A Dancing Girl

Rajyashree Ramamurthi

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What do I know about the Dancing Girl statuette from Mohenjo-Daro?
– That it is a small bronze figurine of a pubescent girl wearing bangles and some jewellery in what seemed to me as a predecessor of the odissi tribhanga stance.
– That it was just assumed that she is a dancing girl because of her posture and adornment.
– That Gregory Possehl – an archaeologist – called it “the most captivating piece of art from the Indus site”.
Captivating, it must have been for choreographer and performer Sujata Goel; enough to inspire her to develop the full length work – titled the same – that was featured on Saturday 15, October at the contemporary dance festival – IGNITE!

Engulfed in darkness, you wait in silence for the work to approach. And then…
You see what resembles an arrow head parallel to the floor pointing stage left. It is the bent elbow joint but almost before you have time to figure out which part of the dancer’s body it maybe, you are sealed in darkness once again. The next time you see two mounds about a foot and half off the ground that meet, creating an angle and opening out into a triangular structure towards the ground.

Your mind is working hard to decipher and then you realise that it is the dancer’s knees pushed together and the painterly lines descending are the shin bones opening out. Again darkness. As the hand-held torch light comes on again the chin is lifted up and illuminated dramatically by the light source which is held by the dancer at the sternum, creating yet another pyramidal form.

As more and more of the dancer’s body is revealed in dappled light there is a sense of an ancient configuration of the body. This is heightened by an almost primordial drone with ever-morphing tones and a subtle cyclical lilt that envelops the work from here on.

Through the trajectory of images in Dancing Girl Sujata Goel invites us to embrace exotica; celebrate its sensuality and even savour the moment with her, as she seamlessly fuses kitsch pop culture references to what one might read as ancient imagery in order to wink cheekily at ideas around the construction of gesture and meaning – taking off in a way from the fact that the original figurine was only named Dancing Girl in spite of no other corroborating proof other than the few things she wore and the way she stood.

From the archetypal triangular forms amalgamating into the human female body in simple expressive upright postures and gestures, passing by a flick book of typical stances and imagery primarily from Bharatanatyam, to slip slyly into iconic kitsch postures and movements of Indian cine dance…

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The idea of a foreshortened view of this proposed trajectory obviously influenced the costume, which was a rich mix of elements from the original bronze figurine with some unique additions made by the artist. The head of the performer was adorned in a net of pearls with a special piece of jewellery typically worn by Kathak performers that sits on the side of the head, by the temple (like the one Meena Kumari wore in Pakeezah!). The costume was a rich blue silk dress with the bust in contrasting gold zari, the cut of which was child-like rather than womanly, a link perhaps to the original statuette.

Sujata Goel’s work is an implosion of sensuality. The painterly quality of the lighting, the mesmerising soundtrack, the colours and textures of the rich silk costume and last but not least the performer’s mastery of the choreography that moves from slow, viscous movements to sharp switches of tableaux vivants back into a visceral sensuality – all create a long lasting relish.

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There were some minute moments in the torch-lit opening section where there were some ‘light blips’. For a few split seconds the torch lets light escape in a moment of intended darkness. It is the humanness of those moments that makes performance exciting for me, as it is in those moments that you are not just consuming an image that is dished out to you passively; rather, the mechanics of the moments are revealed and you are reminded of the effort and coordination that goes into a particular aesthetic experience.

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“We may not be certain that she was a dancer, but she was good at what she did and she knew it.” – Gregory Possehl

I am reminded of these words when I think of the last moments of Sujata’s work. As she leaves the stage area and walks straight towards the audience, she stops short and establishes direct eye contact for the first time. Whereas till now the performer’s gaze was far-reaching and indirect, here the gaze is direct, almost confrontational. ‘Here I am!’ she states to us. Confident, proud, comfortable with our quiet but hungry gaze resting on her.

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Photography: Sharan Devkar Shankar

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