Monday, May 14, 2007

Ranja Sircar: Creativity unlimited

Sometime back The Telegraph in Kolkata had an article on college and university campuses and some of the places and people who had almost become part of the folklore for the generations of students who have studied there. The article had stirred up quite a movement on the blog world with lots of people going on nostalgic trips about their own student days in Kolkata and elsewhere. While the article was mostly about the canteens and the 'addas', there's a person I can think of who's almost like a part of the legends of my years at Jadavpur University. Ranjabati Sircar will probably be remembered as an extremely talented dancer and choreographer, but at JU in the mid 1980s, Ranja was a symbol of beauty, talent and brains. She was the kind of girl on campus who drew the largest amount of male attention and again it she who topped the BA & MA exams at our English department and was awarded the UGC scholarship. In fact, the story goes that when Ranja was sent by senior professors of the English department to teach a class of engineering students an optional English paper, the entire faculty turned up and even ex-students wanted to join the class. The university authorities had to move the class - which had very poor attendance in the past - to a gallery, which had the maximum seating capacity.

While Ranja was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful girls on campus for many years, she was also cerebral, liberal, articulate and intelligent. Dancing was probably the passion of her life, but she was also a participant at debates, an active member of the super-intellectual film club and always among the main organisers of literary seminars and workshops. I remember a seminar on the poetry of TS Eliot where my classmates and me had heard Ranja making strong and relevant points after an overseas speaker had finished reading his paper. I don't really recall the details of the topic, but Ranja in an orange and green sari, with the trademark long bindi on the wide forehead had mesmerised all of us with her intellect and her grace. In fact, her fan following was both among girls and boys in college.

After her tragic death some years ago, I had written a tribute to her for the weekend section of The Economic Times in Kolkata (with my former colleague Madhumita Mookherjee). Unfortunately, I seem not to have kept a cutting of that article, which one of my colleagues had headlined very aptly: Amazing Grace. But the people who I had spoken to while doing that article had all provided rare glimpses into her truly amazing life. While Ranja and her mother Manjushri Chaki Sircar will definitely be remembered as the founders of Dancers' Guild and pioneers of a new movement in modern Indian dance - Ranja also belongs to the JU folklore and there have been very few like her who have made such a deep impact on fellow students.

Ranja topped in class and was a thinking and socially conscious being. She was also deeply artistic and creative. While on one hand she was travelling overseas for dance performances very often, she also joined the student protest movements which were very much a part of our campus life and again she was always there to donate blood at voluntary camps. And the adda sessions at the famous JU 'lobby' were never quite complete without her. So when her classmate and film-maker Mainak Biswas (now a faculty member of JU's school of film studies) made a short film called Grafitti shot on the campus, it was no surprise that Ranja was one of the protagonists. A shot from the film which had Ranja walking down the little bridge that separated the engineering and arts faculties of our university - had a poster with Pablo Neruda's poetry as the backdrop. The lines of the poem are etched in my mind forever - I want to do with you, what spring does to the cherry trees. She was a role model for many of us, her juniors and everything she did was different and unique. Ranja dressed differently and always managed to look stunning - "daring but not decollete" as her friend and film-maker Mandira Mitra had described to me after her death. I always felt that Ranja had the beauty and grace to make it big in films or modelling if she had wished to.

But that was not Ranja - she was a dancer, a literary person and even a college professor for some years. Dr Jasodhara Bagchi, our professor at JU, had shared with me her last meeting with Ranja in London, when they had watched Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth together. "We discussed the dance genre of that age afterwards, it was a very lively discussion and I had no premonition that I would never see her again," Dr Bagchi had remembered. Needless to say that Ranja was among her most favourite students in university. A lot has been written about Ranja's dance and choreographic career - but for me she was much more than just a famous dancer. Ranja was the symbol of a modern woman who lived life and perhaps even ended it on her own terms. She was beautiful and intelligent. She was literary and very well read. An old dog-eared and pretty tattered copy of the bold American novel: The Women's Room, that had been passed on to me by a friend's sister and which I had never got around to returning, is still a part of my collection of books. It belonged to Ranja and has her name written in bold letters on the flyleaf. Honestly, I don't regret not returning it - in fact it's symbolic that a book on the early days of feminism, that belonged to Ranja should end up with me, since I've always considered myself a fan of hers.

When I had written the article as a tribute to her after her death in 1999, I had started with a quote from W.B. Yeats. Mainak Biswas, I remember had appreciated the poem as the most apt portion of my article. I hope I've been able to zero in on the same verse again this time:
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,...
O body swayed to music, O brigthening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Besides, Yeats, it will also be very apt to quote from Cassandra, which also is the name of a choreographic creation by Ranjabati. While it marked the zenith of her artistic abilities, a close friend of hers had told me that in a way it was a reflection of an artist's ultimate struggle against waning creativity, mortality, death, decay and destruction. He felt that through Cassandra, Ranja's creative soul was struggling with the onslaught of psychological despair
"Alas for human destiny! Man's happiest hours
Are pictures drawn in shadow. Then ill fortune comes,
And with two strokes the wet sponge wipes the drawing out.
And grief itself's hardly more pitiable than joy." (Cassandra in Aeschylus' Agamemnon)

So when an editor in Delhi (also an ex-student of JU) had told me that my article on Ranja was not really suitable for the Delhi newspaper but should only be published in Kolkata, I was disappointed. After all Ranja was a dancer who had made an international impact and our paper did cover cultural issues during the weekend. But today I feel that the true spirit of Ranja is something to be shared only with those who lived and studied on JU campus in those heady years of the mid-1980s. She was a person who inspired those who lived those campus dreams and ideologies to the fullest. Ranja was no ordinary being and she inspired many of us to aspire and do better. And I like to think that we were a generation that didn't need to go to the malls to find inspiration. We lived and feasted on ideas that were generated on our intellectual campus.


Dipti said...

Ranja was also a very controversial person but your post does not seem to mention any of that. Personally, rather than the adulation I would have liked to learn more about the genre of dance she developed, why it was innovative, and its contributions to modern dance.

ishani said...

I know very little about dancing, and you'll have to find out more on that from other authoritative sources. In fact, Ranja was a scholar and has a whole body of writing on dancing which you may refer to if that interets you. Her specialisation for her doctorate thesis was on dance (to the best of my knowledge). In any case, this is a personal viewpoint and not a critical analysis. Personal tributes have their place in literary genres of writing as do controversial mud-slinging! Ranja inspired me in many ways, including trying to do better in my English literature graduate & post-graduate courses. That, for me, was and still is very important.

Debjani said...

I agree with Ishani that this is a personal tribute and is a really good one at that. You are able to bring out what was inspirational about Ranja and the ways in which she motivated you. As for her being a controversial figure, I think anyone who has a personality can be "made" controversial. Its not hard to generate or perpetuate controversy on a college campus, particularly if you are beautiful, talented and intelligent!