Dance is Architecture is Dance

Reclaiming Heritage through Movement

Guest Author: Shinjita Roy

Five years of studying architecture in college followed by another five years of working in the field have given me a sense of what architecture is, but I struggle to define the term. I have been training to be a dancer since the age of five, and continue to learn, make and perform the art form till date. Yet, I don’t think I can put into words what dancing means. I see them as intertwined, embodied experiences. When I dance, I design movements in space, sculpting space with my body. In architecture, I design built and open spaces that allow, interact and shape movement flow. My brain cannot process one without the other, and at this crossing of dance-architecture, I have experienced magic. Magic that I can feel and perform, but somehow struggle to articulate in words. My work – in the shape of practice, research or simply what I do and how I interpret my findings – attempts to explain to myself the relationship between these two entities, or perhaps it is a journey to the realization that they are not two separate entities after all. 

Old buildings, fort walls, Islamic arches have always made me feel bigger than myself. They seduce me with their hidden stories and trapped memories, mysteries awaiting unraveling. As a tourist and a curious explorer I have always looked for unknown, abandoned heritage sites on my trips to different parts of India – and not a single place ever disappointed me. Every city, village, even looking outside moving trains and tiny stops by the highways have offered hidden gems offering a gateway into a surreal world of the unknown. As a child travelling on tight travel itineraries with my family, I always craved for more time at the faraway fort where the bus did not stop, and I could not help but take a quick chakkar (pirouette) at the centre of the courtyard, or wait for the crowd to disperse to bend my spine along the curve of the arch and look up at its centre. Something about the architecture of the forgotten is romantic, liberating, and magnanimous.

Khirki Masjid experiments (Image: Author, 2013)

I decided to formally enquire about these longings for the purpose of an undergraduate Architecture Dissertation project during college. I researched histories of different dance forms of the world in relation to the spaces they have grown out of. From the Neanderthal caveman to the avant-garde and postmodern artist – human bodies have been mapping spaces and making memories through their body movements all along. During this research, I got introduced to the world of site-specific dance – a genre in Western Contemporary dance that is designed to create performances for ‘alternative’ spaces, outside the conventional proscenium theatre setting. As an Indian classical dancer who has for most of her life learnt to wear costume and make up and perform on a stage facing an audience in the dark, this genre opened up a whole new world of possibilities, allowing her to dance anywhere and everywhere, just like she always wanted. One thing led to another, dots started to connect, and a few years after graduating from college, I left my nine to forever-o-clock architecture job to create site-specific performances for heritage architecture with Indian classical dance.

Getting down and dirty with my favourite spaces, I soon realised there was a lot more to this than the romanticism that meets the eye. At that time I was living in Delhi, surrounded by exquisite Islamic architecture with their rhythmic geometry and poetic beauty. I was exceptionally attracted to the Khirki Masjid near Saket, and kept revisiting the site for months, every weekend, taking along friends and artists of different disciplines to my ‘laboratory’. It was more than having a fun-time or getting a few interesting photos – it seemed like we were developing an intimate relationship with the space. We sang, danced, drew, brainstormed and ideas kept flowing. The space inspired creativity in us, and we wanted to share it with the world. As we pursued that thought, we faced the reality of the situation that this was a layered space, with multiple agencies of authorship and ownership – are ASI-owned sites public spaces? Who decides how this space can or not be used? Do beautiful Islamic architecture that once bred brilliance as the likes of Khusrao and Tansen not allow people today to sing or dance in them? What is my role, responsibility or credibility to be inscribing memories in this space? Are these spaces celebratory, despite holding memories of centuries of casteism, classicism, brutal politics, and gender inequalities? As sites of the past, what role do these spaces play in the urban contemporary of today?

Clearly, these enquiries ask for more than a project over weekends with friends. I had felt the magic of these sites in my body already, and not dealing with the above questions was not going to be an option. Hence, I embarked on the massive mission of addressing these enquiries through my practice-led graduate research in the form of a master’s degree and now a PhD. My line of enquiry falls at the crossroads of architecture, Indian dance, site-specificity, heritage conservation, locational identity, and corporeality. These might be different disciplines as per the Western education system, but for anyone who has been a student of Indian classical dance, the connections happen very naturally. Bharatnatyam and Odissi are known to be ancient forms of temple dances. Kathak comes from a lineage of story-telling and community development through it. The Indian performing body is an archive of its social, cultural, and architectural past as designed by Bharat Muni’s Natyashastra. I find both Vastushastra and Natyashastra to be based on the alignment of energy, emotion, and our everyday stories, aiming towards a more fulfilled and meaningful life. Indian classical dance styles weren’t designed for proscenium theatres. They speak the stories of the sites they came from – being inherently site-specific in nature. We jumped on the train of modernism and globalisation, fitting our lives to feel and look like the rulers of the world, and somewhere in the journey, the beautiful essence of locating our practices to the context of our land lost its meaning. My practice is not based on any innovative original idea but only tries to reclaim public activity at sites that once served to hold public gatherings. It is only relocating the arts to where they belong, using them as a tool to engage with the lonely heritage spaces. It is trying to ask someone who likes to work out of a café at Khan market to feel the difference by working from Safdarjung tomb, to ask the guards at Safdarjung tomb to allow said person to sit on its platform and create, to ask the authorities to train the guards and empower them to be agents of responsible usage of pristine space. Sometimes being in the space, breathing in its age and experience teaches us a lot more than reading a book or watching a documentary about it. I hope my praxis endeavours would one day contribute to making these spaces available as creative and collaborative platforms, add more Indian voices to the discourses of site-based arts and generate a culture for more aware and responsible usage of heritage sites. I imagine India to become that destination, where you find dance workshops, art classes, and jamming sessions happening at heritage sites, where you can taste food in arts festivals with immersive and interactive experiences, where heritage sites become an extension of museums, theatres, and studios – hoping one day my work turns this dream into reality.

(All photographs: The author)

An architect and dancer, Shinjita has found her calling in the field of site-specific performance making. Through her dual lens, she creates performances from architecture and design spaces for flow of movement. Her practice-led research aims at creating a platform for site-specific explorations in Indian dance forms for Indian heritage spaces. Currently, she is a PhD student at VCA Dance (University of Melbourne). 

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2 Responses

  1. You are starting a movement, I think. A movement of fusion and unity within the diversity we see all around. Good luck for your journey.

  2. Loved going through your journey both inward and outward. I think there was always a reason behind developing a dance form and its performance at a specific site. That you are trying to bring reasoning into that very reason is something to look out for. We need to reclaim the places which we isolate as mere heritage and tourist spots and those which get relegated after a few instagram worthy shoots. All the best in your endeavours Shinjita.

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