from poverty in India, and that most of people are experiencing the middle class status for the first time. So which way do I look? Because the kind of work that I'm doing right now, it's really important for me to tell the story of another kind of democracy. And perhaps that's one of the issues that has emerged as one of the most important thing for me-is to tell about modern urban life or experiences of modernity or communities becoming urbanized from a different perspective or from a different context because of the kind of history India went through-its sort of evolution towards a modern nation state. It's very different from what happened here in the West. . . .

So right now I feel that I just want to tell some stories. And I'm not in a position to judge. And I think that things should be given time to sort of see where they are going. And of course we have to take action, but those actions need to be local actions. Politics is local, always local. It cannot be global. So it really has to be relevant to that particular locality. So for me, all the issues that I care about I think are very local. It has to be very contextual.

What impact has the Asian Arts Initiative had on you as an artist?

We all come from somewhere over here, but as immigrants, we don't have a history. So when you start performing, who's going to give you that chance? . . . So it's important to have that kind of space the Asian Arts Initiative provides, especially when I've been judged by the establishment-like, "Are you modern enough?" . . . Somebody comes in and looks at my work and says, "Oh choreographically, it's not good enough." But whose choreography are you talking about? Choreography emerged in a Western context. It has a particular history. And it's that particular history universalized in time and space.

I'm coming from Indian dance, and our time and space is circular. And culture and dance is one and the same thing. The context takes time to understand. You just can't do two shows and then say, "I know the context." You don't know anything. All that they know is basically enough to start a conversation, start a dialogue. And here I appreciate that the Asian Arts Initiative-they have this progressive mission of starting dialogue, rather than jumping up and saying, "OK, this person is in this _________."

How do you identify yourself as an artist?

I'm really looking at the experience of emotion through creative practice-trying to research the poetics and politics of emotion. And because of all the huge changes that are occurring in Indian music and dance contexts, I'm really looking at Bollywood and popularization. There's a particular kind of relationship between these Bollywood dance and classical traditions, and they are undergoing huge changes right now in terms of aesthetic sort of changes, perceptual changes, images of the body that are being represented through dance. So I'm really kind of trying to figure out how we used to feel through our dances at one time-and how those feelings are changing. Because Indian dancers are mostly about feeling space.

The concept is that we have different kinds of feelings when we are doing poetic enactments vs. expression than our everyday feelings. So the everyday feelings or the earthly motion or the bhava are kind of raw-they are like fleeting emotions. They go through life-you know, this emotion, that emotion. But those emotions need to be nurtured and need to be like . . . the metaphor is cooking. They need to be cooked and cooked and cooked so that the essence, the smell, the taste can come out. So that becomes the emotions of poetry or dance or music. . . rasa. That has something to do with your body, actually-in Indian language, there's no separation between mind and body. If you look at yoga, they're not separate, the mind and body . . . It's very different from the Western understanding of the body being separate from the mind if you look at the Descartesian understanding of selfhood.

I'm very interested in how those things are changing, you know. And this kind of contemporary commodification of emotion, commodification of the body-what that means in terms of music and dance . . . That's my politics, I think. . . . And in this culture, the idea that emotions should be repressed, kick them out and so that you are purified. No! Emotions should be felt, and nurtured, and cultivated. It's important. As important as thinking. And it's not separate. So that's what I think it's very important. Aesthetics is not just superstructure, but it's really a fundamental core of being human.

Do you believe art can facilitate connections between people and their communities?

Does art make any difference? Does it have the capacity-to be really very honest-to really change someone's opinion about something? Or is it a precursor to things that are coming? A lot of times, art, literature, poetry seem to speak about things and reflect things, like changes-the real structure of changes that are about to come. I'm not using a distinction between high art and low art because I don't like to make that distinction. I think that popular culture is also art and it's for a particular sort of audience and so forth. So that's a question that I ask: that can I really make a difference with art?

And I also have this question about art that is propaganda. People who tend to tell you what to do or what to think because I think most people know. . . . It doesn't change their opinion. So most people who come, if I try to tell them what to do, then most people who come and see my show are people who are already thinking like me. So what do I change? Nothing . . .

I think changes are very slow. . . . First of all you have to be committed to a place. You just can't be everywhere. What are you changing? Grounded in a particular place, in a particular context, and having a particular vision or mission that you are going to carry out-but then if you keep telling people what to do, they might think, "Yes, yes, yes." But you're talking about human beings. So I think that art that challenges and provokes is far more interesting for me. And that messages are in the subtext. Like it has something there, but it definitely can tell a story. And I love art that can tell a story . . . I love poetry because poetry tends to tell a story not in that prosaic way. Dance also is like poetry in that sense that it tells a story, evokes a context, tells me something about real people, even real life.

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