Bharatnatyam dancer, founder and creative director of Sohinimoksha World Dance, Sohini Roychowdhury has just penned her second book, ‘Indian Stage Stories: Connecting Civilisations’.
New Delhi: To say that Sohini Roychowdhury is prolific would be an understatement. This Bharatanatyam dancer, movement director, author, Professor of Natyashastra, founder and creative director of Sohinimoksha World Dance and Communication and social activist, has also just penned her second book, ‘Indian Stage Stories: Connecting Civilisations. A Telling of the Story of Indian Stage and how it Connects to the World’. Sunday Guardian Review catches up with this talented artist for an exclusive chat about her life and work. Excerpts from an edited interview:
Q. Please tell us about your latest book and its unique subject?
A: My new book ‘Indian Stage Stories’ is an answer to the sheer stupidity, shallow know-all views and utter ignorance of the so-called Indophiles, cultural racism and the rampant India-exotica and ‘India-idiotica’ in the west. I was emotionally injured when Heidi Klum claimed to have been in India and wanted to go for Halloween as a ‘Scary Indian Goddess’ and was splashed all over in her ludicrous ‘Kali’ caricaturesque attire. It was unintelligent, offensive and disrespectful.
I try to counter these ignorant practices through my work. I performed the ‘Dance of Kali’ opera at ‘Noche en Blanco’, where through storytelling with dance, we highlighted the philosophy and essence of Shaktism and Markandeya Puranas. Our sacred stories, sacred philosophies, mythology and Vedic wisdom have many layers and need a deeper understanding and respect, beyond India-exotica.
We also did a concert on Shaktism and Durga at the Anthropological Museum in Madrid, which was followed by a children’s art session. A five-year-old girl came up to me with a picture of a Goddess with ten arms and the third eye, and said, “This is my mother, she is Durga for me.” It was one of the happiest moments for me as it seemed like we had communicated our message and the magic of our Vedas and Puranas had cast their spell of inclusivity on humanity as a whole.
‘I Am’ — my dance production on Shaktism — is the inner voice of all women from India to Japan to obscure villages in Africa. The very essence of our Markandeya Puranas is to celebrate women as mothers, warriors and multitaskers, with men as their allies, without the otherisation of men. I believe this is the most evolved form of feminism that the world has seen. We also have Lord Shiva, who is the greatest of feminists through the manifestation of the Ardhanareeshwar. He was a truly evolved humanist. He was inclusive and the greatest empath ever.
All our dance operas, lectures and storytelling sessions share such profoundly deep philosophies, and I was inspired by them to write ‘Indian Stage Stories.’ This book is about the connection of our Natyashastra with Aristotle’s theories of dramatic unity. I share examples like that of Ishtar, the Mesopotamian Goddess of war and love who is as much an icon of divine feminism as our Durga and Kali.
It’s about the world being one, humanity being one.
Q. What was your writing process like?
A. I took about three months to write this book, but I have studied this subject throughout my life both on stage and off it and across the world. I faced no challenges that I can remember. I wrote it by the river at St Andrews in Scotland, amidst clear skies and seagulls. It felt like a choreography, penned down amidst nature.
Readers who have the book are commenting very favourably and saying they cant put it down. They love the fact that the book takes them back to our heritage and mythology, yet with a contemporary global outlook. The House of Commons will be launching my book in the UK on November 17th, in collaboration with the prestigious Saudha International Music festival, that is a premier platform promoting South Asian arts in the UK. On the 22nd of January 2023, the iconic Jaipur Lit Fest will be launching my book in India. There is a lot to look forward to and I feel honoured and grateful.
Q. According to you how is the stage an apt medium to connect varied cultures?
A. The stage is a miniature version of the world at large. It is a platform that gives artists a voice from their depths of joy, despair, anguish and empathy. My stage is about empathy and storytelling, about art without frontiers. My dance operas feature our Indian classical forms along with Flamenco, Jazz, Ballet and Oriental dance forms, and include performers from different parts of the world. Hence, my book cover features Farah Daoud from Iraq, a Bharatanatyam exponent who has been my student for a long time, and Kristina Veselinova from Bulgaria who is an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer and my student as well. So that’s the stage for me and my multicultural tribe.
It is a world without frontiers as we celebrate our idealism, without idiotic notions of ‘cultural appropriation’ that some bring as impediments in our path.
Next, I’m writing a book called ‘She’, which is about Indian Goddesses to celebrate the divine feminine that is part of our cultural roots. It’s my dedication and homage to sheer woman power that is a fascinating and unique part of our cultural heritage.
Q. Where do you get your inspiration and how do you research your body of work?
A. Inspiration comes to me; it is not a conscious process. I engage with mythology as I breathe. I create my choreographies and try to explain the deep philosophical aspect of our stories and beliefs – the sheer spirituality through dance. That’s also why I write to explain to the world our Vedas, Puranas, legends and rituals. That’s how these books happen. The research is part of my daily life for my seminars and university projects.
Q: A message for your readers:
A. My mantra is empathy and Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, that the world is one. Humanity is one. Through art, our hearts connect and that is the nadir of my books and my art.
‘Indian Stage Stories’ by Shubhi Publications is available on Amazon, and my previous book ‘Dancing with The Gods’ by Roli Books is also available on Amazon and all leading bookshops in India and abroad. I hope people will read both of them for insight into our rich and interesting cultural heritage.
Noor Anand Chawla pens lifestyle articles for various publications and her blog www.nooranandchawla.com.