Interview with Sayantani: PhD Student and Kathak Dancer

Name: Sayantani Sikder
Education: I earned a B.Tech. in Biotechnology at the West Bengal University of Technology, I also have a master’s degree with one year research experience from the National Institute of Technology, Rourkela, India. Right now, I am pursuing a PhD in Chemical and Molecular Engineering.
Research: Studying bimetallic catalyst system for different catalytic reactions 
Future goal(s): Immediate goal is to graduate and obtain a post doc but in general I want to be a successful STEM educator and inspire more women to take up STEM as career.

You were recently featured by the Staller Center for the Arts. How did that feel? 
It felt dreamy actually, I submitted the video very casually on a Sunday afternoon. But when I got the email that my piece was going to get featured my heart skipped a beat. In the past, whenever I performed it hasalways been for a certain audience but now my performance will be out there for anyone. I was scared, anxious but at the same time I was very excited, happy and thrilled.

Tell us about your background in classical Indian dance.
I started dancing before I even went to school but my formal Kathak training started when I was 7 years old under my first guru, Mrs. Mistu Chaterjee. I also had the opportunity to betrained by the famous Indian Kathak dancer, Erika Nandi for several years and it was under her guidance I received mygraduate degree in Kathak. I also explored the Uday shankar style dance under the guidance of Tanushree Sankar for around a year. 

What is Kathak?
The word kathak pronounced “kah-tahk” is derived from the Sanskrit word katha, which means stories or kathakar which means a storyteller. It is the amalgamation of music, dance and drama. It originated within Hindu temples to portray stories from Mahabharata or Ramayana (these are the two major Sanskrit Epics). Poetry was combined with movement to aid in the worshipful storytelling. During the medieval period, kathak became an established part of court culture, performed under the patronage of India’s Persian kings and Muslim moghuls. This sealed kathak’s transition from colloquial entertainment to classical art form. Kathak is one of the eight major Indian classical dances.

Tell us more about why you choreographed this dance.
This piece was originally choreographed and taped for my fiance as a gift for his birthday. I haven’t seen him in awhile now (precisely three years); the pandemic has been really hard on both of us. Around that time(July 2020), although I was in India there was no chance for us to even see each other because we are situated in two different states and there was a travel ban. But dance always rescues me and gives me solace. I love being in the state of dance, it helps me in letting go. For me dance is more than just moves, it is a way to express emotions and feelings with the help of the lyrics or the music we choose for the background and as the lyrics of the song goes, “My path is destined to meet yours” I feel the same for him. And this piece got even more special all thanks to the Staller Center for featuring it. 

How does dancing help you as a grad student?
Being a graduate student is hard. It is a lot of work and effort to sustain in the very competitive and uncertain world of academia. It gets more difficult when you don’t have anyone from the family in the same time zone to support you at that moment. As I mentioned earlier, for me dance is a type of letting go. It is a form of meditation for me, I would say, when I dance I can forget for that moment that I am so far away from all of my loved ones. It is a rescue not only on a lazy Saturday afternoon but also after a crazy hectic day when nothing goes as planned.
Dance has been an integral part of me since childhood. I feel it makes my life a little easier, helps me in thinking clearly and makes me feel loved and special in some way or the other. See, I am doing this interview just because of dance 😉
Lately, I have been through a very difficult phase in my career. I had to rethink my career options. But everyday I used to come home to my practice, it made me feel normal like nothing had happened. It always boosts my confidence. 

What do you think needs to happen for there to be more women in science?First and foremost, there should be a safe workspace for women at all times. Men in the scientific community should have the guts to stand up against any kind of harassment going on; this would increase the sense of security in the workplace. I feel simple acts of kindness in the workspace can also make a huge difference. Sometimes simply the act of listening to a woman’s science and promoting their work can be helpful.