Tagore inspires Fringe dance


“Tagore is really revered in the East and he has a Western following, but the average Westerner doesn’t know of him as they do other artists. He was the first non-Westerner to win a Nobel Prize, in 1913 — at the turn of the century was when he was really prolific,” Bidisha Dasgupta, of 11th and Emily streets, said. “He is to the East what Shakespeare is to the West. He’s really, really big.”

The poet Rabindranath Tagore is an inspiration to Dasgupta, who is a performer of traditional Indian dances, most prominently trained in Bharatanatyam. For the upcoming 2012 Fringe Festival, Dasgupta is drawing inspiration from Tagore and a Western icon to present Indian dance to the Philadelphia audience with her show, “Einstein/Tagore: Seashore of Endless Worlds.”

“The first time Tagore and Einstein met was in 1926 in Berlin. They were introduced by a common friend who thought, ‘You are the big thinkers of our time. You should meet,’” Dasgupta said. “I’m also a scientist and [their conversation] was something that really triggered my interest in the scientific view of humanity and how does religion and human consciousness tie-in to the world around us.

“The transcripts of their conversations from the 1920s to ’30s are really well recorded and it was the inspiration for the pieces, a theme based around these conversations.”

Her one-woman show, which will feature modern- and folk-dance techniques as well as her signature traditional Indian styles of Bharatanatyam and Rabindra Nritya, will be showcased Sept. 14 to 22 at Twelve Gates Arts, an Old City gallery.

“I had an issue of what kind of venue I would want. I didn’t want the first iteration being in a big, black box theater setup. I wanted something more intimate,” the 34-year-old, who hopes to move the show to larger audiences after the Fringe, said. “I really like this gallery’s vision, as well. Their art and philosophy really spoke to me. They mainly have Southeast Asian art, but they are into connecting to other cultures, so I approached them and asked if they would be willing to be the venue for show.”

The gallery agreed, and Dasgupta is putting her full effort behind producing the event — her first self-produced showcase of original works — and hoping to bring awareness to philosophical questions Tagore and Einstein explored.

“What I want people to take away is the idea of breaking down cross-cultural barriers to see that language and music and art go across the stereotypes we have, to find the community of humanity that exists,” she said. “This is what came out of their conversations.”

In the suburbs of Boston, Mass., Dasgupta always felt the pull of the arts.

“My mom always says I learned to dance before I learned to walk,” Dasgupta said. “I took to it naturally; I wanted to be in it.”

Dasgupta was enrolled at Nrityanjali School of Dance, with the teacher Jothi Raghavan, and she took immediately to the elements of the ancient style.

“It’s primarily a solo art form. People who are professional dancers perform it usually in concerts of pieces that are very technical and ones that really tell a story,” Dasgupta said. “There are a lot of poses and rhythmic footwork and there is a big storytelling component to the art form, so the performer may act out the words to the song.”

Though she excelled at dance, Dasgupta harbored a love of academia and sciences that led her to graduate in 1999 with a bachelor’s in biology from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

“[At Case Western,] I did a lot of folk dance and I was very active with the ballroom dance team. I was exposed to a lot of other different dance styles,” she said.

Upon graduation Dasgupta moved to New York City to complete a Ph.D. in immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College. In the decade she spent completing her studies and beginning a professional career, she also saw the growth of her dance résumé.

“During that time I was involved with a lot of dance in New York as well. One of the highlights was a company called eyeBLINK. I was their dance director for two years,” she said. “It was a multidisciplinary and multicultural group. Indian dance was a big part of the company, but we worked to find a common language between different cultural art forms.”

A job at a large pharmaceutical company offered Dasgupta the chance to move south to Philadelphia in 2008. She and husband Jeffrey Stanley — who is also an artist — were wary of what they would find.

“When I came here, it was a big transition for me. I was apprehensive and I knew nothing. We were wondering, ‘What is the art scene?’” she said. “My husband and I were thrilled, and found it more engaging and we were liking it here more than New York.

“It’s very diverse and it’s really not pretentious. There is a lot of really experimental art and it’s very appreciated. I love the fact that — at a lot of places I performed in New York, you get the same demographic that comes to all your shows … But here there is a really diverse audience of people with families or with some person who found out about it from a neighbor through word-of-mouth.”

Balancing her professional and artistic lives, she realized a move from her and Stanley’s Art Museum area apartment was necessary when the couple got news that they were expecting a son.

“We came to it with an open mind and of all the places we looked at, the family and community feeling we got in South Philly was the strongest. We liked that it was diverse in age and multicultural,” Dasgupta, who gave birth to Ishan in March 2011, said. “We love food. It’s a good food destination.”

Settled into their place for about a year, the family is gearing up for Dasgupta’s return to the stage, as she took a hiatus from performing during the pregnancy. With Stanley as her “right-hand man” putting together the performance, she is excited to showcase the traditional dance styles and expand the artistic community she recently joined.

“I hope a lot of proponents of Indian dance come to see a traditional art form they are familiar with being performed in a new light,” Dasgupta said. “And then I hope people who are completely unfamiliar get exposed to the poetry and music of Tagore, who is not as well-known to Westerners.” SPR

Contact the South Philly Review at editor@southphillyreview.com.