Kaberi Chatterjee

Kaberi Chatterjee as Shyama
Kaberi Chatterjee as Shyama

Kaberi Chatterjee is one of the leading traditional Manipuri dancers of her generation. She is also an authority on the Tagore dance form. With her doctoral thesis on the influences of different dance styles on the Tagore dance form, she became the first person to obtain a PhD in Dance from Visva-Bharati University and she is one of only a handful of people to have received a PhD in Dance from an Indian university.

Having pursued her passion for dance since childhood, Kaberi has performed extensively in India and toured Japan, Bangladesh and Europe. She has been a lead dancer in a show for the Indian Parliament in the presence of India’s Vice-President and also on Indian national television. She devised and choreographed Kaberi’s Indian dance workout and performed the title roles in film versions of the dance-dramas Chitrangada, Chandalika and Shyama by Rabindranath Tagore (1913 Nobel Prize for Literature).

Kaberi is a rare example of an Indian classical dancer who has also studied dance to a high academic level. Dance has been central to her life since she was three and she has specialised in Manipuri and Tagore dance, the two styles which she has found best suit her personality.

Kaberi grew up in Santiniketan, home of the Visva-Bharati University founded by Tagore . Her dancing talents were clear from an early age and she gave her first performance (a duet and a group dance) for an audience of over 100 people when she was four in a town near Kolkata (Calcutta) called Siuri.

Since then, Kaberi has given many dance recitals in various functions, festivals and cultural programmes.  She has danced the title roles in various major productions of all three of Tagore’s dance-dramas.  She has also danced the lead roles in his musicals Thasher Desh, Bhanushinger padabali, Shaapmochon, Basanta and Mayar khela (which she also choreographed).

In parallel with her performing career, before starting her PhD research, she had obtained 1st class Bachelors and Masters degrees in Manipuri dance from Visva-Bharati University.

Kaberi first learned Manipuri dance from Madhab Mukherjee, who had learned Manipuri dance in Manipur.  She then started to take private dance classes from K Jiten Singh, who had come to Santiniketan from Manipur as a student and then became a Manipuri dance teacher there.

Throughout her student life, Kaberi performed Manipuri and Tagore dance in the weekly Sahitya Shobha (open air shows by and for Santiniketan students to help them become more stage-free). She also performed in the various annual celebrations in Santiniketan which regularly attract over 100,000 people to Santiniketan and which are also broadcast live on TV.

As an undergraduate, she studied Manipuri dance with A Amubi Singh, who had learned Manipuri dance from his father in Manipur and who came to Santiniketan as a Reader in Manipuri dance. She also took Kathakali dance as a subsidiary subject, being taught by T Shankar Narayan, Sadanam Harikumar and TS Vasunni. In addition, she took private Bharatanatyam dance classes with T Shankar Narayan.

From 1993, she started to take special Manipuri theory classes from A Amubi Singh until his death in 1996.  She won the 1994-96 Indian national scholarship for the Manipuri dance known as Ras. Guru Singhajit Singh was one of the examiners. During this period, she was taught Manipuri dance by Y Hemant Kumar Singh and K Sunita Singh. She was invited by Manipuri dancer and choreographer Debjani Chaliha to perform at the Uday Shankar dance festival in Kolkata (Calcutta) in 1996.

Kaberi has been on tour in Japan twice at the invitation of the Mayor of Ujiie as part of a Japan/India cultural exchange in 1999 and in 2001. During her second visit to Japan, she gave a 2-hour workshop for 750 Japanese schoolchildren in Ujiie as well as a workshop for adults at the Indian Embassy in Tokyo. She was also invited to perform in Bangladesh for the Manipuri Sahitya Sangshad in Sylhet and in Dhaka in 2000 and in 2002.

She performed the title roles in the authentic film versions of Shyama (2009), Chandalika (2011) and Chitrangada (2012), which form the Tagore dance film trilogy directed by Obhi Chatterjee. In 2012, she led a team of dancers from Santiniketan to perform Shyama at the Cairo Opera House, Alexandria Opera House and three other major theatres in Egypt. The successful tour was the finale of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations’ 150th Tagore birth anniversary celebrations there.

Kaberi has given a number of Manipuri classes to undergraduates and Masters degree level dance students at Sangeet Bhavan. She has also taught and choreographed Tagore dance for the students for different festivals organised by Visva-Bharati University, such as the spring festival (Dol).

Her forthcoming book Tagore dance draws on her PhD thesis and includes behind-the-scenes photographs from the feature films Chitrangada, Chandalika and Shyama. In June 2020, she launched the Online Sahityasabha series.