Profile: Raka Maitra

Published on 31 August 2015

Internationally-acclaimed dancer Raka Maitra is both Bengali and Singaporean, championing classical Odissi dance while exploring contemporary norms.

BY jo tan

Raka Maitra is perplexing to pigeonhole. Is she classical or contemporary? A dancer or a multi-disciplinary artist? The conundrum comes from her being, on one hand, an award-winning, internationally-acclaimed dancer in classical Indian Odissi, one largely responsible for elevating local awareness and interest in the dance form with performances and classes; but on the other, a choreographer celebrated for regularly deconstructing and fusing Odissi with other disciplines like Chhau, Indian martial-arts, yoga, and even literature and multilingual theatre.

“I love Odissi, but it was good to leave India in 2005, following my husband to Singapore where I’m not known as an Odissi dancer. I developed my own unique vocabulary,” Maitra explains. “I did almost purely contemporary work when I first arrived, but after choreographing dancers from a Western ballet background and deciding, okay, that looks different from what I want, I decided to train my CHOWK dancers in Odissi, to use as a basic foundation for a larger dance vocabulary.” Founded in 2007, by Maitra, CHOWK is a centre for dance.

While Maitra may be tough to classify, her new collaborators are people she feels get pigeonholed all too quickly: Bengali migrant labourers. “I’m a Singapore Citizen now and wanted to do something for SG50, but I didn’t know what. Then I heard about the first Migrant Workers Poetry Competition and when I read some of the poems — especially those in my native Bengali — they were extremely beautiful and moving, about longing and belonging.

“Even though I’ve made Singapore my home, I related very strongly to one poem about the people, childhood and memories you leave behind in another land. And I thought, yes, here’s an SG50 work I can do, and people to do it with. So From Another Land came about.”

Accordingly, Maitra is working very closely with two of the Bengali migrant worker/poets. They also perform in the piece and spend their precious weekly days-off training and rehearsing with CHOWK. Exclaims Maitra, “They’re naturals! Many people forget these are not just invisible labourers. Both my collaborators dabbled in theatre back home and one was a poet and journalist. In Bengal, everybody learns music, reads poetry and watches theatre from childhood, it’s part of our culture.”

Maitra is providing From Another Land tickets to her collaborators’ work-site colleagues. “I wanted 50 per cent of the audience of this SG50 show to be migrant workers, so we got people to sponsor tickets for them,” says Maitra. “After all, I should know that you can come from another land and be a significant part of Singapore, too.”

From Another Land is on at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, 11 & 12 September

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