The American Association of University Women has awarded Nandini Sikand, assistant professor of film and media studies, a postdoctoral American Fellowship for her book project, Bodies, Bells and Borders: Choreographing a New Odissi Tradition.
The work is an ethnography of how Odissi, a classical Indian dance dating from the second century B.C., has transformed from a ritual in a sacralized space to a transnational performance in a public sphere. This is a particularly relevant study, Sikand says, as India continues to gain greater prominence in world affairs.
“The history of Odissi is also a history of postcolonial India, a story of the struggle around gender, class and caste, regionalism, and globalism,” explains Sikand. “As one of eight Indian ‘classical’ dance forms, Odissi’s compelling story takes place at the intersection of colonial discourse, nationalist historiographies, and regional identities.”
Sikand questions and redresses the historiography of Odissi by linking contemporary women choreographers to the legacy of the mahari (female temple dancer). Maharis were all but erased from the dance’s history as the process of reconstruction was completed by men and middle- to upper-class women. By validating the maharis’ work and their place within the Odissi canon while questioning their disappearance from Odissi history, and consequently, the Odissi present, Sikand constructs an alternative narrative that rewrites the mahari back into the dance’s history.
Like most of Sikand’s scholarly work in teaching and film, her study of Odissi is deeply interdisciplinary, appealing to audiences in dance, anthropology, sociology, women’s and gender studies, cultural studies, and South Asian studies.
But Sikand doesn’t just approach her subject as a scholar; she also is a trained Odissi dancer. Born and raised in New Delhi, India, Sikand began her Odissi training at seven years old and most recently has studied with Guru Durga Charan Ranbir. Along with Kakoli Mukherjee, she is co-founder and co-artistic director of neo-classical Odissi and contemporary dance company Sakshi Productions.
“Working in this capacity of scholar and practitioner as an Odissi dancer renews my commitment to the community and beyond as we continually challenge each other to create new opportunities for collaboration, dialogue, and social change,” she says.
Last year, Sakshi Productions collaborated with Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company for an evening of music and dance performance at Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in New York City. Sikand danced to an original piece composed by Kirk O’Riordan, assistant professor of music, along with Carrie Rohman, assistant professor of English, who also choreographed the routine. Larry Stockton, professor and head of music and director of the Percussion Ensemble, played with the ensemble. Sikand, Andy Smith, associate professor of English and chair of film and media studies, and a team of students also created a short film used during the production.