A Waacking Display of Form and Energy
Sangram is a movement enthusiast with a love for performance, who is currently involved as a creator and associate artist with multiple collectives based in Kolkata and elsewhere. He derives his source of movement from a 70s club-style, namely Waacking/Whacking, and is curious to understand how to contemporize the movement. Sangram is a KCC Dance Fellow 22-23 and presented the culmination of his fellowship through a performance on 7th April 2023 titled Waacking Kya Hain Aap Meri Jaan Lijiye. Dance critic and administrative and events head, ITC Sangeet Research Academy, Kathakali Jana’s take on the performance below.
Flushed with emotions, moods and meanings, the evening of Sangram Mukhopadhyay’s final showing of his Waacking solo work created under the aegis of the KCC Arts fellowship for 2022-23 was not just a remarkable performance. Nor was it a mere introduction to its signature air-chopping lexicon. Nor was it simple entertainment. Of course it was all of the above in ample measure. But far more importantly, Waacking Kya Hain Aap Meri Jaan Lijiye was one of the best examples I have seen of a performance drawing the audience into an interactive process of learning, participating, laughing together and being on a delightful journey of discovery. Turning the audience into a learning entity, his stimulating and colourful sharing of his year-long work intended to re-contextualise the form, acquired unusual significance.
For Sangram is a dynamo. A compelling mover and an extraordinary artiste, he draws on Waacking to bear upon his Bollywood inheritance and South Asian queer imagination to devise a performance that examines who he is as well as the context within which he chooses to situate his work. The viewer is effortlessly borne along on a tide of high-octane movements with whiplash displacement of air, extraordinary moments of high drama, humour, blurred gender identities and an awareness of social sensitivities by Sangram’s lustrous dancing, storytelling and spontaneous communication. The performance attempted to look at the shape of Waacking not only as he has received it from its 50-odd years of history originating in protest to oppression and quest for freedom, but also to see how it relates to the shape of where he is now.
If we were to look at the various things that Sangram did in his presentation that evening, we would end up drawing quite a long list. He danced luminously, stirring the audience with his exhilarating power and the edgy aesthetics of his form. He spoke eloquently about the history of Waacking starting from its origin in the ‘70s in the gay clubs of Los Angeles to the various streams into which it has branched out, transforming as it travelled far from its place of origin to reach its resurgence in South East Asia. He changed costumes on stage many times over to add significance to the roles he played. He danced on heels up and down the steps of the amphitheatre venue with eye-popping flamboyance. He exhibited stunning leg work and arabesques. He gave lessons in technique, showing how the hands, arms, elbows and shoulder are to be placed and flailed. He answered questions on his form and practice to disseminate knowledge and propagate the form. He cast magic upon the space and transformed its art-gallery feel to a warm clubby ambience, offering an experience that would not be easy to forget. He channelled his inner diva with extraordinary feminine flair and left the audience gaping with his panache.
The incredible speed of the arm movements might remind one of tribal rituals. Rightly so, for the genre did reference African dance forms and was intended as a positive expression of anger or release of pent-up emotion. But the expressive, sinuous, free and flowing form also relies heavily on posing and clever improvisation. Back where Waacking began, gay men would be inspired by Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe to move their arms and pose in time with the music. For Sangram, however, the inspiration comes from Rekha – the intent is clearly indicated in the name of the performance derived from a haunting song from the iconic 1981 film Umrao Jaan – and other prima donnas who shimmered with their oomph in Bollywood numbers of love and joy.
But Sangram’s curiosity takes him well beyond the limits of an individual activity. Through the art form of Waacking, he sought to look at deeper and more pervasive questions of how the iconography of the street dance form, received from another culture and born historically out of systematic subjugation, could become a part of his own identity and expression. He chose to examine how the technique of the form could comfortably be placed within the dance ecology of this part of the world without having to be categorised as a subset. The fact that Sangram left much of the choice of songs to his audience allowed him to display the multiple opportunities for innovation within its technique. The dance is open enough to allow for infinite choices of dance moves and lets everybody have enough agency in the process. Sangram validated both its high ceiling and low floor. If it began as the vocabulary of gay men ostracised by society to express themselves freely, today it is about fighting for one’s rights. It could simply be about owning oneself, however different from the “norm” they may be.
In the spirit of the social and community nature of the form, Sangram ended with a little workshop on the wind-milling technique of the arms. It was directed at demystifying the genre in order to take it forward by sharing and co-creating from impulses within one’s own emotions and daily living. The evening eventually came to an end, but it left behind powerful memories.
Photographs by KCC.
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Kathakali Jana is the administrative and events head at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy. Besides her day job, she also works as a freelance feature writer and dance reviewer for several print and online publications and has contributed to The Telegraph in Kolkata (as a regular reviewer of dance and music), Deccan Herald in Bangalore and Sunday MidDay in Mumbai (newspapers), The TOI-Crest, The Week and Tehelka among others.