For several local dancers, months of hard work finally paid off at the annual Rasa Festival in Ypsilanti on Saturday—work as tedious and rewarding as, say, a science experiment.
Among the performers were U-M PhD students in biochemistry and civil engineering, as well as two recent or incoming postdocs. These four scientists are part of Akshara—an Ann Arbor dance group directed by Sreyashi Dey. Akshara has produced the Rasa Festival for three years, uniting artists from across disciplines in an annual celebration of Indian art.
“Working with students from U-M has been very rewarding,” said Dey, one of the foremost dancers in her field. “They’re taking this on in addition to their already-busy lives because they love it.”
Dey teaches and specializes in Odissi—one of eight Indian classical dance forms, with origins in the eastern region of the country. Most of her students, she explained, come from other dance backgrounds, beginning their childhood training with more common styles like Bharatanatyam and Kathak.
This is certainly true for Soumi Ghosh, who has trained in Bharatanatyam since age four. Now a PhD student in biochemistry, she can’t imagine her life without dance.
Almost three years ago, Ghosh and her roommate—dancer and civil engineering PhD student Sampurna Datta—approached their now-guru after one of Dey’s Odissi performances. Ghosh and Datta had just started living together as roommates, their friendship founded on a love for dance.
“[Ghosh] was performing with Michigan Sahana at the time, which is a classical Indian dance group here on campus,” Datta explained. “I already knew her, but I went to one of her shows and thought she danced really well. I realized she was passionate about dancing like me...that’s when we really clicked.”
When the two friends attended Dey’s show together, they didn’t know they’d be leaving with a plan to learn a new style of dance.
“I started learning Kathak when I was really small,” Datta said. “When I got older, I was exposed to Odissi, which attracted me because of its grace. I never knew when I was coming here for a PhD that I’d be learning a dance form I’d always wanted to learn.”
“It’s just so graceful,” said Asmita Bhattacharya, a U-M researcher in molecular biology who will begin her postdoc here in the fall. “It really requires you to take your time learning every single step.”
Bhattacharya has also been dancing since she was young. Like Ghosh, she started with Bharatanatyam. When she was in high school, she decided to start learning Odissi.
“It’s beautiful, but it also has a bold personality to it,” Bhattacharya explained. “The bottom half of the body is supposed to be very masculine, for stability and power. The top half is delicate and feminine, for grace and poise.”
But when Bhattacharya matriculated to Cornell for her PhD, she couldn’t find an Odissi teacher. It wasn’t until she came to U-M that she realized she could reconnect with Odissi in the States.
“The first time I saw [Ghosh and Datta] dance, I thought it was absolutely amazing,” Bhattacharya recalled. “They put me in touch with Sreyashi [Dey], and I was very impressed with the way she teaches, and the way she dances herself.”
Recently, Bhattacharya has started to supplement her Odissi practice with tap classes at the Dance Theatre Studio in downtown Ann Arbor. Tap, like Odissi, requires flexibility in the calves and ankles—something she felt she was missing as an Odissi beginner.
“Odissi steps that required core strength were very hard for me initially,” she added. “But now, when I feel myself doing those steps with less difficulty, I’m like, those supplementary classes are kicking in!”
“That’s why I was able to meet you downtown today, actually.” She grinned, holding up her gym bag. “I’m headed to a cardio-tap class at 6:30.”
On Balance and Culture
Much like the other U-M scientists in the group, Bhattacharya has to plan her experiments ahead of time. She spends an average of twelve hours in the lab every day.
“I’ll put my mice on fasting for two hours and run to dance,” Bhattacharya said. “Afterward, I’ll return to the lab. Time management is hard, but I’ve noticed that, if I stop doing these dances on the side, my research also suffers.”
Shubhadra Pillay, a postdoc in biological chemistry at the medical school, echoed Bhattacharya’s sentiment.
“I always felt that, if I put in the time and effort, I can manage both. I’ve always been a person who likes to be balanced. I love science, and I love my job. But the arts are a big part of my life as well.”
Pillay grew up in a multi-cultural community in Malaysia. As a third-generation Indian woman in the country, dance was a way for her to connect with her Indian roots.
“I’ve been dancing since I was 26,” said Pillay. “I always picked dance whenever I had extracurricular opportunities in school, but 26 was when I began my formal training.”
Now 38, Pillay received her PhD in structural biology from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Since then, she’s lived and worked in Goettingen, Germany and Montreal, Canada.
“In my PhD days, dance was the one thing I felt kept me normal, instead of being a lab rat...stuck in a lab all day without really seeing people,” she said. “My research had 12-18 hour time points, so I’d schedule my experiments in advance to make it to dance class. But it was worth it.”
“I began my Odissi training at the Temple of Fine Arts in Malaysia. Since then, Singapore is the only other place I’ve been able to find an Odissi teacher. That is, besides Ann Arbor.”
June 15th marked Pillay’s first Rasa Festival, as well as her first performance with Akshara. She and Bhattacharya both performed in the “Basant Pallivi,” an energetic celebration of springtime.
“The dance is based entirely on rhythmic structure,” said Festival MC Aparna Khanolkar in her introduction of the piece. She compared the way the dance unfolds and intensifies over its duration to “the tendrils of a creeper.”
Pillay and Bhattacharya left the stage with three more Akshara dancers after a buoyant performance, leaving the audience nostalgic for springtime. After a booming round of applause, Dey was introduced for a solo performance about a forbidden love affair.
“Rumors of their love spread through the city,” Khanolkar narrated as Dey danced, her expressions ranging from fearful to playful, from wide-eyed to smirking.
Ghosh and Datta were next. Dancer Ayishwariya Premanathan took the stage with the young U-M scientists, but not before the MC gave a brief synopsis of the piece, entitled “Naba Durga.”
“[Durga] represents strength and is known as the benevolent mother,” Khanolkar said, highlighting one of the dance’s central tensions. “[She’s] the one who destroys evil, the one who loves, the one who fights.”
Khanolkar’s introduction mirrored Datta’s view of the piece. Datta described Durga as “the global epitome of women’s empowerment.” She believed people would understand this particular performance regardless of where they come from or how much they know about dance.
“We were rehearsing and Soumi [Ghosh] was like, I think people are going to connect with this piece really well. We all agreed with her. It’s a mixture of both pure dance and drama, so you get to see a lot of action onstage apart from the dance.”
They were right. As soon as the trio took the stage, the tension between the goddess’s motherly and protective qualities was clear. Ghosh and Datta acted as narrators, while Premanathan, their dance partner, performed as Durga herself.
Durga is said to take nine different forms, and the trio demonstrated all of these throughout “Naba Durga.” Datta, for example, would twist her face into a tense, serious expression, while Ghosh would curl her arm and flutter her eyelashes as if she were looking lovingly at a child.
After the performance, Khanolkar asked, “How many of you felt the flow of shakti [strength] in the room?” The audience whooped and cheered in response.
After all, ‘strong’ is the perfect word for these four female scientists. While time management, scientific prowess, and artistic dedication all contribute to their successes, there’s something else at play: the strength and self-love it takes to choose both health and professional growth.
“My friends sometimes ask me why I’m always so happy,” Datta said, laughing. “My response is, because that’s the way of life I’ve chosen. If I was only studying and researching, I don’t think I would grow as a person.”