Dancers are the silent story-tellers of the country, using their graceful movements to tell their tales. Kavita Charanji takes us behind the scenes for a glimpse of how this art form has developed over the years.



Dancing to the rhythym
of the nation

"Keep the song in your throat.
Let your hands bring out the meaning.
Your glance should be full of expression.
While your feet maintain the rhythm.
Where the hand goes, there the eyes should follow.
Where the eyes are, the mind should follow.
Where the mind is, there the expression should be brought out.
Where the expression is, there the rasa or flavour will be experienced."

This evocative verse (shloka) from the Vedas encapsulates the aesthetic and spiritual aspects of dance. And to many dancers in Bangladesh, for whom the art form is more a passion rather than a mere profession, their medium and its promotion are of prime concern. To quote Sharmila Bandopadhyay, who performs Manipuri and Odissi and teaches Bharatanatyam, Kathakali and Manipuri dances: "Dance is my life and I have devoted my time and energy entirely to this art form. I would say complete commitment is needed if one wants to get anywhere." Likewise Odissi teacher Minu Haque says, "Patience and practice are the necessary ingredients for success. Commitment is a primary requisite."

Dance in Bangladesh falls into three categories: classical, folk, and modern dance. Though folk and modern dance are more popular, classical dance too is on the rise. The classical style has been influenced by other prevalent classical forms of dance of the Indian subcontinent. Thus there are Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathak, and Manipuri dances. Then there is folk and tribal music, a form of indigenous origin. Among the tribal dances, particularly popular are Santhal and Chakma. In turn modern dance is a melange of movements from the East and West, the blending of different classical dance forms and the creative style, one promoted by Rabindranath Tagore and the other by Uday Shankar.

Dance has come a long way over the years. The stalwarts of dance were the late Gowhar Jamil and GA Mannan. On the heels of Mannan followed his students Rahija Khanam (folk and modern dance), Laila Hassan (folk and modern), Zeenat Barkatullah ( folk and modern. Currently she is director of production department, Shilpakala Academy), Golam Mustafa Khan (also folk and modern), while Jamil groomed Alpana Mumtaz and Roushan Jamil (folk and modern), among others.

In a sense, this group of early dancers created a platform for succeeding generations. After the 1980s, many dancers returned to Bangladesh having studied classical dance under the aegis of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) which gave them scholarships. In their ranks are Shukla Sarkar (trained in Bharatanatyam), Sharmila Bandyopadhya (Bharatanatyam, Manipuri and Kathakali), Shibli Mohammad (Kathak), Anisul Islam Hero (Bharatanatyam), Belayat Hossain (Bharatanatyam), Soma Mumtaz (Bharatanatyam), Munmun Ahmed (Kathak) Tamanna Rahman (Manipuri), Proma Abanti and Benajir Salam Sumi (Odissi), Abdur Rahman Kochi (Kathak), Shubra Sengupta (Bharatanatyam) and Bebi Rozario (Bharatanatyam).

Among the Indian gurus of the scholarship holders are Guru Bipin Singh, Birju Maharaj, Jitendra Singh, Leela Samson, CV Chandrashekhar, Kalavati Devi and Poushali Mukherjee. Through the Indian High Commission, the ICCR also conducts workshops for senior dancers at its Music and Dance Academy in Dhanmondi. The objective is to hone the skills of these artistes and their disciples.

Today, the Bangladeshi frontrunners have trained the younger generation of dancers within the country itself. In their ranks are Munni, Nisha, Arno Kamolika and Kasturi Mukherjee (Bharatanatyam), Moutushi Khondokar, Snata (Kathak), Warda Rihab, Samina Hossain, Subrato (in Manipuri) and Anik Bose, Abul Hassan Tapan, Farzana Chowdhury, Urmi, Banhi, Shahidul Islam Babu (in modern dance). Others who have entered the field are Tushar (Bharata-natyam and Kathak), Munmun Ahmed (Odissi), Sudeshna Swayamprabha (Manipuri and Bharatan-atyam) and Shahadat Hossain Babu (Kathak and folk).

The current crop of young dancers have made waves. Students of Kathak exponents, Shibli Mohammad and Munmun Ahmed, for instance, have enthralled audiences. Similarly Sharmila and Tamanna Rahman have trained young Manipuri dancers who went on to earn acclaim in Kolkata and Delhi.

The dance schools in the country are also mushrooming. For instance, since the Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts (BAFA), came up in the 1950s as the first dance school, today there are a host of such schools. In their ranks are Chayyanaut, Nritya Nandan (run by Sharmila), Pallavi (run by Minu), Shilpangan, Jago Art Centre (established by Gowhar Jamil), Nrityanchal (run by Kathak dancer Shibli Mohammad and Shamim Ara Nipa, who is into Kathak, folk and modern dance), Rewaz Performing Academy (established by Munmun Ahmed), Dhrupad (run by Shukla Sarkar), Benuka (run by Golam Mustafa Khan), Kathakali (founded by the late Alpana Mumtaz and currently run by her daughter Shoma Mumtaz), Nrittyam (established by Tamanna Rahman), Srishti Cultural Centre of Anisul Islam Hero, Akriti (founded by Kochi Rahman), Nrittolok (established by Kabirul Islam Ratan) and Dibya (established by Deepa Khondokar). There is also Sohail Rahman's school, among others.

A heartening trend is that more men are staging an entry in the field. As famous dancer (Kathak, western ballet, contemporary, folk and creative dance), Shibli points out, "At one point of time people would look askance at a male dancer. Today many male dancers and students are coming up. It has become a respectable art form for men."

Though dance is slowly gathering momentum, a common grievance of dancers today is the absence of sufficient sponsorship from the corporate sector and inadequate coverage from the electronic media. True there are TV programmes such as BTV's Nritter Taale Taale and ntv's Nupur. However, on the whole, dancers believe that while drama serials, singers and painters get more coverage, dancers occupy a secondary position.

Nevertheless Bangladeshi dancers are not totally bleak about the overall picture of this art form. As they point out, there are a few organisations which promote dance, among them Tonatuni and Sadhana. The former organises annual dance festivals. Last year, Tonatuni sponsored Dui Pakhi, a Tagore dance drama. Sadhana, in its turn, has brought Indian classical dancers here, such as Leela Samson, Madhvi Mudgal, Bharati Shivaji and Prerona Srimali. The organisation, founded by famous dancer Lubna Mariam, has also arranged dance workshops in Bangladesh for upcoming talent.

To promote dance in Bangladesh, Nrityanchal has arranged dance workshops for young artistes by bringing renowned dancers from India, such as Mamata Shankar and Mohua Mukherjee. It has also arranged dance festivals.

Today dancers are upbeat about the future of their art. Some have made it their mission to promote dance even in the hinterland. For instance, Bharatanatyam and modern dancer Hero went to Dinajpur three years ago and brought some indigenous performers to Dhaka and helped them to put up a Santhal dance. Pointing to the necessity of encouraging local dancers, he says, "The indigenous dancers don't have the opportunity to perform regularly in the cities. They are in danger of losing their original costumes and music because of the influence of different cultures."

Likewise, Sharmila, who wants her students to be "workers" rather than "stars," believes that artistes have a social responsibility. With this aim in mind, she runs dance workshops and lecture demonstrations on dance in various districts along with her students. The goal: to launch dance organisations in every district and teach Bharatanatyam, Manipuri and Kathakali, depending on people's taste.

Though the younger generation has by and large been lured by the glitzy world of TV, modeling and films -- shortcuts to success -- there are others for whom dance is a passion. And Sharmila has a word of advice for such youngsters. As she points out, "Classical dance is the basis of all forms. As a dancer you have to learn this dance form, which inculcates discipline. This is the ABCD of dance."

Already there are signs of change, with the young ones opting for simple and authentic costumes. The aim is not just to look beautiful but to use attire to complement the mood of the dance. Likewise, while young girls would stop learning dance after SSC, today they continue to take dance lessons even after their marriage and children.

Slowly but surely, dance in all its resplendent glory is making inroads in Bangladesh. Maybe this performing art lags behind others, but with more attention from the media and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, dance will find a firm place in the cultural world of the country.

Kavita Charanji is a consultant for The Daily Star.

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