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Nov 15, 1999


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Metro Feature

Death of a dancer

By S Kalidas

A promising young performer from Calcutta gives up on life.

I am battling the dark spaces within myself," Ranjabati Chaki Sircar wrote in an e-mail to a friend two days before she committed suicide last week. What those "dark spaces" were may never be known now, but as the art world ponders over the question marks she has left in her wake, other thoughts come to mind. Like The Statesman critic's remark in 1987 of how her performance as a soloist in Tomari Matir Kanya -- an adaptation of Tagore's Chandalika, choreographed by her mother Manjushree Chaki Sircar -- left a "permanent signature on memory".

The words take on a whole new meaning now, for in her brilliant if incomplete turn on stage, this 36-year-old from Calcutta has left behind a host of memories both as a woman and a performer. On the face of it Ranjabati had everything going for her. Tall and beautiful with a stunning figure, she was toasted by critics and accepted as a major presence on the Indian contemporary dance scene. Just back home from a tour of Europe, she was all set to take over the Dancers' Guild, the repertory set up by her ailing mother and was about to premiere her new work, Vajra Yogini, in Delhi and Calcutta. The accolades were also coming in: Ranjabati had won the London Dance and Performance Award and was a strong contender for this year's Sanskriti Award.

But the tough public persona was, in retrospect, a mask for a vulnerable woman, the existence of which few of her admirers suspected. "This tragedy should raise the question of what our society does to a performer who does not fit into the mould of average mediocrity," says Sharada Ramanathan, a close friend.

Ranja, as she was called by friends, did not fit any mould. She was an atypical dancer and a highly individualistic woman in her personal life. She reconfigured the elements of Kathakali, Bharatnatyam and Chhau to create a style that was completely her own. But with the space for contemporary dance in India so limited, the fight over turf was vicious. "Despite its cosmopolitan facade, Calcutta can be stiflingly parochial and had Ranja been anywhere but Calcutta she could have perhaps done her own thing and been her own person," says another friend, filmmaker Shohini Gosh. She is alluding perhaps to the constant brickbats that came from the die-hard traditionalists in the field and -- the one that hurt most -- even from icons of the contemporary dance establishment like Chandralekha. "It surprised her so much," says eminent critic Leela Venkatraman, "that despite all her capacity to argue and present her point forcefully, she just wilted under the attack."

But the truth is perhaps that Ranja was a victim of her own intensity. She craved excellence in art and fulfilment in womanhood. Though for her, the process of search was more important than any one performance or any one relationship.

On the personal front, apart from the men in her tempestuous life, the most complicated was her relationship with her ageing mother. She felt responsible and yet at one level resented the burden of carrying any baggage of legacy. In fact on that fateful night before taking her life, she called her host from the airport to say that she had lost her baggage. Only when they found her dead, did they realise that she meant it metaphorically. She had checked in her baggage but checked out on life.

Living Media India Ltd