There’s a reason they describe Kolkata as the “City of Joy”. This bustling cosmopolitan city has a soul; a living, breathing, pulsing soul, that runs through the streets, the buildings, and the people. Ever feel something within that you simply can’t put into words? Or perhaps you felt that words didn’t do it justice? This is what I felt in Kolkata. We were greeted at the airport by Amit, Ruben, and Zubin, strangers that would soon become my dear friends. To our amazement and surprise, they brought a 10 foot banner along with them. “Welcome to the City of Joy” it read. In that moment, I didn’t understand. ‘Why the City of Joy?’ I pondered to myself. Later I asked Amit and he replied matter-of-factly: “Because everyone is happy. It doesn’t matter who you are or how much money you make. People in Kolkata are happy.” As mentioned before, putting this into words didn’t quite strike my heart’s chord. I had to feel it.
On Sunday, we all got up bright and early, ready to move together in a Kathakali workshop. Kathakali is a classical Indian dance and drama fusion that is well known for its elaborate costuming and make-up, intricate body gestures, and well-defined facial expressions. Before beginning our class, however, all of us knew close to nothing about the dance, or should I say, art form. We stepped into a quaint bungalow that felt like an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of city life. This was our instructor’s home. We all began class on the floor, a dry clay surface, and with our arms resting in the manner pictured below. He began by demonstrating a series of dramatic variations of Kathakali, including the expressions of surprise, anger, bashfulness, sorrow, and even being in love. He expressed each emotion with a rawness unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We were all especially taken aback by the way he utilized his facial muscles. He then taught us a few methods on how to train our muscles to express in such a way. I am still practicing to this day, a bit in vain, but nonetheless practicing. Afterwards, he taught us staple movement progressions and historical background of Kathakali.
After about three hours, we wrapped up our lesson, going over the series of movements and Kathakali expressions we had learned. Suddenly, from the insides of the bungalow, we could hear the sounds of a sitar playing. At first I thought it must be a recording, given the rarity of contemporary sitar players there are to date, even in India. But upon entering the room, I was jolted by the serendipitous event of witnessing a sitar being played for the first time. It was beautiful. It is by far my favorite instrument, and to experience so closely the vibrations of the sitar had me entranced.
Our primary service activity began on Monday. For the entire week, we would be teaching at Ek Prayaas, a school in Kolkata that provides quality education to underprivileged children, usually residents of surrounding slum areas. These kids make it to school everyday on their own; no car, no bike, no school bus. They walk sometimes quite a few kilometers every morning for their education and are extremely self-motivated, seeing as how their parents usually want them to stop school and start working after 6th grade. On our first day, we could definitely feel the apprehension and discomfort that the kids felt toward dance. This was drastically different from what we had previously experienced at the Society of Education for the Crippled the week before, where every day was full of excitement, passion, and readiness to move. Nonetheless, we were sure that the kids would soon blossom before our eyes. And my, what an understatement that was. The first routine we taught was to London Thumakda, a popular Hindi song, and a staple tune for our exchange. As you can see pictured below, the kids loved it. Smiles bursted on their faces, their bodies jumped up and down, you simply couldn’t stop them. I had slightly sprained my ankle the night before, but somehow, the energy pumping through the room seemed to diminish the pain, and within a few days, my ankle had healed entirely…the powers of dance shine through once again.
Over the days, the kids learned a repertoire of about 10 routines, including dances to “Thrift Shop”, “Happy”, and an array of Bollywood and Hindi songs. On our last day there, we staged a small showcase of everything the kids had learned. There were hardly any memory problems and the exhilaration and empowerment they felt after performing all that they had learned was immense. The room seemed to lift off the ground, the energy was so high. Even the teachers had to jump in and dance. We closed with a dance circle, where everyone took turns dancing in the center of the circle, and I began to think how fortunate it would have been had my school sponsored such an activity, or organized anything dance-related at all. Kids connect seamlessly with movement. When kids are given the space and time to dance, their creative energies are released and can paint the entire room. Time and time again we see kids restricted to a monotonous academic arena, but witnessing the effect that just two hours of dance had on these children has convinced me that developing dualistic academic and creative curriculum is an extremely important endeavor for all schools.
The other half of our time was spent teaching and learning at DNA Danceworks. The community we found here was one in love with dance and movement, similiar to that of SNDA’s community in Mumbai. The difference here was that many of the students traveled up to 5 hours to take our classes. One of the main instructors at the studio commutes a staggering 3 hours every morning and night. This is how intensely the people of Kolkata love dance. We started our first evening there learning Bharatnatyam from a fellow dance diplomat, Nikeeta. Then the workshops commenced. The studios were full the entire night. Workshops that we taught throughout the week included Salsa, Hip Hop, Vogue, Latin Fusion, Contemporary, Bollywood, Ballet, Contact Improvisation, and Afro-Brazilian. We also learned some Bollywood from one of the Directors, Dorothy Shaw, which made us all feel like we were in a Bollywood film. By the end of the week, we had everyone’s souls, including our own, filled with even more love for dance and the community it arouses.
One exceptional highlight of the week was being given the opportunity to teach at the American Consulate General in Kolkata. Our 2-hour workshop was titled “Cross-Seas Contemporary” and was led by myself and Sarah Wiltgen. About 35 dancers were there and quite a few representatives of the American Consulate themselves. Also present was one of Kolkata’s own news stations covering the story. Cross-cultural interaction through dance is something that communities across the globe crave, whether they know it or not. What better way to communicate and build peace with one another than through our universal language of movement? This entire experience stands as a testament to this theory, and hopefully the importance of dance diplomacy becomes clear to even more governmental institutions.
For our last day in Kolkata, we were able to experience and witness the magic at Kolkata Sanved, an NGO that works to empower sex trafficking or trauma survivors through Dance-Movement Therapy (DMT). One of Movement Exchange’s Program Directors, Mei-Ling Murray, describes our experience:
“Blending Dance Movement Therapy with Indian dance aesthetic, Kolkata Sanved brings dance to communities as a vehicle for psychological rehabilitation and creative expression. Made up of a team of women, the Sanved practitioners partner with local organizations year-round, imparting sustainable curriculum. Our short time at the organization made a meaningful impact on us. Founder Sohini Chakraborty shared the inspiration behind the conception of Sanved, nearly ten years ago. We engaged in insightful dialogue, exchanging stories and commonalities of our work. The Sanved practitioners performed a newly choreographed piece that incorporated Scottish dance elements, and exuded power, resilience, and tenderness. The meeting culminated in a collaborative exercise, where we mirrored each other’s movements, and were guided to individually express the collective energy pulsing in the room.”
That night, DNA Danceworks sponsored a party just for Movement Exchange. Many of the students that had taken our workshops came out for one last night of dancing. The entire night, I felt elated. Something about being surrounded by people who love dance just as much as I do brings out the best in me. I haven’t felt such a release in months.
Early next morning, Anna and I went to the Ganges River and stumbled upon the closing of the Gangar Sagar Mela. We always hear about India being known for its spirituality, and until this moment, we hadn’t seen extremely clear examples of it. But here we found it. All along the Ganges, there were people bathing and praying in the water, circles of prayer along the shore, Hindu gurus scattered about. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It was much like a music festival, but for the spirituals. There were enormous stationed camps 2 blocks away from the river where we even got blessed by a guru himself. It was all quite magical and mysterious, something that I, to this day, cannot entirely grasp in my mind.
Finally it was time to leave for the airport, where I parted ways with my Movement Exchange family as they flew back to Mumbai and I flew up to New Delhi. After a full two weeks spreading the joys of dance, it was difficult to articulate my emotions. In my last reflection, I put it simply: “The best way to describe this experience is as a liberating jump into another dimension.” That is the most concise way I can put into words what I feel. But in that moment, I knew there was even more enchantment and liberation to come, as I was commencing my two-week solo journey in India.