Ishita Mili Shares the Story Behind Urban Indian Dance

Ishita Mili in the studio. Photo courtesy of IMGE. 

In NYC and her studio in New Jersey, Ishita Mili is reawakening dormant goddesses with her Urban Indian dance company IMGE (standing for Ishita Mili Global Exposé), which blends classical Indian dance and hip hop. Standing just under five feet tall, Ishita unapologetically takes up room onstage and off with her larger-than-life presence and the self-actualization of her dreams. When she was a medical sciences student, she took a sabbatical trip back to her family’s region in West Bengal and reclaimed her dream to start IMGE as artistic director, despite her parents’ disapproval of quitting her medical school track to become a doctor.

These days her goal is to establish Urban Indian as its own legitimate dance form with longevity, standing up next to established forms of dance. IMGE’s ideal situation is having its own off-Broadway shows, touring the world and bringing those longer intellectual conversations to different spaces. Ishita’s big dream is to work with M.I.A., which I asked her about recently.

Eva: Have you ever reached out to her?

Ishita: I haven’t actually been able to get a hold of any of her representatives so if anybody in the world has that and wants to give it to me — it would be great honestly to just meet her and talk. She represents one of the first people who has been able to create an entirely unique sound and genre inspired from South Asian and urban sounds, and, in my opinion, has done it the best. Of all the South Asian-inspired artists, she’s the one I relate to artistically the most. Every piece of music that she makes is consistently her own sound and you can see the depth of her background. It’s not just pieces of different cultures which is what a lot of art in the Southeast Asian diaspora looks like with classical, Bollywood and hip hop layered on each other as opposed to trying to break apart vocabularies, trying to pick something apart from that. I would love to work with her — any kind of visual work that she needs whether a music video or live performances — any kind of visual work would be great.

What made you realize you needed to pay attention to the discrepancy between men and women deities depicted through dance? Most people would probably just keep dancing and not even notice an issue.

Most people don’t, right? I started to get really pissed — really pissed at so many things about my situation, the stories we were telling, being told what I was allowed and not allowed to do in dance, and I pretty much exploded from anger and it was like “Fuck this situation, I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want.” Now it’s like dance has become the way I can say what I feel and what I think. There’s things that haven’t been done before that I have to do, but there are things bothering me that I want to say, and this is how I can say them.

Photo courtesy of IMGE.

You’ve had an incredible number of accomplishments in your life so far, so forgive me if this wasn’t a particularly big deal for you compared to everything else, but you worked as assistant director with the Indian Contemporary Fusion dance company Sukalyann Dance Entourage for six years. What was that like?

Actually that choreographer — Sukalyann Bhattacharya — is my uncle. He’s a full-time professional choreographer who in his own right created his own style with the dance forms presented in front of him. He’s the first generation who was able to take classical Indian dance and bring it into a new light. His style is a fusion between a bunch of different forms of different kinds of dance, as well as Indian martial arts and contemporary dance forms, so I grew up in his own version of breaking boundaries. But at the same time, being family, you saw a lot of difficulties that came with that and how hard it is to succeed in the Indian art industry where there’s a lot of stigma against artists. We’re from West Bengal — not Bollywood — in India. I might be a little spicy about the topic (people automatically associate any contemporary Indian dancing with Bollywood).

A lot of people would rip my head off for that and that’s OK.

West Bengal has its own arts industry and, in general, Bengalis are known for high standards of art. A lot of the iconic artist people are from West Bengal. Being considered artistic, they doesn’t actually show lots of support for their artists and I saw this firsthand from my uncle who is an actual celebrity from Kolkata and had a really hard time creating support for himself as an artist, so there was this kind of dichotomy growing up in this classical and fusion space where arts were highly revered and highly under-appreciated at the same time.

Like women!

Exactly! With women it’s even harder! To backtrack…growing up you had to be extremely educated about the Indian arts until you got to college and then you had to use all your artistic background as a way to get into college, and then it stopped there. And then you had to focus on school — you didn’t have to dance anymore or pursue the arts in a serious manner.

Do you write up your own contracts? How solid do you feel about the back-end clerical and organizational work?

It was a little bit of trial and error. It started as getting people in my basement and making things with them. That was about 2016 when I started doing that process. A year after, I actually formed a dance company name and started establishing a set group of people. A year after that in 2018 I actually formed company contracts with my dancers, contracts for people we work with, friends and I’m slowly figuring out the clerical things at the same time.

I’m a very organized person and that’s because of how much I was in school. Sometimes I feel like I’m a scientist in an artist’s world — I still think like a scientist, very rational and logical — and that personality trait has helped me with juggling many things. I’m still in school, I’m working a part-time job and am freelancing as a dancer. It helps to be very rational and be in charge of other people while being in charge of yourself. It’s not that bad. It’s not that bad yet, it’s only going to get worse. I have a pretty good foundation to build upon this company becoming more complex.

What are people’s reactions to the style Urban Indian when they hear about it? Has anyone ever thought it was so cool they just offered you an opportunity on the spot?

The perception of it extremely varies amongst audiences and that’s because of the distortion in the global sphere of what Indian arts is to begin with. So most of the world believes that the main type of art form is Bollywood.

IMGE, the world’s premier Urban Indian dance troupe. Photo courtesy of IMGE.

Bollywood vs. contemporary Indian dance

You mentioned “contemporary” as the only word you’ve found that institutionally acknowledges what you’re doing. Can you tell me more about that?

The South Asian fusion demographic is a mixed reception in terms of Urban Indian because Bollywood is something that I actively try to not associate myself with. “Contemporary” is the best space to be able to educate your audience and they’ll be willing to listen. “Contemporary” is a hierarchy term now of any new type of dance form that might be rooted in other cultural experiences, but there’s space to tell people what it is and what it means and oftentimes they appreciate it a little bit more because of that.

There were just a lot of examples of how men would do really shitty things to women.

India has more than eight forms of established classical dance forms, in addition to folk dance forms and regional dance forms, not to mention the types of music and artwork that reflect that. Bollywood, however, is a film dance that doesn’t have technique within itself but is built upon taking little bits of technique from a lot of other forms of dance, a lot of hip hop and and Indian elements; it is not a stringent style of dance rooted in technique or — in my opinion — substance. A lot of people would rip my head off for that and that’s OK. Because it’s associated with film, it has had the broadest reach because of the dance forms are the most accessible to global audiences. So that’s what people know us as. Depending on your education background, you hear “Urban Indian” and you might think it’s some funky type of Bollywood which often times comes from South Asians themselves and that’s frustrating. Even South Asians are also the ones promoting this belief that Bollywood has so much substance in history in India.

Bollywood for itself is fine. If you do it, that’s fine; it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s colorful, but it’s really hard to get anything else visible to the audience when that’s the main thing that they see. There are no platforms that exist right now for Urban Indian or for South Asian/Contemporary combination spaces to emerge. Not only because there are no avenues but there’s no culture around creating educated and authentic works that are in that contemporary space.

Photo courtesy of IMGE.

Misogyny in classical Indian dance

Earlier in our conversation, you said, “A lot of those types of stories we were dancing about were quite misogynistic and that was a part of the reason that dance form never really fulfilled me entirely.” Could we talk about that more? In what ways were these dances not serving you?

In classical Indian dance, a lot of the stories we express are based on Hindu mythology and Hindu mythology itself has become overtime quite patriarchal. There are way more gods than goddesses and the number of strong powerful female goddesses are pretty much one. There is only one female warrior type of goddess whose name is Durga, the goddess that I grew up in my culture worshipping more. In West Bengal, Durga is a main deity. I was playing roles like Shiva and these stronger male gods, that is what my movement quality was more attuned to.

When it came to having to play the more womanly goddesses like Parvati, I was often told that I wasn’t able to embody those womanly characteristics at the age of 15. I’m like, “Yeah, because I don’t have boobs and a butt yet.” But generally I had issues being soft and feminine and that’s what a majority of the goddesses were depicted as. They were, like, soft and obedient and very calm and something that I wasn’t able to align with. That was number one.

When I looked deeper into mythological stories on my own, there were just a lot of examples of how men would do really shitty things to women, and it was OK that they were doing those things.

Do you think its always like that?

Mythology has changed with history, with how women are depicted. White people became the beauty standard in Indian culture after the British invasion. Even how goddesses were depicted over time changed.

There’s a mythological creature named Drowpadi and her name means something along the lines of midnight blue lotus flower, referring to her dark skin. It’s like The Black Flower. She’s very beautiful but has very dark skin. Overtime, her physical depiction changed to lighter skin. The narrative around her also changed. She was bid as a token in a dice game played by one of her husbands. That king lost the game and her rights were gambled away. From there, her earlier narrative had her kind of berate the circumstance of how ridiculous it was. Over time, the little she had to say was also taken a lot lower and she basically ended up not having any say at all in that situation.

Photo by Joseph Lee Photography.

Job stability vs. pursuing a creative vision

Did you really leave school to start the company or are you just on hold? What did making that decision look like?

I was on an eight-year track to go to medical school and that was when I reached college. Basically throughout my entire education I was pushed toward science for most of my life. I went to a specialized biotechnology high school, and, from there, my family pushed me to go to medical school and I got accepted into an eight-year medical program. I started it. After completing four years of the undergrad part, I got accepted into the medical school part, but basically I threw that out the window.

How did your parents react?

My mom didn’t talk to me for like a year.

Their investment failed them!

Totally! My mother came from the village, she had ten siblings, they grew up without a father because he passed away. My uncles became doctors and they had to move to the United States and succeed — not because they were passionate about medicine, that came later. It was more of a means to support a family. That’s the value system that is ingrained in a lot of South Asian families in particular.

I walked down that road because that’s what I had to do. When I got my acceptance letter to medical school, I had the opportunity to reevaluate whether I was going to really throw away what I really wanted to do in life for stability, essentially, for a safer life. So that was about two years ago. I graduated the undergrad portion of that degree early so — the contract with my parents: I’m going to graduate early so I can dance in India for a couple months, and come back and go to medical school. I went to India, and away from the increasing pressure for something I didn’t want to be, and taking a step away I was then able to say “no” at the risk of my parents not being the most satisfied with my decisions.

Did your mom’s silence make you doubt yourself?

At that point in time, I was really fed up. It wasn’t like a real problem in my life that I wasn’t sure, and that’s not really on my parents. That’s more my insecurities I had of disappointing other people. When I finally broke, I did compromise because I’m not a full-time artist right now. I switched to an MBA program because at that point of rationalization, I knew I wanted to do more with dance but I didn’t necessarily have the opportunities to pursue it full-time if I wanted to.

I also knew I wanted to start a dance company. Having a business degree would probably be helpful, in order to do that. And thinking as an entrepreneur, I wanted to be a choreographer. I entered myself into this master’s program and it’s actually working out to my benefit. I’m going to graduate soon.

Instead of being a full-time struggling artist in NYC, which is a noble hustle in the niche genre I’m in, I shifted to trying to make money on the side and work towards this artist career that I really want. If I became a full-time artist when I came back from India, I think my parents would’ve thrown me out the house. There is a little bit of a cost-benefit analysis.

If you’re interested in workshops with IMGE or attending a performance, visit their events page or sign up for Ishita’s newsletter at the bottom of her website.

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