For a very long time, most of us thought Bangladesh was better known for its folk art forms. At least when it came to the art of dancing, the classical ones we would recognise and associate with would all be from India- Bharatanatyam from South India, Odissi from Odissa, Manipuri from Manipur, Kathak from North India and so on. Up until a couple of years ago, this was a common misconception. But then Professor Mahua Mukherjee's student Rachel Priyanka Perris dazzled the nation as she came back with abundant theoretical and practical knowledge on what was then the classical dance of the undivided Bengal, Gaudiya Nritya. Having retreated to the recesses of many a mind over the years, Gaudiya Nritya has now successfully been revived and is on its way to stages across the world to represent Bengal.
“When I was four years old, my mother enrolled me into BAFA, where I completed their certificate course by the time I was in class four or five. I gave my certificate examination after I completed my intermediate studies, though,” says Rachel. As her journey in the world of dance began at an age so young, Rachel had the opportunity to find her true passion. In 2003, she took part in a countrywide competition held by Nrityanchal, where she came first in the Srijanshil shakha, G bibhag. “That competition got me involved with Nrityanchal. And once I got involved, my interest moved completely from folk to classical. I was learning Bharatanatyam, Kathak, and also Odissi.”
In 2004, Shamim Ara Nipa, a co-founder of Nrityanchal and esteemed dance, went to India in search of a Chhau instructor, where she met Professor Mahua Mukherjee, the sole reviver of Gaudiya Nritya. Professor Mahua came back with the team from Bangladesh and they held the first Gaudiya Nritya workshop in Bangladesh.
“I instantly fell in love with Gaudiya. The one problem I would face the most with other dances was the language barrier. But in Gaudiya, I can understand. It is the dance of Bengal, after all.”
Rachel was determined by then to pursue her higher education on dance. With the full support of her parents, she travelled to Rabindra Bharati, Kolkata, where she began her Bachelor's degree on Bharatanatyam. “Going to Kolkata turned my life around completely. I actually began classes on Gaudiya with Mahua Mukherjee before my classes on Bharatanatyam. My whole attention started shifting towards that form then.” Rachel got involved with Guadiya Nritya Bharati- a Gaudiya dance troupe, with whom she travelled all over India for shows. She did Guruvasa Nivasam throughout her years in Kolkata, which is to live in the guidance and shelter of your Guru, in the same house. “I used to travel to and from university taking two trains, but I was still determined to live with my Guru, where I could practice dance all day and all night.”
Rachel graduated in 2010 and had completed her Master's by 2012, with Bharatanatyam as her chosen discipline both times. When it came to her MPhil, her focus was on Gaudiya. “My Guru would always say that performing arts is like a bird with two wings; one wing is of practicality, the other is of theory and without both, one cannot soar.”
Rachel came back in December 2014, although her promotion of Gaudiya Nritya began much earlier when she would come back every now and then from Kolkata to do a performance or two. “One person, Sharmila Bandyapadhyay, helped me immensely in taking Gaudiya to new heights. She gave me the opportunity to perform Gaudiya in Chhayanaut since 2011. That's when people began recognising this as the classical dance of Bengal. I also did a workshop and performance in 2013 on Gaudiya. That is when I would also write for The Daily Star on cultural events. The Daily Star and Liaquat Ali Lucky, the DG of Shilpokala Academy, helped me a lot not only in terms of nationwide recognition but also by paying due focus on Gaudiya.”
Taking Gaudiya as the dance of Bengal on international platforms is now a main focus of Rachel's. “We always perform folk dances on international stages, which are mostly creative dances and not even proper folk. So, taking our own classical dance to an international platform should now become an agenda.”
In 2015, Rachel joined Dhaka University as a part time lecturer, since the inception of the Dance department, teaching Bharatanatyam, Natyashastra and Rabindranritya. The youth will now be the ones tasked with carrying on this love and passion for arts, she believes, which is why Rachel is now involving the younger dancers in her quest. “But, the love for the art must come from one's family. Without family support, it is not possible to give your time to this art, for which rigorous practice is a must. There is no classical dance without rigour.”
Rachel is also a teacher at Shurer Dhara, an organisation by Rezwana Chowdhury Bonnya, for their Music for Development programme where she teaches dance to underprivileged children.
When it comes to the dispersion of classical dance amongst the masses, Rachel thinks the television plays a big role. “Who do we see during the Eid dance shows? How many dancers can you recognise? Maybe some of the backup dancers are professional dancers, but the main dancer? Always an actress or a model. Why? Because TRP matters. While they take over the stages, dancers do not get much opportunity. So the television channels need to think about who and what to promote.”
According to Rachel, dance is the one art form that brings back the least to the performer. “You can practice for hours, days, weeks and months, and you do it all for maybe 6 minutes on stage and for a few seconds of applause. Without pure love and devotion, it is difficult to do well in classical dance. But I see a lot of families in support for the art of dancing now, and it gives me hope”, she concludes.