A development initiative for South Asian Dance in the North West

Bisakha Sarker interviewed by Lindsey Fryer

LF: Firstly I'd like to ask you about the nature of the lecture presentation that you undertook with Levi Tafari, within the format of the Trace conference. How do you feel the presentation of the piece within the conference was affected by that environment?

BS: I would like to respond by stressing the point that although the piece you are referring to was set as a performance it was actually my lecture. I chose to present mine in a dance format as others decided to deliver theirs by using Power point.

The concluding section of the lecture was specially created for the Trace conference. It was a collaboration between Levi Tafari (poet), Chris Davies (musician) and myself.

We thoroughly enjoyed performing the piece, bouncing our energies off each other. The space was indeed a challenge. The setting of a small conventional lecture theatre prompted us to take some interesting choreographic decisions which we would not have considered otherwise. We all felt that it was a successful and worthwhile venture.

It was a radical move to present to the delegates of an academic international conference, a ‘lecture’ which was not a written paper but a piece of performing arts. Some missed the point and took it for an entertainment appended to the proceedings of the conference. However in the opinion of others including some of the delegates from abroad, it was like a 'breath of fresh air', 'a memorable surprise ending to a highly exciting day at the conference'.

I am now convinced that it was the right way to deliver the lecture. As a performing artist, performance is my main medium of communication and sometimes within the context of academic discussion, we artists undermine the power of our own art-form and try to express our views through a language which is commonly accepted for academic discourse but might not speak as sincerely as an artistic expression.

When I was asked to deliver the lecture I wanted to deliver it through a combination of spoken words and movement, almost as a piece of text based dance. Dance being a non-verbal medium, it seemed just right that it would be able to ‘speak more clearly about the intentions I wanted to convey’. The performers train their bodies to speak for them, to ‘express’ emotions and ideas through movements and gestures. So I was convinced that by dancing I would be able to more directly communicate with my audience. In a way I find it more comfortable to think of the conference delegates as spectators rather than an audience. So when I was asked what would be my requirements, eg slide projectors or overhead projector etc, I requested a musician and a poet.

LF: And how do you feel that approach engages with an academic conference audience?

BS: I feel that was very appropriate for the academic conference. I believe in what I do – I think it was an appropriate, good approach. It brought a breath of fresh air, it was unexpected and allowed the delegates to relax and enjoy the lecture. What can be a better place than an arts conference, to explore new avenues of artistic expression ?

LF: Is it also a good opportunity to encourage a redirection in people’s thinking in terms of how issues and ideas are presented to us and how we share those?

BS: In this day of technology taking over so much of our intellectual space, I am happy that I used a performing art-form as an alternative effective means of communication. Dance, music, poetry : relax the mind to allow the intellect to get replenished and operate in multi-directional ways. This is not altogether a new concept; Indian dance has been recorded in sculptures and paintings for centuries.

LF: Do you feel that learning through the word is privileged at the moment?

BS: The learning process is going through a huge change due to the advent of the new technology; learning through the visual medium is becoming more of a trend and the language is actually changing along with that. So maybe we are at a cross-road or a turning point, where learning through words is not as privileged as it was in the past. Certain languages, certain idioms hold power and are instruments of power. The language that has been established amongst intellectuals, for example, is hardly ever questioned. People tend to forget that the intellect is not exercised only through language, let alone specific academic jargons.

LF: How did the collaboration with Levi Tafari work for you within the conference?

BS: It went well because it complemented everything both Levi and I were trying to say through our lectures. Working with such a brilliant poet and having the support of such beautifully played flute and tabla drums in the background created a wonderful energy which was very exciting to respond to. The music held together the poetry and the dance. The whole conference was about working across cultural boundaries. Using Indian dance movements to the rhythm of rap poetry: in my own mind I was creating a visual picture. I choreographed my movements around the shapes, colour and the dynamics of Levi’s body, as it was responding to his own chanting. My dance movements and Levi’s rapping were integrated. I was using not only my movement vocabulary to create the dance but also the contrast of our two different physical forms. If something akin to this is not achieved, synergy will remain just a catchy phrase. The way things are now, we have to wait for an Indian art exhibition to take place and to call an Indian artist to do a dance, to invite a rap poet only at an African arts event … and so on. Things stay in their own narrow culture specific slots. Seeing one as primarily an artist, a poet or a dancer can in some cases challenge this separation.

LF: Are you retaining your cultural identity within a shared practice?

BS: Yes, bearing in mind that cultural identity is a complex concept. I see cultural identity as a Statistical model. Part of it is constant and remains intact as something that is held with deepest conviction. There is another part of this cultural identity that moves with the person and it’s meaning changes as the person goes through life, growing with experience. If I take an example from my dance, much of the content of my dances are different from what I had learnt I use new music often including words spoken in English but I believe that the principles and the underlying philosophy of how I formulate the dance is rooted in the age old convictions of the world of Indian dance. To remain within the predetermined boundaries without responding to any change could be restricting. One can step out of the accepted codes of one’s identity and still retain it and carry it within the aesthetics of one’s work. We need not be so precious about this thing called ‘identity’, thinking that if you step outside it, it will disappear. If we are to consider the issue of ‘trace’ in a serious way, then we have to see identity as something embedded within that which moves with you. Sometimes, by crossing the boundaries, you set a test for yourself to see how far out you can go while you can still retain it.

LF: Levi was talking about being one thing in the family home and being another thing in school when growing up. He argued that this interchangeability he felt was so important, that he had almost two identities. He had to manage those growing up, particularly in certain contexts within Liverpool.

BS: It is different for different people. I was born and brought up in India where I was not a member of the minority community. When I'm here I am reminded more readily of my Indian identity than when I am in India . In India I was trained to use a kind of academic and formal English as encountered in publications and lectures, rather than the language actually spoken by people in their day to day communication. Also the contact that I had in India with people from abroad was very much at that academic level. So for me, after coming to England, it was a strange shock, I really had to have a reorientation, and reconsider the language of appropriate communication. I adapted and took an interest in the language of teaching. I searched for a language: simple yet profound, a tool, which can convey complex concepts through non-threatening words.

LF: How do you feel that working with communities affects the way your practice is received?

BS: Many people are interested in how artists are increasingly working with people in communities, although this work has very little status. Education and community work (which is also education) is so important to keep any sanity in this society.

Working with communities gives me a clearer idea of how I want my work to develop, to make it relevant for my audience. My art-form training happened in India; what I needed to add to that was an understanding of the new audience I was bringing my work to. My community work gave me a new insight into the directions my work could take. Also, it has strengthened my conviction in my art-form and helped me to identify the strong points of its practice.

LF: Do you see this work also developing the art-form? This use of language, how does it work combined with movement?

BS: Yes, it does and I have taken a particular interest in developing text based narrative dance using poetry and stories from diverse sources (including works of Rabindranath Tagore, contemporary Bengali poet Sunil Ganguly, Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst and the rap poet from Liverpool Levi Tafari). Usually verbal language is used in dance as a song, whereas I am incorporating texts as spoken words.

LF: To sum up, there are differences in working in collaboration with other practitioners, and the interconnection that that makes and the sharing of languages and expressions. You, as a performer, are also sharing and engaging with an audience. Then there's also the sharing of languages as you're physically working with people, in terms of choreographing, performing, whether it's other professionals, practitioners, or whether it's young people or elderly people, or whatever.

You are very aware of the different oral, visual and physical languages, their different uses within a range of collaborations when working with people of different ages and a range of cultural backgrounds. It's an incredibly complex set of structures that you're operating within?

BS: Yes. Analysis makes the process seem complex, but the working process cuts through that towards resolution. The complexity (if you call it complexity) is what keeps the work challenging and stimulating. As an artist that’s what you need. Within a performance setting in a community, you do not have the distance of the proscenium stage, lighting or costume – to make a work of art stand within that set up one has to draw and find something which is strong enough to give the work the validity.

I would add that the range of community groups I have worked with comprises nursery children to disabled people to old age pensioners, in hospitals, colleges, prisons, day centres, museums and so on…

LF: How do you see your work in education furthering the aim of making life and art inseparable? Do you see changes? Have you seen changes? Are you hopeful?

BS: The life and Art are inseparable. One determines the shape and the destiny of the other. At one time I did imagine my artistic endeavor to be different from the rest of my life. As a dance practitioner my artistic life revolved round the world of choreographing and performing. It involved stage, set, light, costume; in other words all that makes a performance a magical experience for an audience. However when I was appointed as the Asian Dance Animateur of Merseyside Arts my artistic world expanded. I started to work in schools, colleges, day centres and old peoples homes. Suddenly the audience became the participants. They started to intrude into my intimate immediate space. I still had the responsibility of conjuring up the magic, but this time without any help from the usual theatrical aids. That is when I looked deeply into my own artistic practice. My search began for the elements that will not loose their power when transported from the glamorous world of theatre to apparently 'ordinary' environments of day to day use. Gradually the notion of a new aesthetic started to unfold. My life and my art merged into one another.

LF: Within your collaborative practice and through education work you are encouraging the unpractised to move through such processes?

BS: I believe in what I do. If what one does as an artist cannot influence one's attitude to life then it is not totally sincere. Whether it is a collaborative venture or a community education initiative, I always try to find special moments of meaningful engagement with what I am doing. My collaborating partners and other participants are my fellow travelers in that journey. After that it is up to each individual to decide how he or she may wish to process the experience. (I met a brilliant sculptor with a very negative attitude towards her body image. After we worked together to create a dance for her, she changed. She said that she had realised that what makes the difference is not the weight, but how one carries it.)

LF: We are still teaching and learning in a very similar way to the way we were in the last century, again with the written word having a higher status than experiential learning. We don't seem to be able to recognise or incorporate the complexities of different forms of intelligence into how we teach and learn to create understanding. Do you agree?

BS: I understand your point. This may be true in the academic circle. However I notice some radical departures. The advent of the new technology has already changed the method of teaching and the process of learning. Within that the understanding of visual arts plays an important part in designing the screen, which is of primary interface.

My own academic background is in Statistics where communicating with written words had equal weight with expressing ideas and information through graphs, charts and abstract mathematical symbols.

When I consider my current practice of providing life long education through the medium of dance I notice a definite shift towards using 'different forms of intelligence to create understanding'. However there is a long way to go. In the meantime, within the academic circle the supremacy of expressing with written words prevails.

LF: How does working with people from different cultural identities affect the development of your practice?

BS: Working to communicate across the cultural boundary made a fundamental impact in many ways on my performance work. According to Hindu tradition, the audience is representatives of the god. Any artistic endeavor reaches its fullness only when the artist and the audience establish a direct channel of communication. Moving amongst different communities of Liverpool had given me a clearer idea of how to foster that communication. Which in its turn influenced the choice of content and its treatment. As a result now I have a body of new work based on spoken text in English. It has made me a more confident performer, more ready to take up new artistic challenges.

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