Obituary: Ranjabati Sircar

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IT TAKES courage, vision and tenacity to challenge the centuries- old classical traditions, especially in India. Ranjabati Sircar was resolute in her conviction that the classical dances of India perpetuated a social and political value system that was no longer defensible. She set about creating a contemporary dance language, which she called Navanritya (new dance); it was totally contemporary and totally South Asian, and it offered a direct challenge to Eurocentric notions of modernism.

Sircar was at home in East and West. Born in Nigeria, and spending her youth in New York state before attending university in Bengal, she made her base her parents' city of Calcutta, but her research, lecturing, teaching and performance work frequently took her to Africa, North and South America, Britain, France and Scandinavia. Her spiritual home, though, was India. She was deeply moved by the poetry of Bengali literature, inspired by early philosophy, and nourished by practising the mind-body principles of yoga.

Sircar was a powerful, enigmatic performer, mostly dancing solo, but occasionally collaborating with dancers and musicians from around the world. In 1992, Judith Mackrell in The Independent said of her London performance in the Vivarta festival, "In the grounded simplicity of her movements, Sircar discovers an extraordinarily eloquent range of expression."

She drew on Indian folk and martial-arts forms as well as yoga and elements of classical dance to form the basis of Navanritya. It is both a training system for a new generation of dancers and an expressive contemporary performance form. It offers young dancers a strong yet flexible movement language.

In Britain Sircar was a huge inspiration, working extensively with young dancers, particularly in 1992 on the Time Out/Dance Umbrella award-winning debut by Yuva, Britain's national South Asian youth company, and later in the Sampad production Oblique, both of which toured the country. She encouraged young dancers to reflect on the origin and implicit meanings of particular movement, supporting them in their individual search for a relevant and meaningful language of the body.

"Ranja" was a loyal friend to a network of colleagues, artists, and people she met across the globe. She was an effective mediator between India and the West, welcoming colleagues to India and putting them in contact with other key figures in the Indian dance world. She presented papers at international conferences and wrote extensively in newspapers, magazines and specialist journals.

She was completing a book, Navanrity: towards contemporary Indian dance, when she died. I hope that it will be published so that dancers may continue to benefit from her inspiring intelligence.

Ranjabati Sircar, dancer, choreographer and teacher: born Nsuqqa, Nigeria 29 March 1963; died Bombay, India 24 October 1999.