BENGALURU: Debapriya Das, who runs a performance house and a dance school called Nrityakosh, started training in belly dancing about five years ago. This master of Economics, who worked as a research assistant in one of the thinktanks, will be presenting a performance that traces the history of this Egyptian dance form. Titled Safar-E-Raqs, it will debut at Alliance Francaise on January 21. Debapriya has also taken classes in contemporary dance and ballet, and in Bharatanatyam for about 10 years under Guru Uma Rele, from Nalanda Dance Research Institute in Mumbai. Currently, she is training in kathak from Guru Chitra Arvind.
How did you think of doing such a performance that traces the history of belly dancing?
If we have to make belly dance or any dance relevant, we need to know the history, the lineage and the context. There is historical evidence that the roots of belly dance is more than 5,000 years old. Safar-E-Raqs is an attempt to present a few, key turning points in its history over the last three centuries, which shaped the modern belly dancing vocabulary.
What sources did you refer?
I had to understand and study Orientalism and its impact. My first reference was Edward Said’s books and essays on Orientalism. My other reference points were Essays by Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers Young and their book “Belly dance, Orientalism, Transnationalism and Harem Fantasy”; Essays by Katherine W Fraser and her book “Before they were belly dancers”; Karin Van Nieuwkerk’s A trade like no other, essays on female dancers and singers in Egypt” and Essays by Noha Roushdy on gender and dance in Modern Egypt. I also studied numerous academic journal articles.
How long did the research take?
It is a work in progress. The development of Safar-E-Raqs took about 6-7 months. I have always been very interested in scholarly approach of understanding and delving deeper into dance studies so personally the research started about two years ago. But proper guidance came when I travelled to the United States and studied with Jill Parker, Rahel Brice and Mira Betz, pioneers of modern day belly dance. As a part of my coursework, for an intensive with Mira Betz, I was suppose to research on the major political and social forces that have shaped the dance in Egypt from the 20th century to the modern day and present my findings during the course. This guided course work was the first step towards Safar-e-Raqs.
What was the biggest challenge?
To identify the biases that are prevalent in historical narratives and to differentiate between fact and fiction.
What surprised you while studying history?
Firstly, how the narratives were dominated by men. Some were facts and some were figments of their imagination, nevertheless it has added to what the dance is today and the to prevalent idioms and conventions of practice of belly dance.Secondly, given its popularity among Americans and Europeans, it is surprising that not many high-quality studies have been done in this field.
Common myths about the art?
There are many! The list would be really long! But one which I must mention would be how increasingly belly dance is seen as an all “women space”. This is historically inaccurate and leads to marginalisation of groups. And ofcourse, the most common misconception would be how belly dance is viewed as a titillating art form only for the male gaze. This idea has been questioned by a lot of dancers in the past and notion is increasingly changing.
Any lesser known, accomplished belly dancers in India? Or were there such women in our history?
There are many accomplished dancers and practitioners today and it has been embraced by men and women with great enthusiasm. Going back to Indian history, one among the many theories on the origins of belly dance is the gypsy trail. And much evidence shows that the origin of the gypsies were from the Punjab area. Gypsies travelled across Europe and mid-west Asia and several of these gypsy dance vocabularies find similarities among one another. Belly dance is highly diverse and built on a folkloric repertoire therefore the vocabulary does resonate with some gypsy dance form such as the Kalbeliya dance in Rajasthan.
What about belly dancing fascinates you?
The fact that it is one of the oldest dance forms and how it has survived and grown throughout the centuries by adapting to different cultures, people and societies.