This past Thursday, a group of internationally renowned dancers travelled from Amsterdam to Wellesley to perform “Lalla Rookh.” Choreographed by Shailesh Bahoran, “Lalla Rookh” is comprised of a unique blend of breakdancing, hip-hop and traditional Indian dance that transports viewers on an emotional and gripping journey through history.
After the abolition of slavery in 1863, there was a growing demand for new labor on plantations. The historical ship Lalla Rookh, the namesake of this performance, transported the first group of indentured laborers from India to Suriname in 1873. These travelers were extremely poor, lacking in possessions and desperate to uncover a better life for themselves in South America. They believed they were travelling to the land of God and were disappointed when the ship docked in Suriname and they were told they would become indentured servants. Bahoran, who was born in Suriname, was inspired by the story of these travellers and beautifully choreographed this piece to capture their powerful journey.
His dancers portray the hardships of laborers searching for their new identities in a strange land. The performance opens with the six dancers sitting cross-legged in a circle. They wear simple outfits that reflect the signature garb of South Asian migrant laborers. They are seated around the only prop in the performance, a minimalist cube frame. The dancers begin to make simple gestures to traditional Indian music with Sanskrit chants. The space feels meditative and calm, but the peace doesn’t last for long. The ship travels through stormy seas, and the dancers demonstrate agony and struggle with rough movement, such as popping and locking. Particularly moving was a section in which two male dancers interlock their bodies. Their movements appear to defy gravity as they transfer their weight between one another. Bahoran does not hold back in his choreography and is unafraid to evoke difficult themes. Late in the journey, a young woman is disrobed and assaulted by her male companions. This scene draws from a myth from the Indian epic, the Mahabharata. Another traveller dies from the physical and mental exhaustion that comes with the journey. His death results in a powerful scene where his weeping companions consecrate his body with droplets of water. Although many elements in “Lalla Rookh” are heavy and difficult to process, Bahoran also incorporates moments of hope and rebirth. Each dancer has the opportunity to showcase their individual style and demonstrate their character’s strength and determination for survival.
The soundtrack for “Lalla Rookh” was actually created simultaneously with the dance steps, allowing for a particularly powerful amalgam of movement and sound. The ticking of a metronome seamlessly blends with sacred sounds of chanting voices, and inflections in the music match the movements of the dancers. Through a unique blend of movement, simplistic props and a well chosen soundtrack, “Lalla Rookh” conveys a brutally honest account of a moment in history.
Bahoran has also explored his culture through other choreography. Earlier in the day, he performed a solo for students in Tishman Commons. This piece, entitled “Heritage” conveys his struggle to find himself among various identities. Bahoran was born in Suriname and raised in the Netherlands but feels closely connected to his Indian roots. He had difficulty expressing the cultural divide he felt until, at the age of 15, he discovered that dance could provide him with a form of expression that came more naturally than words. Bahoran’s performance of “Heritage” incorporated aspects of both Western and Indian dance forms. This mixture of styles allowed him to showcase his immense strength and power and the emotional struggle of determining one’s identity. Bahoran has encountered recent success and now travels the world expressing himself through dance.
Shailesh Bahoran and his dancers are members of various performing companies and competition teams and occasionally reunite when asked to perform this piece. “Lalla Rookh” was the third in the series “Global India: Aesthetics & Performance” presented by the Suzy Newhouse Center for the Humanities.