Economist-turned-belly dancer presents her latest production 'Papusza' in Bengaluru
Dancer Debapriya Das talks to Indulge about what made her choose the life of a dancer, her inspiration behind Papusza, and much more
Not every day do you get to meet people who are extraordinary in the way they carve out their own niche in art and in life. 30-year-old Debapriya Das definitely checks both boxes. Once an economist, and now a dancer, Debapriya is the founder and artistic director of Nrityakosh, an oriental and fusion belly dance school in Bengaluru. But what about belly dancing appealed to her so much that she gave up her stable job at a think tank to pursue a career in it?
Ahead of her latest production Papusza, which follows the life of a Polish-Romani poet in a culture that deemed literacy ‘unsuitable’ for women, Debapriya talks to Indulge about what made her choose the life of a dancer, and her inspiration behind 'Papusza', the state of belly dance in the contemporary times, and much more.
When did you start to learn dancing and which forms of dance did you learn initially?
Somewhere in 2015, I was diagnosed with Chondromalacia Patella and a lot of changes needed to happen because of that. I stopped my Bharatanatyam training and started to look for classes which would help in overall alignment and strength. That's when I came across the Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballet. My ballet journey started there and I continue to train with the school.
My love for classical dance led me to my Kathak guru Chitra Arvind in 2016. Six years down, I continue to train with her. Between all of these, I was continuing to travel and learn oriental dance. When I was in the US in 2018, I happened to attend a flamenco workshop. I was very intrigued by some of the similarities it shared with Middle Eastern dances and Kathak.
When and how did you get introduced to belly dancing? Tell us a bit about your journey with this dance form so far.
I started belly dancing as a hobby in 2012. But by 2014, I was seeking out opportunities to study with international teachers of Middle-Eastern music and dance. I started attending workshops by master teachers in India but realised that it would take more than a workshop to get a deeper understanding of the dance form and its associated culture. In 2015, I got an opportunity to study with one of the most reputed Egyptian percussionists Mr Hossam Ramzy. Post this, I started travelling every summer to train with the best teachers in Middle-Eastern dance and music. I started performing in 2016.
What about belly dancing appealed to you so much that you gave up a stable job to pursue a career in it?
In 2015, I attended my first international belly dance intensive in Italy. I was studying with renowned Egyptian percussionist late Hossam Ramzy. That is when, for the first time, the thought of pursuing belly dance professionally came into my mind. It took another three years of planning, studying, and travelling for this thought to mature. Finally, in 2018, I bid adieu to my professional career as an economist.
Which dancers do you consider to be your earliest artistic influences?
My earliest artistic influence was the Mamata Shankar Ballet Troupe. I happened to watch them perform in Kolkata when I was little. I don't remember a lot but I remember being enchanted by the group work. It was fascinating to watch a story being told through movements!
What are the major belly dance productions you have showcased so far?
Some of the major productions by Nrityakosh so far have been Safar-e-Raqs, M.O.V.E, and Papusza - Rise and fall of the great Romani Poet.
Safar-e-Raqs premiered in January 2018 and narrated the journey of the dance we popularly know as belly dance, a historical narrative from 1790 to the present day. It challenged the views most of us have when it comes to belly dancing. We recently revived this production in July 2022.
During the pandemic, we created M.O.V.E – an anthology of 9 stories inspired by the real lives of the dancers of Nrityakosh. The stories were of anxiety, loneliness, and separation, but also about hope of the post-pandemic future.
You have worked as a research economist in the field of poverty and development. Does these influence the kind of stories you narrate through your performances?
It does not directly influence the stories. However, I firmly believe that my education and my work experience as a researcher correlate to the thought process that goes behind the stories I tell.
Tell us about your upcoming show Papusza. What is it about?
Papusza is an 80-minute oriental dance production on the life of one of the most renowned Polish-Romani poets Bronisława Wajs, also known as Papusza. Her life is both fascinating and tragic. A path-breaker, she was a poetess in a culture that deemed literacy unsuitable for women. While her art made her the first Romani woman to be included in the Polish Literary Union, it also led to her being exiled by her own people. The production is the story of her relentless spirit and her quest for freedom to express herself through her art. It uses traditional and classical Middle-Eastern dances to narrate her story.
Where did you find the inspiration to tell this story?
I came across Papusza’s work in 2018. A Polish film on the author’s life made me interested. I started reading about her life and her work. Since most of her work was in Polish, it was quite difficult to get hold of it. In 2019, I was travelling to Budapest to attend a dance festival and there, I visited libraries to find her work. Her story resonated with me – it's a tragic story, yet empowering and hopeful.
How relevant do you think the theme of your production is in contemporary times?
I think Papusza’s story is relevant at all times. Her story is unique, however, every person will relate to her struggle of wanting to do what she loved the most and then being exiled for doing the same. Her writings were potent; years after being banished by her community her poems are studied in universities!
There are so many misconceptions about belly dancing in popular culture. Do you ever find it challenging to navigate through such prejudices?
I get this question a lot, just like most belly dancers. However, in my decade of being a belly dance professional, I haven't really faced prejudices. I have faced the challenges of being a dancer, which I am guessing will be common for every artist! Popular culture does portray belly dance in a very glamorous manner and rightly so because that is part of the art form not the entirety of it though. But this pop culture only sells it as a product to the masses, which in turn has resulted in its immense popularity. However, when students come to learn the art form, these prejudices and misconceptions dwindle within seconds.
What do you think about the belly dance scene in India in contemporary times? In terms of the stories being told through belly dance productions, do you notice any change in the landscape?
India is booming with belly dancers. There are generations of dancers who have trained with the best teachers in the world and are now bringing that learning to the newer generation of dancers. The art form is being presented to the contemporary Indian audience in a manner they can relate to but without changing its spirit. And this, I think, is exceptional! When I started teaching, belly dance was more of a hobby for most students. But now there are students who want to take it up as a career path! So, definitely, there is a positive change that I see happening in this country.
Papusza will be presented on December 4 from 7 pm at Bangalore International Centre, Domlur. For details, call at 25359680