The rhythm of the ghoongru can be heard reverberating through the metro station in Delhi, sometimes heard under a flyover, or on the crowded footpath or at the roadside. On a closer look, one could find three young women, two of whom filming the third — a dancer performing to a crowd of nonchalant passersby and curious gazers. Aishwarya Kali, Priyanka Kali and Swathi Gangadharan have taken upon themselves a task that is both awe-inspiring and path-breaking at the same time. They have taken Bharatanatyam into the wild! A dance film project primarily propagating over the internet with the art form as their weapon, these girls have decided to take back what should have naturally belonged to women — the public space.
Swathi — the Malayali in the team — explains about how the idea was born. “Priyanka and Aishwarya’s little sister who learns Bharatanatyam in Kolkata had a dance exam. She wanted us to help her with it and so we decided to send her a video with a few dance steps that could appear in her exam.” Aishwarya and Priyanka add on, “It happened in 2016. Swathi and Tirna Sengupta, who are our friends, were ready to help out our sister. So after class, we filmed their dance steps on our phone. Simple synchronised steps. The result was strange and at the same time beautiful. It was a eureka moment for us,” explains the sisters.
“On re-watching the video, they realised the novelty of this art form in a non-classical setting,” says Swathi. “The thing was that we had never seen dance performed in this way, without the whole glamour and the costumes,” Priyanka says.
This prompted the sisters to try out filming more such videos as an ‘aesthetic project’. To place Bharatanatyam in the most unlikeliest space, stripping it of its adornments and music, they showed the dance in its purest and raw form. “The idea was to use unconventional setting and clothes for the performance,” adds Swathi.
Aishwarya and Priyanka decided to call the project Bharatanatyam in the Wild (BitW). The trio has already completed filming 100 videos of the project on their Facebook page ‘Bharatanatyam in the Wild’. “In the beginning, we filmed a few videos on our college campus. Some of those were filmed at Swathi’s apartment. In January last year, we moved out of these spaces. Being literature students, we knew the value of taking an art form like Bharatanatyam and we know the divide between classical art and popular art. It was an interesting prospect to take Bharatanatyam out of the auditorium into unexpected spaces,” says Aishwarya.
The first set of videos saw Swathi dancing on a footpath; the next one showed her dancing at a bus stop. A railway station, the interior of a metro train to the front side of a mosque, all these spaces served as their venue. “It was an adventure for us, frankly, because we had never done anything like this. We are not naturally very outgoing people. We also realised that once you see a visual of a woman dancing in a bus stop, it is no longer just about the dance or Bharatanatyam. It is about women in a public space,” Priyanka says.
Priyanka and Aishwarya who are from Kolkata moved to Delhi for higher studies. “We were college students in Delhi. And I guess one can understand the anxiety of being a young woman in a city like this by ourselves. As far as women in our country are concerned, occupying a public space without fear or anxiety is something that is not possible. You don't have to climb a building or go to a jungle to have an adventure. All you have to do is to step out of our house,” the sisters point out.
Not only was it not easy to pull off the performance in the open, they had to face the negativities too. “People had a problem specifically with me dancing with ghungroos,” says Swathi. “We got a comment on YouTube that it is too sacred to be taken out on the street.” But what surprised them most was how most people would just pass them by. “It disturbed me more that there was no reception from the other end, because at times it felt like there was no impact.”
On how they decide where to perform, they explain, “We don’t go location scouting on one day and film there the next day. We have a general idea about where to perform. After getting to the location, we just walk around and ideas would come to us on the spot. Once we find the perfect spot, we work on the camera angles and how to go about it. It takes us between 10 to 30 minutes to shoot the video. The choreography is also planned on the spot.” The girls had taken BitW to Kolkata too. Swathi is currently doing her Post Graduation in Delhi and Priyanka and Aishwarya have returned to Kolkata to take a break from studies. But they are still hoping to take their project to other parts of the country.