By Brannavy Jeyasundaram
Featured Image Courtesy of Dahlia Katz
“Rituals don’t just exist in the past, they’re how we connect to the here and now,” says Nova Bhattacharya prior to announcing the premiere date of her upcoming production. It is the middle of September 2019; she speaks to a room full of eclectic musicians, performance artists, and young South Asian classical dancers, all gathered in a circle for the 4th annual Deep-end Weekend. Before she can release the coveted information, she takes a breath and turns to company dancer and choreographic contributor, Atri Nundy. “You say it,” she declares.
Nundy tells a story, instead. “When I was a young dancer, my dad used to buy tickets for us to watch the ballet from the second last row of the Sony Centre. He did this to instill a hunger for what we deemed to be perfection.” She stops mid-sentence and grows unusually silent. Fellow company dancer, Neena Jayarajan, fills in with ease: “Svāhā will happen on October 18, 2020 at Meridian Hall, (formerly known as the Sony Centre) to an audience of 3,200 people.” A palpable stillness embraces the room as it becomes evident that Svāhā will be nothing short of historic.
Svāhā is a pageant of dance, chant, and ritual performed by women. The Sanskrit term is sung as a denouement during Hindu fire rituals, signalling the end of a mantra and the turn of rice grains into a pit of flames. The production combines elements of South Asian classical dance and music to honour the shared joy and promised survival of women when they are together. It will include 12 company dancers and a body-choir of 60 South Asian classical dancers. The body-choir, an invention by Bhattacharya, will consist of classically trained dancers across the Greater Toronto Area. Together, they will stir and disrupt patterns of echoing movement like a murmuration of birds or chorus of giggling aunties.
While Svāhā has beaten inside Bhattacharya for many years, it took official flight after being programmed by Civic Theatres Toronto and subsequently being confirmed as a funding recipient from the National Arts Centre in October 2018. Svāhā will also receive funding from all three tiers of government; the Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and Toronto Arts Council. Notably, it is the first project inspired by South Asian classical dance to receive support of this kind. For this reason and many others, Svāhā is a grand victory for the representation of South Asian art in Canada. For Bhattacharya, an artist intimately aware of national arts bureaucracy—Svāhā’s revolution lies in its process.
From October 2018 to February 2020, Bhattacharya led six creation labs with company dancers without confirming the format of Svāhā’s beginning or end. The non-linear choreographic process relies on a library of preexisting material cultivated by Nova Dance over the past 12 years. At each creation lab, the dancers are tasked with parsing old sequences to reimagine new ones or develop expanded physical vocabularies through previous articulations. This circularity in learning and teaching is reflected in the spatial geometry of the performance itself. Svāhā will be performed against an invisible grid, where dancers shift and orient themselves using all four directions.
They intentionally dissolve the relationship between the audience and performer as well as Western configurations of artist and spectator.
In Svāhā’s first experimentations with the body choir at the Deepend Weekend last year, Joanna De Souza, a 65-year-old kathak dancer and teacher with a decades-long career performed alongside Abigail Maria Thomas, a 14-year-old bharatanatyam dancer who only debuted as a solo artist last year. Svāhā deliberately calls upon an intergenerational group of artists from varying South Asian classical dance disciplines to share a stage. For too long, the solakattu (verbal rhythm) of bharatanatyam, tatkaar (footwork) of kathak, and tribhangi (stance) of odissi have existed as detached limbs in the diaspora. The union of their histories is meant to coalesce generations of movement traditions that were previously siloed by (forced) migration. In doing so, Svāhā also encourages the reimagining of these movement traditions that have travelled across oceans and proliferated on stolen land.
While seeking 60 South Asian classical dancers to fulfill the body-choir may seem like a daring feat, the truth is, they have always been here. From the thrum of basements in Scarborough to Surrey—they have always been here. It is why when Bhattacharya approached Jai Govinda Dance Academy in Vancouver for guest artists for a creation lab, they sent two dancers and subsidized the cost of their flights. It is true that territoriality runs rife across South Asian classical dance communities, but there also lies a river of common understanding. Svāhā insists that it is only through corporeal solidarity that they will survive.
Presently, Svāhā’s premiere is on hold. In a quick sweep, the COVID-19 crisis has impacted timelines and threatened the viability of a large-scale spectacle. While champions of the promised breakthrough for South Asian representation in art may feel dismayed, Bhattacharya is inspired. Svāhā’s potency is not articulated by its size and scale, but reverberations of its tide. The fluid creation labs and expansive body choir depend on the regular meeting of dancers across generations, borders, and disciplines. Through its subversion of choreographic material and desired participants—Svāhā became the very thing it was inspired by—rituals of gathering. And as Bhattacharya reminds me in a phone call last week: “rituals must happen at an auspicious time.”
Brannavy Jeyasundaram is an Eelam Tamil writer and classically trained bharatanatyam dancer. Presently, she works at the human rights-based non-profit organization People For Equality And Relief in Lanka (PEARL). Her writing can be found in The Dance Current, NOW Magazine, Huff Post, The Jacobin, and Tamil Guardian.
Born in Halifax and raised in Toronto, Nova Bhattacharya creates dances that evoke the imagination, and bring the intangible into the tangible through movement. Working from more than three decades of practice in the multi-disciplinary art form of bharatnatayam, she considers how embodied rituals are performances of faith and explores the interfaces between cultures and creative disciplines. Deeply committed to the evolution of contemporary Canadian expression, she has collaborated with dance, theatre, music and visual artists from Canada, India, Japan and the United Kingdom. In 2008 she founded Nova Dance, a company dedicated to creating meaningful points of intersection for dance and audiences; supporting artists; and celebrating the role of the arts in a vital society.