A scene from “Home, Suspended” by Nikita Maheshwary which is part of The Pickle Factory Foundation’s “I m/ Material” Programme at JOMBA! 2021

Love, Time and Pain on Indian Soil

By Sanam Sitaram (guest writer)


Durban’s JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience has long been a diverse, inclusive platform that has pushed the boundaries of dance, and what constitutes dance. This year’s online selection is no different. For over a century, the ties between India and South Africa have been firm. This year’s hosting of the Pickle Factory Dance Foundation’s I m / Material, a programme of eight screen dance films curated by Vikram Iyengar and Kunal Chakraborty has been one more link in solidifying this history even further, forging bonds based on expression rather than bondage.

In 2021, we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. Many live art forms have shifted spaces and moved to the (sometimes very) small screen.

The first work of the series, Aahuti directed by Lubdhak Chatterjee with choreography by Dr. Pompi Paul, is unexpected. It seems notable to me that the beginning of the series forces us to notice the earth directly and in the most literal sense. It gives the viewer a taste, perhaps, of a kind of slow, sensory experience that we have become more and more disconnected from in today’s technological cultural climate. I feel as if I am invited to stop thinking and analyzing, and to simply observe. There is a depth in the simplicity of hands, against earth, and water. The various mudras used, place the work firmly within an Indian cultural context, in a work that otherwise shows no signs of any particular place or its people. I am struck by the idea that culture can exist within the whole body- down to our fingers and toes. The work that follows, feels familiar. Choreographed and directed by Hediyeh Azma, Saraab is delicate, yet rich, and the thematic simplicity allows us to indulge, and to perhaps project our own longings and nostalgia onto the setting and character within it. The movements, colour palette, and focus on small architectural details work harmoniously together.

We are led back into a sense of stillness by Preethi Athreya and Sharan Devkar Shankar with And indeed there will be time. The staggered movements of the piece suggest that the dancer, Preethi Athreya, is the only indication that time exists within this space. She is often framed by windows as if captured in time on this unfinished building site. The dancer simply “ticks” away like a clock. Like Aahuti, the piece seems to call on us to simply observe the interaction between human and environment. Ironically, there seems to be even less of a “felt” inner experience in the dancer as a whole, than in the hands of Aahuti. It is a quiet meditation on movement in space.

In this context, Gia Singh Arora and Mukta Nagpal’s Fall: Love and Longing is another unexpected sight. It is visually rich, expertly edited by Geeta Singh and Rucha Prabhune, and cinematic. This is heightened even more so by the soaring orchestral sounds by The Music Factory. Here, we are led to focus on the dancer herself and her expression of the depths of her inner world. I am reminded of sumptuous fragrance advertisements that create a world of pure fantasy and delight.

There is no place for interpretation in Ima — an ode to the divine mother, a very direct “ode to the divine mother”. The work is directed, choreographed and conceptualized by Bimbavati Devi. She also narrates the work with clear intention, using a poem written by Anais Carmen Bourquin. I am mostly fascinated by this work as a cultural experience. Bollywood has long set the standard for what Indian culture and its people look like to the rest of the world, and it is refreshing to witness work that reflects the people of the North East of the country. This piece does not waver in its celebration of the divine feminine, and feels very grounded, at least to a relatively foreign eye, in its specific cultural expression.

Another celebration of womanhood, This Weight is not Mine, takes on a very different tone. Niharika Senapati, choreographer and performer of the piece, is incredibly powerful to witness. She exudes a sense of sacred rage around the controlling of womens’ bodies and autonomy through patriarchal norms in Indian society. In particular, through her use of wedding attire, the work directly addresses the institution of marriage as a means of control. The “weight” of expectations placed on Senapati as a young woman never belonged to her in the first place. She goes out into the world, dressed as a symbol of subservient femininity but her body rejects the sense of restriction and superficiality that it imposes upon her. It is as if she only finds freedom alone when she is stripped of the symbols she experiences as oppressive, washing herself clean of the expectations of men and the oppressive aspects of culture.

Nikita Maheshwary addresses the gravity and pain of displacement in Home, Suspended. The feeling of a depressive anxiety is punctuated by sounds that might exist in this industrial/street environment. The staccato editing of the footage complements the choreography as Maheshwary and her fellow dancer inhabit a dilapidated and melancholic world. Time is of the essence, and simultaneously never ending.

Surjit Nongmeikapam ends the series of short films by providing a very tactile approach to his environment. Hands and feet come into contact with concrete, and eventually his entire body is moving against the earth. There is a sense of urgency in Underline that is not present in Aahuti and even And indeed there will be time but it seems the principles here are similar. We are presented with an experience that it is possible to have, of our bodies in relation to our environment, that is not generally encouraged as part of daily experience. The series explores many aspects of the human experience- from the tactile and emotional, to the external circumstances that render many helpless. We are not provided with solutions of conclusions but an experience and an invitation to witness, empathize and sometimes, make our own meaning.

I m / Material features on the “Indian Crossings” platform on Saturday 4th September at 19:00 (CAT) as part of the 23rd JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience.

The CCA’s JOMBA! 2021 runs from 24 August to 5 September and can be navigated free of charge via the website www.jomba.ukzn.ac.za or subscribe to the JOMBA! YouTube channel here: https://www.YouTube.com/Jomba_Dance

A full programme is available via the website.



JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience

25th annual JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience 29 August – 10 September 2023