With Masks and Flair, Indian Dance Aims to Spur Audiences to Climate Action
Plenty of words have been written and spoken about climate change. But residents of Kolkata and other Indian cities are being given the opportunity to get to grips with the issue in a new way: via dance and music.
Ekonama: The Beginning in the End is a contemporary dance work that challenges audiences to consider what humans will have to live for if the environment is ravaged beyond sustainability.
The creators of the hour-long performance hope that the combination of dramatic choreography, folk dance, vivid costumes and music will raise awareness and compel viewers to become climate change activists.
“I find art is extremely impactful in cases where you want the audience to have an emotional response,” Paramita Saha, co-director of Sapphire Creations Dance Company in Kolkata, said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The performance depicts members of a secluded Indian tribal community going about their lives, reliant on their masked gods to protect them. One day a storm comes and the villagers find themselves caught in the throes of extreme weather brought on by climate change.
The dance depicts a future where hurricanes, droughts, floods and pollution have turned the planet’s last survivors into half-naked creatures scrounging and even killing for food, water and shelter.
Their gods, stripped of their regal costumes, turn out to be themselves only human.
“You could read three textbook chapters on the environment and feel bored, but when the same subject is turned out as an hour-long creative dance you get goosebumps, in awe when it ends,” said 22-year-old Anusaya Mitra about the piece, which premiered in Kolkata in 2016.
End of the journey
Mitra was one of a group of university students who were also studying dance at Sapphire Creations, and who developed an early version of the dance in 2015 as part of a fellowship sponsored by Microsoft.
The fellowship offered 18- to 25-year-olds a chance to experiment with art projects on environmental issues affecting Kolkata.
Mitra’s team created a 15-minute dance work entitled Ekoboom, which was performed in 16 universities and schools in and around Kolkata and seen by around 6,000 young people.
Saha, the co-director of Sapphire Creations, said that Ekoboom’s impact on audiences inspired her company to create the longer version, with a more developed narrative and sophisticated lighting and music.
The costumes worn by the dancers are made from textile off-cuts, to emphasize the need for recycling and reducing waste.
“For the general population a journey of a ‘thing’ ends in its being thrown into the bin or on the road. What happens after is none of their concern or is not even something they would think about normally. Such a journey depicted through any artistic medium… can be extremely thought-provoking for them,” Saha said.
Mahashweta Bhattacharya, 20, who was part of the fellowship team, said the play was a wake-up call, even for many of the cast.
“We know that each of us is responsible in some small way for the decay of our planet. But we keep ignoring that voice and pushing it to the back of our minds. After seeing Ekonama, we couldn’t ignore our consciences any longer,” Bhattacharya said.
Sudarshan Chakravorty, artistic director of the dance company, worked with Turkish, Singaporean and Canadian choreographers and composers to develop the piece.
“Because climate change is already deeply touching everyone on this planet, Ekonama’s music… shows how art, when about a threat shared by all, can transcend cross-country borders, genres and culture,” Chakravorty said.
Following Ekonama’s international premiere at the Seattle International Dance Festival in June, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change newsroom also has publicized the piece, noting the contribution of art and culture in raising awareness about climate change.
“Science, economics and politics will be crucial (to building climate resilience) but so will new thinking and new ways of expressing the challenges and opportunities to both leaders and the public — something arts and culture can do in fresh and fundamental ways,” Nick Nuttall, director of communications for the UNFCCC, said at a seminar earlier this year.
Now the Sapphire Creations troupe is busy practicing for performances scheduled for Mumbai’s Contemporary Dance Season in December, and the Uday Shankar Dance Festival in Jaipur, Rajasthan, in February.
Moved to act
Performers say they have already seen those affected by the performance taking action on environmental issues.
“Ekonama made an environmental activist out of my mother. She now goes up to people at our apartment block and asks them not to throw trash everywhere, especially (one-use) plastic stuff,” said Bhattacharya, who is pursuing a master’s degree in sociology at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Saha points out that India, a country heavily vulnerable to climate disasters, needs greater public awareness of the need to act — but also policies to put that will into action.
“Performances like ours (will) help to open the climate conversation more in the mainstream,” she predicted.