At a preview for Ananya Dance Theatre's "Nün Gherao: Surrounded by Salt" earlier this month, dancers moved in chaotic asunder as the sounds of tigers and other jungle animals — part of a composition by sound composer Spirit McIntyre — engulfed them. It held a visceral sense of place within its setting of Marichjhapi, an island in the mangrove region in West Bengal, India.
Much like the contemporary Indian dance company's previous works, this new piece takes a social justice lens investigating issues of caste discrimination, forced migration and the legacy of colonialism. It will be performed Friday and Saturday at the O'Shaughnessy.
In recent years, a growing anti-caste movement is building in countries like India, spurred by the rise of the current ruling party's anti-Dalit and anti-Muslim policies. The movement has even reached the United States in light of a manager at Google going public about caste discrimination within the tech company.
Dalit is the most oppressed caste of Hindus and not included in the four varnas or categories of the Hindu caste system. A virtual event in August titled "Radical Rhythms" featured Dalit artists who called for global caste equity.
Of caste and class
ADT's piece touches on this trend of caste consciousness and the fight against power, linking it to freedom-seeking struggles globally.
The topic is one that founder and artistic director Ananya Chatterjea has wanted to explore through dance for many years. She grew up in the West Bengal capital Kolkata to an atheist father and religious mother, who worshiped at a shrine to Oladevi, a goddess worshiped by both Hindus and Muslims. Chatterjea herself has been divorced from religion from a young age and more focused on issues of class consciousness and gender.
When the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947 into India and Pakistan, it triggered one of the biggest human migrations in history. Muslims moved toward East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh, and Hindus traveled toward West Bengal, part of India. The first wave of Hindu migrants were of the upper castes, who found resources and support following their movement. The Dalits were left in East Pakistan.
"When Bangladesh became its own country, the [Dalit] refugees were emboldened to say, 'We want to stay in West Bengal,' " said Chatterjea, who choreographed "Nün Gherao."
So the Dalits started migrating to West Bengal in 1977 when the communist Left Front party came to rule the state. The new governing power had changed its refugee resettlement policies. The Dalits were set up in camps that had very different vegetation than they were used to and they weren't provided sufficient food and resources.
"It was just arid land," said Chatterjea, who took a trip several years ago to the Sundarbans, the mangrove forest located at the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. "They wanted to come to Bengal because of the land. They couldn't do any of the rice cultivation, fishing, none of that."
So refugees began escaping the camps for the Sundarbans and built their own systems — including schools and medical care. Following the settlement of the refugees in the forest, they were shot at, starved and their homes were burned down as part of the Marichjhapi massacre in 1979.
It's a history that has long been suppressed and has only recently surfaced through works like "Blood Island: An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre" by author and journalist Deep Halder.
When ADT wanted to feature "Nün Gherao" at the Erasing Borders Dance Festival in New York on Aug. 6, it was censored by the Indo-American Arts Council. In an open letter on the ADT website, Chatterjea wrote that she invited the IAAC directors to a rehearsal over Zoom.
"They demurred, and instead proceeded to censor my work by removing us from their website and erasing my artistic voice from their celebration," she wrote.
According to Chatterjea, she had detailed the content of "Nün Gherao" in her proposal, a contract had been agreed upon and the publicity material was posted on IAAC's website. ADT had booked flights and hotels in New York for the trip. But then in mid-July, IAAC canceled the performance.
Ajay Skaria, who teaches South Asian politics and history at the University of Minnesota, said the current governing party in India muzzles any criticism of the country, including events that happened 45 years ago under a different government.
"In the current moment, and especially in an international context, the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] is more interested in burying these things under the carpet," said Skaria. "And that's the context in which there is such hostility to Ananya. This is a moment when we are in a nationalist fervor— when anything critical of India, even the slightest, is not received well."
Chatterjea, too, said the censorship didn't surprise her.
"We are in a moment of global fascism," Chatterjea said. "I'm really frustrated with how so many presenters and funders who think they're so liberal actually don't see that or refuse to see it because they're seeing this all through diversity and inclusion lenses. The fact that this censorship could happen in New York City, funded partly by New York City Cultural Affairs, should be astounding to us."
In a statement, Suman Gollamudi, executive director of IAAC, wrote:
"The IAAC Board deemed that the Ananya Dance Theater submission did not meet the Call for Submission criteria for the Festival of India@75 which had been communicated in its invite dated April 13, 2022. It reserves all rights in the matter."
This is not Chatterjea's first experience with ruffling feathers. In 2003 when she visited New Delhi as a solo artist, she did a piece about mothers in Kashmir, using the Hindu goddess Sita as a symbol of activism for peace. For months after the performance, she received harassing phone calls.
"Every Sunday morning without fail, I would receive a message," she said. "It would begin something like, 'Sharpen your pencil, we are watching you.'"
On another occasion, ADT received a letter saying it had been accepted at a festival in the Indian capital. The company applied for travel grants, but when the festival organizers saw the piece "Kshoy!/Decay!," which addressed violence in the name of tradition faced by women, it was disinvited.
The reason given? "Too political," Chatterjea said.
Chatterjea is not only an artistic director, dancer and choreographer but also a professor of dance at the U and recently released a book, "Dancing Transnational Feminisms: Ananya Dance Theatre and the Art of Social Justice."
At 56, she keeps a regular regimen of yoga, pilates and chiropractor and massage therapist visits to keep up her stamina.
"I really have to take care of my body," she said.
All that care is necessary for her choreography that blends Odissi, the martial art form Chhau and contemporary dance aesthetics.
"The stories require that quick fire," she said. "I'm interested in the revolutionary fire inside dance — something that can move through space. Like how wildfire spreads. That's how a revolution should spread — low to the ground, but really going fast."
"Nün Gherao" articulates different emotional landscapes. In one part, a dancer walks a precarious line as she holds onto the memories of the Dalit people.
For Chatterjea, truth-telling and art-making go hand in hand, and she's not about to stop anytime soon.
'Nün Gherao: Surrounded by Salt'
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri. & Sat.
Where: O'Shaughnessy, 2004 Randolph Av., St. Paul.
Cost: $5-$45, 651-690-6700, oshag.stkate.edu.