(Note: This interview dates back to 2004)
ADITI Mangaldas’ footwork is impeccable ~ every step creates syllables of communication, every beat resonates with inner rhythms. Yet, her five-member dance company seemed out of sync with traditional Kathak at the Attakkalari Bangalore Biennial of movement arts in mid-February. Were they seeking horizons beyond the royal courts and performance spaces it was born of 5,000 years ago? At the closing performance of India’s only contemporary dance festival, she challenged traditional bastions with her three-piece presentation.
Mangaldas’ London-premiered July 2003 piece lyrically explores the textures of silence, drawing on yoga as a performance art. ‘Lament,’ a solo sparked by Pablo Neruda’s poetry, threads through the eternity of love, but in an idiom struggling to find a new voice.
What does Kathak mean today to New Delhi-based Mangaldas, trained under Birju Maharaj and Kumudini Lakhia? After 35 years as a classical dancer, can her footprints consciously veer away? Tentative answers emerge in a post-performance interview:
Kumudini Lakhia, my guru, taught us to keep an open mind. By 1986, I had traveled all over the world with Birju Maharajji’s company. Yet, there was something in me that wasn’t dancing. That’s when I left my gurus to find my own footsteps.
My rebellion was against the satellite role of women in traditional Kathak. (Passionately) You cried or were happy because of a man, you were afraid or changed because of a man. That’s beautiful, but it had nothing to do with my identity as a person… So, the initial moving out started by looking at literature. I read a Hindi poem by Agyeya that made me feel claustrophobic. Yet, nothing in the traditional Kathak repertoire, with its underlying sringara rasa, could help me to convey that dry emotion. How could I show it? We made a tabla beat of one theka, played over 15 minutes. It was so monotonous that it created a cone around you.
I began working with music, costumes, lights, but especially on the attitude. (Thoughtfully) I felt the need to abstract the word to express it. It’s a comma that the audience interprets on their own journey… I’ve only learnt Kathak, so I have to draw my strength from the classical style.
But does abstracting the classical render it contemporary?
Not really… Kathak is the form that my body knows, but my mind knows much more, right? Since childhood, I’ve learnt yoga. (Intensely) My dance is the dynamism and spirit of Kathak with a yoga spine. I want to explore space using our bodies, but changing the dynamics of the spine. I do not like a blank face on stage. I dance with my heart. I don’t care how contemporary or not contemporary that is. Because, in Kathak, the main element is emotion. I want to retain its instantaneous communication with the audience.
‘Textures of Silence’ appeared almost as yoga in performance to the audience…
I’d like to use yoga in a more seamless way. At the moment it is yoga in dance. I can see it myself.
How would you do that?
Contemporary dance, to me, should engage with both movement and rhythm, intrinsic to Indian traditional forms. But can I take it beyond the traditional Kathak format, as I tried to in ‘Rhythm and Sound’? What would happen if I separated the ta and the thei to explore the finite possibilities of rhythm?
‘Lament,’ the last piece, is based on Neruda’s ‘When Eternity Ends… Journeys in Love.’ It’s a lament for when the spine breaks, when it’s not possible to hold yourself up. Yet, the human spirit pushes through, despite the overpowering lament.
In what direction could Kathak possibly move today?
All of us do traditional Kathak, whether we perform solos or dance at Khajuraho. We’ve moved out of the original milieu and context. Explorations outside the format can only enrich it. (Pausing) Even 50 years ago, it was possible to see the slight twitch of bhava, but today the quality of the mehfil has gone. Kathak is like a flowing river that has many tributaries joining it, bringing in change naturally. How can you fight it?
There are elements today that are considered traditional Kathak. Yet, 30 years ago, Kumudini Lakhia introduced them. At that point, it was considered blasphemous. Today, the tradition has to lose some and gain a lot.
But contemporary doesn’t mean western contemporary. Somebody asked me: ‘Why should I come to you to see contemporary dance? I can watch it in the west.’ But as an Indian dancer in this milieu, I have a right to be contemporary also.
Even contemporary dance can sometimes appear codified...
Exactly… If you say this is not contemporary because it draws on the traditional, doesn’t it fall into the same trap? Today, Indian dancers from different milieus are drawing strength from their own particular styles. Down the line, that could create a completely different format.
In the west, we’ve had interesting receptions. (Energetically) We appear contemporary to them because they haven’t seen the sourcing.
(The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 2004)
(The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 2004)