(Note: I first interviewed Canada-based Lata Pada in 1985, when she lost her entire family in the Kanishka crash. In 2003, when she brought her dance production ~ 'Revealed by Fire ~ on a pan-Indian tour, she revealed how she turned her bereavement into renewal.)
LIFE can come full circle in the strangest ways. Or so it seemed to the audience at Canada-based Lada Pada's dance theatre presentation, "Revealed by Fire", which recently concluded its pan-Indian tour of New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai. The multi-media, interdisciplinary work spanned east and west, Bharatanatyam and contemporary movement, image and spoken text, to narrate an extraordinary woman's story that encompassed every woman's tale. "It was an ordinary day. I was rehearsing, when the phone rang... " The words echoed through Bangalore's Chowdiah Hall on November 26, 2003. For this transcendental piece of physical theatre, about the power of tragedy to transform, was inspired by Lata's journey of recovery from June 23, 1985, when she lost her entire family in Air India's Kanishka crash off the Irish coast — her husband, geologist Vishnu Pada, their daughters Brinda (18) and Arti (15).
In July 1985, in an interview in Madras, Lata had said: "I have about 12 dance students in Sudbury, Ontario. I'd like to use this opportunity in India to go right back to Bharatanatyam in an intensive way. I think I'll get the greatest fulfilment by continuing the pattern Vishnu had set. I'll take it from there."
And so she has, rebuilding her career as a Bharatanatyam soloist and collaborative artist through her 1990-born Toronto-based Sampradaya Dance Creations. In March 2001, she premiered "Revealed by Fire", acclaimed by Ballet Tanz International Yearbook as the year's most important production. The piece seamlessly melds R.A. Ramamani's Carnatic compositions into Timothy Sullivan's sound design, commingling its strains with everyday sounds, ghazals and Hindi filmi geet. The soundscape, in turn, meshes into artistic photographer Cylla von Tiedemann's visual design, into digitally re-mastered images from Lata's family album, the Kanishka crash, the intensity of flickering flames, Rajasthani village belles fading into a Srichakra, hibiscus blooms evoking the feminine life cycle — a procession of potent visuals projected onto a crushed rice-paper backdrop, enhanced by a sophisticated lighting plan.
The choreographic work, which used textiles brilliantly, did not always impress by the eloquence of its movement motifs. But its haunting text echoed long after the concluding interactive session with the audience: "If you take away my husband, am I still a wife? If you take away my children, am I still a mother?"
Because, essentially, this was the story of Lata, a 17-year-old who dreamt of becoming a doctor. Instead, she married Vishnu Pada, travelled with him to Indonesia, then settled in Canada 38 years ago. But June 1985 changed her certainties forever. That's when the phone rang in her Mumbai dance studio, where she was practicing for a performance...
How did Lata turn bereavement into renewal? Looking back over the traumatic years, she recalls, "I consider myself extremely blessed. I developed a way of coping that numbed my capacity to remember, it also increased my capacity to understand that the things you agonise about are fleeting... " Steadfastly by her side, bonded by belief in her future, stood her Mumbai-based guru, Kalaimamani Kalyanasundaran, Lata's family, and her friends.
As a disembodied telecast voice reads the news of the Kanishka crash, as red stains the pristine planes of life, as childhood games turn into adult questions, as the classical meets the contemporary, our terrorism-tainted world met an individual of resurgent spirit who forged her own creative voice, harmoniously fusing the present with the past. Yet, "Revealed by Fire" puzzled many Indian viewers. Moved to tears by acclaimed dramaturge-playwright Judith Rudakoff's intensely human text, riveted by the stunning onstage synchronicity, our minds teemed with post-production questions. Were the patterns of movement simplified to enhance the narrative? Was the piece geared mainly to western audiences? Was purity of form sacrificed to dexterity of treatment? Could the narrative have unfurled in another way?
Lata turns the clock back to its conceptual evolution. To a journey through India with Cylla in 1999, to haunting images from Mamallapuram, Kancheepuram, Kerala, to the sati sites of Rajasthan, to their resonances in her life. To talking to Judith for four hours, a conversation fashioned into the searing performance text, voiced by Lata. "Through it, I address my personal conflict about why there is such a veneration of the goddess, yet such a degradation of woman in society. Why does that paradox exist?" Lata explains.
"This production is a confluence of many artistic minds, each integral to the whole. It touches on universal themes of loss and grief. But also on the power of art to transform, especially post 9/11," she adds.
Does an image hold the six-dancer performance together? "Fire is metaphor. It is both a destructive and regenerative force. Every culture talks about the test of fire," says Lata. "When faced with catastrophic loss, there are two roads — to be destroyed by the fire or to allow it to reveal our hidden core strength and identity."
Her works, Lata emphasises, have constantly focused on questions of woman and identity. Be it through her earlier dance-theatre work, "Triveni", which relates Sita, Draupadi and Ahalya to generations of invisible, often silent, women ever since. Or her 2002 work "Sohrab: Mirage" (from the Dari language word for `mirage'), which dealt with Afghan women under the Taliban, triggered by Lata's memories of an Afghan schoolmate in Bangalore. Or a new international co-production she is engaged in with Anita Ratnam, Aditi Mangaldas, Chitra Sundaram and a Butoh dancer, among others.
In Canada, Lata celebrates community life through The Banyan Tree, a three-year outreach project. It has assisted south Asian senior citizens transplanted into the Canadian diaspora to workshop their experiences towards a public performance.
In June 2004, it will premiere a play about a young Indian girl who uses her grandmother's Panchatantra stories to frame herself within Canada. Besides, Lata helps to redefine Asian arts innovation to Canadian funding agencies.
Lata Pada's life has come full circle since June 1985. As "Revealed by Fire", dedicated to the 329 lives lost in the Kanishka crash, proved beyond doubt on its Indian tour.
(The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 2003)