‘Storytelling through Dance’ with Rukshana Tabassum

On the 18th of October, 2021, the students at SCMC had the pleasure of interacting with Ms. Rukshana Tabassum during her lecture demonstration on the “Art of Storytelling Through Dance.”

Ms. Tabassum is a woman of many talents: a writer, director, dancer, painter – she has her feet planted firmly in the arts. An alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India, the two-time National Film Award winner has directed many films including The Cake Story and Apples and Oranges, both of which brought the nod from the National Film Award jury. Ms. Tabassum has also directed television commercials for brands such as Reliance, Godrej, and Nestle.

Dressed in traditional Bharatanatyam garb, she started her presentation by telling the students that she was at FTII as a student of dance, and not as a filmmaker.  While she began learning dance from a young age, an academic family background ensured that she prioritized studies over the pursuit of art. It was only later, while studying filmmaking at FTII, that Ms. Tabassum began to reconnect with dance. She was able to relate a lot of aspects of dance to filmmaking, and further cemented that connection by assisting notable director, Kumar Shahani, with a dance film. Later, she went on to make a dance film called Vaishnava— Being Humane; which made the rounds at various major film festivals. She has now completed her advanced diploma in Bharatanatyam from NalandaNritya Kala Mahavidyalaya, Mumbai.

Ms. Tabassum furthered the discussion, by first screening a documentary called Living Stories: Storytelling Traditions of India that explored how traditional Indian art forms were centered around stories and narrations. She went on to take students through the history of one of these art forms— dance— but made sure to provide different points of view of this history, wanting students to get a broader perspective. One viewpoint of the inception of Bharatanatyam, in particular, is that its original sources are the Natyashastra by Bharata Muni and the Abhinaya Darpana by Nandikeshwara. However, another viewpoint claims that it is descended from the traditions of hereditary courtesan dance communities and revivalist movements during the time of British occupation, shifting the dance form to the domain of upper-caste brahmin communities.

The lecture-demonstration proceeded with Ms.Tabassum giving students a crash course on the elements of Bharatanatyam by explaining Nritta (pure dance), Nritya (solo expressive dance), and Natya (group dramatic dance); while delving deeper into variations in the kinds of gestures and movements that make up these dance types. Her explanation helped students understand this ancient dance form better, and helped them connect to her performance of a shabdam that was performed at the end of the lecture demonstration. Ms.Tabassum moved gracefully, with such immense expressiveness that getting to watch her perform was a delight for all the students.

After having been cooped up for more than a year indoors, and being able to attend class only on-screen, Ms. Tabassum’s lecture demonstration brought the screen alive with her live performance and interaction. As for the students, it was like being back in the seats at the SCMC auditorium again. The session left students feeling enriched and connected to their roots, while also sparking ideas for modes of alternative storytelling.

Shruti Menon
Batch 2022