A few months ago, Ellie inquired if she could interview me for an assignment and write a profile about me for a writing course. Ellie has attended various classes and events over the years and at the time was attending my online Rest and Reset classes. What an unexpected and humbling request- of course I said yes!! Here's the result of our brief Zoom chat and Ellie's wonderful efforts to make sense of my unexpected love affair with Bollywood dance. :)
Bollywood: superstars and sequins by Ellie Brady
This profile of Anjali Sengupta, titled Bollywood: superstars and sequins, was written in 2022 as part of my tertiary studies within the RMIT Associate Degree in Professional Writing and Editing.
I am a librarian and creative writing student currently living in Melbourne. I mainly write fantasy short fiction and creative non fiction stories.
Graduate of RMIT’s Visual and Performing Arts (Dance Move Therapy) Graduate Diploma, founder and director of the Aatma dance company and Embracing Spirit (Creative arts and dance movement therapy), Anjali Sengupta is in full performance makeup, sparkly green eyeshadow and dark red lipstick and wears a 1970s leopard-print coat slung over the top of her dance costume, having just finished teaching another online class of Bollywood Dance for Seniors from her home studio. On the wall behind her is a giant multi-coloured Indian mandala, indicating that her studio is a sacred space. The petals radiate in undulating colours, catching my eye as she speaks of the restorative capabilities of joyful dance. That she believes all people have an inherent capability to heal, if they are willing to go on that journey.
“I remember a student that used to come to my classes, who had many, many years of eating disorders,’ she tells me. ‘But after her first Bollywood dance session she came to me and cried at the end of the class. Because it gave her a positive body experience, a chance to feel joyful in her body. I believe that’s the potential of Bollywood dance.”
I recognise the sensation of building this much-needed inner strength as I and the other women in my class learnt moves incorporating martial arts and warrior-women moves. Because that’s what we are, right?
Since the pandemic, most of Anjali’s dance classes are conducted online. I ask her if she misses working onsite in aged care facilities, community centres and schools. She brushes her long dark hair to one side and nods, admitting to feeling the loss of the community dance events she once organised for her loyal band of students. In the past the company has danced at a son’s weddings, daughters’ birthdays, cancer fundraising, and more. These multicultural and multi-generational gatherings foster a sense of community, which Anjali observes is sometimes missing in Australian society. “Something that comes naturally in India since it is a group culture, is people coming together through music, dance, ritual and of course food!,” she says.
It’s a community connectivity Anjali hopes to reignite when she is back teaching in the studio and doing more face to face workshops and events. She grins enthusiastically, crossing her fingers for good luck.
Anjali models the coat for me—her latest vintage find—and confesses to having an addiction to op-shopping, loving nothing more than trawling second hand ‘treasure troves’ for unique items. Last week it was a pair of hot pink tights scattered with an evil eye print. I pointed out that with everything currently happening across the world, covering yourself in the evil eye was probably a good idea. She laughed and jiggled her legs about, the ‘evil eyes’ dancing hypnotically with her practiced movements.
A skilled dancer by the age of fifteen, Anjali joined a professional dance company, the Shiamak Davar Institute for the Performing Arts (SDIPA). Performing for crowds of 5000 or more was when the teenage Anjali first ‘caught the performance bug’. She worked with SDIPA as a choreographer and dancer for seven years and the global dance company has gone on to feature in movies such as Mission Impossible 2 with Tom Cruise. She acknowledges the contribution they made towards shaping the way Bollywood dance is now portrayed in Indian Films after the choreographer won the National Award for choreography for the movie that she featured in with the company.
Anjali credits the Indian education system for drawing her to dance, where, unlike here in Australia, the arts are very much integrated into the primary school system and culture. But her professional experience with Bollywood was not always positive. She grimaces dramatically and chuckles. “In India at that time, Bollywood was the worst kind of work, especially for dancers, as it was very hierarchical on the set and the dancers were on the lowest rung. We were treated the worst, worked the hardest and got paid the least. Beyond the glamour is a dark underbelly so, I had really negative associations with Bollywood.” Another challenging element of Bollywood culture was the objectification of women’s bodies, the act of dance performed solely for the male gaze.
The chance to deepen her professional and personal interest in the therapeutic benefits of dance inspired her relocation to Melbourne in 2005. It was only when Anjali began working as a Bollywood dance teacher with Manningham Council that she finally separated her less than stellar experiences with the industry from the dance form and could comprehend the joy that her cultural heritage brought to the community. “I thought I would be teaching a bunch of Indians but it turns out that wasn’t the case. It was a room full of Australians!”
Witnessing Melbournians embracing Bollywood dance, combined with her studies in dance therapy, marked a turning point in her personal attitudes towards Indian dance. She began to see Bollywood ‘through new eyes’. In Australia, she discovered a freedom to reclaim her cultural background and also “pick and choose” what to include in the Bollywood dance choreography, choosing music and rhythms that are rich with metaphors and imagery.
Anjali pulls at the space in front of her, plucking concepts from the air. “I don’t need this or this, don’t need the bit where it’s objectifying women’s bodies, instead I can use that as a way for women to reclaim their bodies.”
Years ago, I experienced Anjali’s strong involvement with the community by partaking in a fundraising dance event for HerSpace, an organisation where Anjali has been a counsellor since 2016 that offer mental health services for women who have experienced exploitation, slavery and servitude in Australia. As I worked to overcome my stage fright to dance in the event, I observed Anjali backstage coordinating professional and student dancers of Bollywood, African and Bellydance, a task that appeared not dissimilar to herding cats. But Anjali managed the scene as the consummate, encouraging professional she is.
Viewing videos of the performances again, I cringe at the total lack of skill (mine) on display, something that Anjali is quick to negate. Judgment and the criticism felt by women, both societal and self-inflicted, is something she endeavours to heal in her dance therapy practices.
“I think it is important to not have this negative feedback. The model that I started with was very much about perfection. Your hand should be here and not here - people often have very negative associations with dance and they already think they can’t dance. This is a sensitive area without me adding more judgment!”
Anjali plans to research the therapeutic potential of Bollywood dance, with the intention to apply for grants to support this research. “Bollywood dance is a great bridge. No matter your age or background or whatever you’ve been through it’s a space that encourages that kind of joyful expression.”
I recall the fun of slipping into our brightly sequined costumes, the metres of rainbow-coloured scarves we incorporated into our routines and the bags of glittering costume jewellery sent from India by her mother. “Unleash your inner superstar,” she encouraged us. I found this attitude refreshing, coming from a family of introverts and living in an adult world that deems acting like ‘a superstar’ adolescent and over the top.
“There’s no such thing as over the top in Bollywood!” Anjali intones, mock seriously, flinging her arms into the air.