Museums, Dance & Historical Legacies

A recent event in London discussed the relationship between dance, museums and the broader contexts in which cultural values and projects are produced. 

Dance & Art Forum: Why Dance in Museums?, Siobhan Davies Dance, 9 November 2017.

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Entering the elegant roof studio of Siobhan Davies Dance in South London, attendees were requested to remove their shoes. This was understandably to protect the sprung floor of the studio. The mass of shoes which awaited the entrance to the studio, an architectural beauty, was however a sight that recalled a scene that was too familiar to me to go unobserved. It reminded me of the sea of shoes that awaited the entrance to temples I had entered all over the world.

Every gesture, even the removal of shoes, has a weight of history behind it and every space and  artistic practice has the potential to be reimagined, intentionally or otherwise.

These were some of the themes that emerged from Dance & Art Forum: Why Dance in Museums?, an event convened by Siobhan Davies Dance bringing dancers, curators, performance scholars and other artists together to examine the trend of dance being performed in museum spaces. The forum ran over a single afternoon and stemmed from various museum-based dance projects including the three-year Dancing Museums collaboration funded by the European Union. The forum considered broadly what dance brings to museums, what museums bring to dance and an opportunity to examine a particular museum-based dance project through a case study. 

The museum as an institution

The first panel was represented by curators and dance artists Marie-Anne McQuay, Lucy Suggate, Catherine Wood and Sara Wookey, moderated by Lauren A Wright. The museum as an institution with specific norms, values and procedures was a useful perspective in which the presentation of dance in museums was discussed. It was acknowledged at the outset that the museum space, as an institution that is deemed to contain what is important and valued, was a problematic one. Lucy Suggate citing personal experience of dancing in the National Gallery stated that dancing in museums provided an opportunity to dismantle and disrupt western art historical narratives. This was an idea that was more expansively explored in the final panel of the day where the history of museums as a colonial euro-centric project was directly critiqued as I shall discuss shortly.

  Siobhan Davies Dance Roof Studio

Siobhan Davies Dance Roof Studio

Questions were raised too about the challenge of practising an ephemeral art form such as dance in a space that had vested so much time and energy towards preservation, conservation, archiving and collection. It was suggested that dance practices did leave traces on institutions in a pragmatic sense. Changes to the end-of-day closing procedures of a museum stemming from a dance performance was one example which was cited, but whether dance truly challenged museums was not that convincing to me. Catherine Wood, Senior Curator of International Art (Performance) at the Tate asked probing questions about the ring-fencing and distinction between art and dance in museum spaces and discussed the idea of dance as a performance practice that refuses to settle into easy categories. Picking up on the structural and economic benefits of dancing in museums, Wood also asked whether the production of dance in museums was more an issue of a lack of appropriate infrastructure specifically for dance rather than a genuine interest in interacting with artworks or objects. The answer to that question, I suggest, is based on the individual approach of each project. Some of the projects presented during the forum seemed entirely dependant on being presented in the museum space, whereas some did not. 

Despite these issues, the opportunity to present dance in museums was considered a valuable endeavour. The museum space presented an opportunity to engage in a pseudo-civic activity where museums provided a ready audience. The idea of creating intimacy and dialogue with the audience was an idea that was repeated throughout the panel, particularly at this moment of acute socio-political instability where there is a sense that we are as a society drifting apart.

material / rearranged / to / be

The next panel was from three options to look in closer detail at a specific dance production performed in a museum. I chose to attend material / rearranged / to / be with Siobhan Davies, Jeremy Millar and Efrosini Protopapa. The group discussion explored the genesis of the project, the art collection of Aby Warburg, and how the dancers, visual artists and producers had navigated audience interaction, space and material in the performance.  

Although I had not seen the work, I chose this panel as the work was developed in conjunction with a neuroscientist and dealt with sculptural objects and the idea of hand gestures in visual art, ideas I engage with and find ready parallels in Indian art. I recalled Tapati Guha-Thakurta's article in the Art History Journal ‘Our Gods, Their Museums: The Contrary Careers of India's Art Objects' (2007) and the complex relationship between an object and a museum site. 

  Example of dance in museums: Odissi dance at Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, August 2017

Example of dance in museums: Odissi dance at Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, August 2017

Contemporary dance and who can embody the contemporary

The final panel of the day featured Leila Hasham, Jamila Johnson-Small, Sarah Spies, Tamara Tomic- Vajagic and Martin Hargreaves. The forum so far had discussed the production of dance categorised as contemporary in museums. Here the problematic nature of producing contemporary dance in museums and the history of museums as a colonial project was directly raised. I found this panel to be particularly engaged with the broader issues of creating dance for museums and thinking about which dance artists and dance forms were invited into such spaces as 'art' as opposed to education or outreach. 

Jamila Johnson-Small questioned whether an equal exchange was possible between an artist and an institution and what type of work and dance is recognised as contemporary. I agree that museums are privileged spaces and the process by which certain works are sought and reproduced in museums as contemporary dance cements certain types of stereotypes in dance. Tamara Tomic-Vajagic also expanded on how both the histories of dance and museums are contested and relate closely to colonialism and nationalism. The practical outcome of this I have found is that artists working outside the western canon in the UK are required to perform the additional labour of navigating culture, history and identity in a way not required of those who work within that canon. For example, presenting work to audiences unfamiliar with art that is not euro-centric often requires detailed explanation to avoid regressive or oriental tropes in interpretation. This adds an additional layer of complexity in thinking about what are appropriate venues in which to perform certain dance forms. Johnson-Small, a London-based dancer of Caribbean descent whose recent work is titled ‘i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere’, questioned which bodies can embody contemporary dance either in museums or elsewhere. She noted that her body was historicised in a way that prevented it from ever being read as contemporary. I particularly valued this insight as it is something I have been thinking about. I had recently presented a paper with a dance colleague Tiyasha Dutta Paul at a conference at the Horniman Museum called South Asia and its Diaspora: Musical Performances in the Cultures of Decolonisation on new vocabularies of dance and music in the Indian performance tradition of odissi. A question that was asked to us and other speakers was whether as south asian dancers we bore 'the burden of history' to constantly explain our work and struggled to find recognition as 'contemporary' dancers.

These are just some of the ideas that were presented and arose in the forum, of a vast number both creative and practical which were touched on. It was a thought-provoking event and great opportunity to speak with others working through these ideas and will be reflected on for a long time to come.

 

Review: Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances The Curving Pathway of Neoclassical Odissi Dance by Nandini Sikand

This review was first published in Pulse Magazine, Edition 137 Summer 2017.

Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances The Curving Pathway of Neoclassical Odissi Dance by Nandini Sikand Berghahn Books, ISBN  978-1-78533-368-2, 2017

Odissi has blossomed in recent decades with an increasing number of performing artists, festivals and choreographic works being produced in this dance form both nationally and internationally. From its roots in the ritual of temple worship by maharis at the Jagganath Temple in Odisha in eastern India, to the advent of male gotipua dancers, to formal codification in 1958 by members of Jayantika, odissi is now a global phenomenon. Despite this transformation and growth, odissi has not benefitted from the depth of scholarly research and critical discourse that other Indian dance forms such as bharatanatyam have experienced. Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances by Nandini Sikand is an inspired and essential scholarly study of the dance and one of the recent endeavours to counter this disparity, based on ethnographic field work and interviews conducted primarily in India and the United States between 2005 and 2013. 

The book is part of the Dance and Performance Studies series and addresses a range of issues and debates that will be both familiar and of much interest to odissi practitioners, choreographers and scholars of South Asia. The introduction to Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances begins with a statement by the dance critic Leela Venkataraman who expresses concern about the future trajectory of odissi. Venkataraman states that whilst the number of people learning odissi will grow, she suspected that those who learn outside of India will primarily focus on the technique and have little knowledge of Odia language and poetry, leading to a split between the dance content and its form (p.1). Embedded within this statement is many of the issues Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances goes on to probe. These include questioning the underlying assumptions about any possible ‘loss’ of odissi, the distinction between those who learn and create works within and outside of India and Odia culture as the cornerstone of odissi. 

The first chapter presents a history of odissi, focusing on the early and mid twentieth century, with detailed analysis of the formation of Jayantika and the process that led to this group’s codification of the dance. In particular it scrutnizes the way in which maharis, female temple dancers, were sidelined building on existing scholarship that has demonstrated the relationship between nationalist ideology and the development of art. The next chapter focuses on choreographic practices of female choreographers such as Madhavi Mudgal, Rekha Tandon, Ananya Chatterjea and Sharmila Biswas. Most useful is the exploration of the nexus between new choreography and philosophies such as sadhana, parampara and rasa. Chapter three looks at an incident in Bhubaneswar in 2005, where Malaysia-based odissi guru Ramli Ibrahim faced criticism for female dancers in his Sutra Dance Theatre company performing without an odhni (fabric worn over the blouse), thus exploring ideas of regionalism, authenticityand female agency. Chapter four looks at the marketplace of odissi and the ways it is treated as a commodity and chapter five presents the idea of odissistan, ‘a fluid and mobile notion of sacred space that can be individual, communal, or both’ (p.177)  which is occupied by dancers in the practise of odissi.

Review Nandini Sikand Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances

Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances proposes that dynamism and change, artistic and otherwise, are inherent to odissi and that the demarcation between tradition and innovation is one that is difficult to locate. This argument is made with conviction and I believe that this is a significant work of scholarship as Sikand also draws attention to important methodological approaches in the future study of odissi, its historiography and sources such as paintings and palm-leaf manuscripts which have only been studied by very few scholars such as Kapila Vatsyayan. She moreover probes why scriptural, sculptural and archeological sources are still favoured when the dance is an embodied and ephemeral form based on movement (p.37). As an odissi dancer and researcher, where Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances is most compelling and novel is in its exploration and documentation of new choreographic approaches, particularly the work of those artists who are creating works specific to their local and political environment and using the idiom to say something which they believe is urgent and essential. These are the voices who are attempting to answer the question, how does an art form continue to flourish for generations to come? May such work continue to be explored and appreciated.

Review: Speaking of the Self

This review was initially published in the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) Newsletter, No 77, Summer 2017, p.25.

Title reviewed: A. Malhotra & S. Lambert-Hurley. 2015. Speaking of the self: gender, performance, and autobiography in South Asia. Durham: Duke University Press, ISBN 9780822359838

In the last few decades, scholars of South Asian history have disputed the notion that South Asian cultures do not possess the autonomous representation of the individual, particularly in documenting histories, compared to their European counterparts. To that end, the numerous ways in which self-representation has been practiced in this region in different forms and time periods have been increasingly explored in scholarship. The rich collection of essays in this volume, edited by Anshu Malhotra and Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, challenge the existing boundaries and discourses surrounding autobiography, performance and gender in South Asian history by presenting a varied and fresh selection of women’s autobiographical writing and practices from the seventeenth to mid-twentieth centuries. The compelling choice of authors explored in the essays include Urdu novelists, a Muslim prostitute in nineteenth century Punjab, a Mughal princess, a courtesan in the Hyderabad court and male actors who perform as female characters. It moreover challenges conventional narratives in the field of autobiographical studies by relaying in careful detail the different forms which ought to be encompassed within the genre of autobiography such as poetry, patronage of architecture and fiction.

 
Head of a young woman, among flowering stems  c.1620 Mughal dynasty Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
 

Image: Head of a young woman, among flowering stems, c.1620 Mughal dynasty, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The collection grapples with several key questions: how does one define autobiography? Does women’s autobiographical writing differ from men’s? And how do gender and performance relate to the autobiographical format in South Asian history? To this end, the book is divided into three parts, Negotiating Autobiography, Forms and Modes of Self-Fashioning and Destabilizing the Normative,with an excellent introductory chapter. The introduction provides a clear and comprehensive account of the autobiographical form in various literary traditions, the propensity to locate autobiographical writing as a Western field, challenges to such beliefs and debates surrounding the use of the word ‘autobiography’ itself. It is most convincing in arguing that autobiographical accounts ought to be more widely considered in illuminating the social and political worlds of the respective authors.

Part 1 of the book, Negotiating Autobiography: Between Assertion and Subversion, addresses the ways in which women have navigated and disrupted autobiographical practices from the late nineteenth century. Sylvia Vatuk begins with an absorbing account of the writing and life of Zakira Begam (1922-2003), whose writing and reflections on the early parts of her life in Hyderabad in a conservative and educated Muslim household emphasized her love of Urdu literature and its role in defining her sense of self. Ritu Menon’s essay on Nayantara Sahgal and the Indian novelist’s autobiographical works provides rich grounds in which to explore the peculiar demands of not only the autobiographical form but a scholar’s own engagement with such works. The memoir and diary of Nazr Sajjad Hyder (1892-1967), and the serialization of her works in Urdu women’s magazines is addressed by Asiya Alam. Shubhra Ray explores the autobiography of a young Bengali woman Kailashbashini Debi (c.1829-1895) and how her form of self-representation both located her within the social and political milieu of her time and reform movements, yet also transcended the politics and expectations of her at the time. All four authors in Part 1 augment understanding about the role of literature in creating selfhood from existing scholarship.

The collection proceeds into more unconventional and fascinating territory in respect of the autobiographical form and its subversion in Parts 2 and 3, Forms and Modes of Self-Fashioning and Destabilizing the Normative, respectively. Uma Chakravarti’s thoughtful essay explores three novels on Partition written by Pakistani women, which she considers to be autobiographical in quality, and how memory, violence and public narrative complicated and embedded themselves in such practices. Maha Laqa Bai, an illustrious tawa’if (courtesan) at the Hyderabad court, is the focus of Shweta Sachdeva Jha’s essay and how an autobiographical record was left by the courtesan, as a defiant form of reinvention, through different acts such as constructing mosques and composing poetry. Afshan Bokhari’s account of the Mughal princess Jahanara Begam (1614-1681) similarly looks at Mughal women’s power and agency in the period and focuses on masculine strategies adopted by the princess to wield power with respect to her treatises on Sufism and patronage of architecture. Bokhari’s essay, with its vivid accounts of the life of Jahanara Begam and use of visual materials, is a particularly notable example of the ways in which women sought to navigate the political milieu of their time and represent themselves in the face of various challenges.

Anshu Malhotra’s essay on Piro (d.1872) a Muslim prostitute in Punjab in the mid-nineteenth century, deftly examines how the poetic kafi form was used by Piro to narrate the astounding events of her life and her beliefs, particularly in respect of living with a guru of Sikh lineage and navigate her existence “on the edges of her society” (p.226). Siobhan Lambert-Hurley explored the writings of Raihana Tyabji (1901-1975), a devotee of Krishna and nominally Muslim. The clearest assertion of the book’s goals is expressed here by Lambert-Hurley who states, in using the word autobiography in respect of Tyabji’s form of Bhakti devotionalism, that the collection hopes to “disrupt the established Western canon of autobiography” (p.247). Finally, Kathryn Hansen discusses the autobiographies of two male actors, Jayshankar Sundari and Fida Husain, who primarily performed as women.

In complicating the boundaries of women’s autobiography in this way, the collection encourages a bold reevaluation of central assumptions in the field of autobiography and gender. The collection stems from activities associated with the research network Women’s Autobiography in Islamic Societies and thus naturally tends to focus on the autobiographical practices of Muslim women. Greater inclusion of writing beyond Muslim women’s writing would perhaps have more accurately reflected the collection’s expansive title of Gender, performance, and autobiography in South Asia. The authors nevertheless present a significant corpus of scholarship relating to autobiography and gender which can apply broadly not only in South Asia but beyond. By carefully exploring important theoretical aspects and alternative examples of autobiography, the authors open new grounds and sources to critique autobiographical writing and methods. The collection is a significant contribution to the field and will be of considerable interest to both scholars and enthusiasts of autobiography and gender in South Asia.

Finding Lila: Tales of Odissi in the 21st Century

Article originally published in Global Rasika magazine on 1st February 2016

Not long ago I attended a seminar on the subject of astronomy and physics written in verse at the university I currently attend. The presenter spoke of how mathematicians of a bygone era in India aspired to write about physics in poetic form in a way that was as beautiful and sophisticated as the subject matter itself. In many ways, this is an idea that underpinned the creation of Finding Lila, a multi-media initiative and website dedicated to exploring Odissi from the viewpoint of UK-based practitioners:

Could the practice of Odissi be explored, presented and discussed with as much nuance and beauty as the art form itself?

Could the narratives that are written about Odissi also reflect an erudition and honesty which matched both its history and current reality?

Inception and beginnings

Finding Lila was originally conceived by myself and London-based Odissi teacher and journalist Urbi Basu towards the end of 2013. The idea to create the website, which uses a mixture of journalism, documenting conversations with artists through audio and written means and photography, was sparked by a conversation which incidentally took place on the London Tube.We pondered as to how technology could be used to supplement traditional Odissi dance practice and create dialogue regarding deficiencies in its scholarship. We also lamented the fact that there were so many fascinating stories and aspects to the art form which were not receiving enough media coverage. Our solution to this conundrum was to create a platform ourselves to help achieve these goals, particularly as no such platform existed which was dedicated to Odissi in the UK.

Finding Lila’s origins are therefore very much rooted in the cosmopolitan cultural milieu of London, where interest in Odissi and other Indian art forms is flourishing and dancers trained locally and abroad, whether it be in India, Malaysia or Australia, are seeking to make their own contribution to the field. It is also taking place in a context where debates continue about the proper education of dancers and authentic representation of “South Asian” arts in a western context. This is reflected in our name itself, to which we field the most questions, where we have taken a dash of poetic license with the world Līlā, a word meaning play or creativity, amongst other things. It reflects the duality of existence as London-based practitioners of a dance form so rooted in Indian and Oriya culture and also brings a touch of humour and lightness in the often-serious world of classical dance.

At the heart of it all: stories and oral histories

The motivation to create Finding Lila was however never purely aesthetic or academic. The essence of Finding Lila is people telling stories in their own words and to that end we have tended to prefer first person accounts of artists and other individuals working in the field over anything else. There is a certain power and charm in hearing great artists and women such as Sujata Mohapatra and Madhavi Mudgal talk about the reality of their art and experiences and what inspires them to do what they do. To achieve an unfiltered and more authentic effect, we didn’t necessarily want people to write an essay about their experience, but rather what we wanted to hear was their candid first person accounts about their lives through dance. Whilst this emphasis on first person narratives has made the process of creating content on the site much more laborious, it has provided some truly stunning insights. Dance theory and dance academic writing have a place in the arts world as do sharing ideas about dance, but it is really the voice of those who have physically realised or experienced the art form whom we have felt provide the most powerful stories. Also by having a primarily on-line presence, there is immediacy to the way Finding Lila can respond to developments and publish material.

We also wanted to think beyond featuring stories of people interacting with Odissi or other classical Indian art forms in the most typical or literal way. There are so many different ways of looking at what dance represents for an individual and society and to that end we have been fortunate to speak with a wide group of inspiring individuals. These include Esther Hyman of Miriam Hyman Memorial Trust whose work includes creating teaching resources incorporating Odissi in memory of her sister Miriam who died in the London bombings of July 2005. It also includes scholars such as Anna Morcom who has done ground-breaking field work in the area of hereditary performers and up-and-coming performers such as young Kathak dancer Vidya Patel who won the South Asian category for an innovative BBC television dance competition.

By pursuing and looking for authenticity in the stories we present in this way, Finding Lila has been able to explore a wide range of issues. These include very practical ones such as access to dance teachers and musicians in the UK, “making it” financially and challenging dance traditions that are incompatible with a big city lifestyle or ethos. The more problematic and unspoken aspects of practising a classical Indian dance form in a western context have also been raised in this way. These include the conflation of classical Indian dance with religion or certain values, inauthentic spirituality alongside the practise of Odissi for commercial means, “brown face,” the tendency for the art form to be increasingly Sanskritized in an ahistorical manner, class issues inherent to dance and the conflict between tradition and modernity. These ideas are not necessarily unique to the UK but by sharing these multitudes of stories from our part of the world, Finding Lila seeks to provide some perspectives as to how these experiences fit in with the greater global narratives about Odissi, art and society in general.

Celebrating 25 Years of Nrityagram: Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen

 Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen pictured at Southbank Centre's Alchemy Festival 2015. All other pictures taken at Nrityagram.

Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen pictured at Southbank Centre's Alchemy Festival 2015. All other pictures taken at Nrityagram.

This article was originally featured in Finding Lila magazine on 17 September 2015

As you drive north-west from the cosmopolitan city of Bangalore towards the fabled dance village of Nrityagram in Hessaraghatta, there is a sense of growing timelessness. Wide motorways, western-style coffee shops and fashion stores are replaced by small towns, vast landscapes and increasingly reddening soil. Nrityagram, with its charming leafy campus, rustic architecture and holistic, graceful way of life and dance education is itself an embodiment of both timelessness and the expanse of Indian art, dance and philosophy. It is an institution which is on the one hand deeply committed to tradition and the classical Indian dance style of Odissi, adopting the ancient gurukal system of learning where students live alongside their gurus. On the other hand however it has made a confident transition to modernity, performing regularly in prestigious international venues, adopting innovation where appropriate and even holds a strong social media presence.

Established in 1990 by Protima Gauri Bedi (1948-1998), Nrityagram celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Its longevity and success come despite considerable setbacks such as the sudden loss of its charismatic and dynamic founder and the difficulties in financing such an ambitious dream. It has been made possible largely due to the efforts of gurus Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy, artistic director and director of education respectively, managing trustee Lynne Fernandez and artist Pavithra Reddy. Having had the the opportunity to speak with both Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy, Finding Lila is delighted to share an edited version of that interview in which they share rich insight into the history of Nrityagram, the unique synergy between the two of them and their vision for the future of the institution.

Odissi dance London
Odissi dance London
Odissi dance London

BIJAYINI SATPATHY:

 

On Nrityagram’s 25th Anniversary It is a great achievement for us. Nrityagram was not our dream, it was not Surupa’s dream nor my dream. We were just a part of a larger dream of Gaurima’s (Protima Gauri Bedi). Nrityagram was her vision and we landed with the dream in our laps without expecting it when we were very young. I was 25 and Surupa was 27. By that time however we had become complete believers in the philosophy of learning a dance as if you were living the form everyday inside the classroom and outside the classroom where you grow as an individual and you grow as an artist very connected with one another. I feel it is a success story. We feel very happy for the 25th year to be what it is today and what we have done so far.

Protima Gauri Bedi She was such a name, she was such a face to the place and we were dancing as “Protima Gauri and Group” at that time although she was pushing very hard to give a name to the Nrityagram Ensemble. She was of the belief that you find one dedicated dancer for every 1000 students. She considered herself lucky because she saw in her five years two of us commit to her completely saying that we will do this forever. She kept saying, "don’t expect a Surupa or Bijayini in the next ten years. You will be lucky after training 100 students if you will find one of yourself in them". She was a visionary, she could see far ahead of her time. Gaurima left unexpectedly although Nrityagram was being run by Lynne by that time. That she left suddenly didn’t come as a shock, however not to have her to lead us and not to have her vision and guidance was definitely something that kind of shook us. But there wasn’t a choice as to whether we would leave Nrityagram. We didn’t feel like we had a choice. That was our path and there was no way we were going to go away to do something else.

On dancing with Surupa I know for a fact that we are very different dancers. We have our own individuality when dancing but I think the sensibility with which we relate to dance, movement, music and rhythm and the depth at which we feel is of the same wavelength. Indian classical dance is a solo dance form and I would love to say that I enjoy it the most when i dance solo, or Surupa should be able to say that, but we actually are the best when we dance together. I really enjoy myself when we are dancing together because there is another space being created. There is another energy being created because of this relationship that takes place on stage. 

We become our best in the togetherness. I am not saying that I do any less in a solo or Surupa does any less in a solo but that togetherness has much more power. I feel that we bring out each other’s best and our own best and we have celebrated it and loved it and I think we are blessed with that gift. It’s not like it has been a very easy journey. No two dancers will ever dance together at the same level, we are competitors- we should be! She was presented as a soloist first, I was presented the next year. Despite being dancers that young, wanting to become famous or popular or being invited more, we have never ever competed with each other in an unhealthy manner, like feeling jealous or wanting ill for the other or whatever else that goes on.

On the shared search for more time Surupa is a great talker and she speaks a lot and is constantly pushing everybody to think differently and alternatively. She once asked the musicians and dancers, "if you were granted one wish, what would it be?". There were people saying happiness and peace and things like that and she turned to me and I said “I would just ask for time”. Then I wanted to clarify myself and said it's not like I wanted to live longer I just want the time to be stretched, the moment to be stretched so that I can have a little more time to eat into it. She dropped her jaw and said, "why did you say that? That is exactly what i wish for". So when you come to the heart of things, we probably have the same brain. 

We fight a lot, we argue a lot, we disagree a lot and all of that is there but when we come and perform and I look into her eyes and we are Shiva and Parvati, I think "this is the moment, this is so rich", I wouldn’t change it for anything. We forget that we are performing, that is the joyous thing. It becomes effortless, the performance is about us enjoying ourselves in each other’s company and the space becomes boundless and the dance flowers in different dimensions. It’s so rich, it’s so special. Nothing matters.

The ‘pulsating moment’ in dance That’s the moment of complete alignment with the universe I would say. A complete alignment of the senses with the universe’s energy and when you align things it's like being on a cycle, completely balanced. It’s a very light, complete weightlessness of zero if you can come back to zero. Zero is a very important number in Indian vedic maths. It’s something that you can hold on for a moment and then it goes away from you. Surupa calls it spiritual orgasm. I don’t know, I don’t want to call it spiritual. I am not actually a religious person, I had written this before once in a blog. I don't believe in gods and goddesses and I am not ritualistic but when it comes to it, if I am to place Jagganath before me, he is who he is and I am totally surrendered to him. I am in awe of the concepts. 

The beauty of Odissi and the process of learning A young dancer reading or looking at this may want to experience this 'pulsating moment' in the first day in class or the first year or fifth year. It doesn’t come like that. It will come one day but first there has to be a lot of work in the body and pain. It’s not like today I don’t have any pain in my body, I am sore everywhere. I was sore everywhere when I was dancing yesterday but all that goes away.

I feel that this experience is so rare, i don’t know what else can give you this. We are here working with the body, mind and spirit and all of that has to come together to experience it. Only very rare artforms make you do that. This is something you live in and it disappears, you can’t catch it. It’s a very cruel art form. It’s there with your body in your being, then it’s gone. You can’t capture it in a video. You have to be fortunate enough to revisit it. You can only work with all sincerity, starting from your yoga or martial art with your sense of control, balance, core, then work on doing your ABCs right. You must work with knowing line and form and intellectually with the music, rhythm and ideas and then find the freedom, the complete vulnerability and uninhibition of emoting freely in a theatrical manner.  You do all that, in a precise sincere manner, it may happen to you once, it may not happen to you once. And I think that’s what keeps you humble.

SURUPA SEN:

 

On Nrityagram’s 25th Anniversary To me it means a great deal of fulfilment. It’s an achievement really. It’s possible to create things but it’s not so easy to sustain them. Sustaining a dream takes a lot more resilience, a lot more staying power and a lot of belief and continuously telling oneself that you can make it happen. Seeing the place grow and the dance grow, I think for me is a great achievement. 

On dancing with Bijayini I think the magic has always been there from the very first time we met. We are very different individuals off stage but once we get on that stage and dance there is an instant chemistry. I don’t know where that comes from and we've had it from the very first time we danced together. I think it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing that happens with another individual and when you perform together it's like you’re on the exact same wavelength and there’s no need for words anymore. It's like being in a strange relationship of a kind but it's always there when you’re on that stage. Off stage we may not even want to be in the same room sometimes. We’re like sisters, we’ve been a part of a family for so long but on that stage it really is even for us, very exciting. It’s very hard to explain. I would like to think it’s a similar belief in what we do. No matter what has happened to us, dance has always come first for us and we've both given up a great deal to be able to do what we do. It's almost like the source of life for us and in that sense, maybe it is. 

Protima Gauri Bedi I had an extraordinarily special relationship with her. It was very much a relationship between a guru and a student but it was also kind of a love-hate relationship and I sometimes couldn't understand why she would make me do certain things in terms of dance, in terms of the work, in terms of life itself. And then sometimes I just blindly did what she said. I had such faith. I didn't like it but I had a sense of complete surrender where she was concerned. I did ask her a lot of questions and I got a lot of answers but sometimes I didn't.  Today when I think about it I realise that was her way of teacing me things about life very quickly and very differently from maybe another guru would but I am grateful for that little time I had with her. Obviously she was not meant to be there the entire time. I learnt in a very fast-forward manner, in compressed time and she also taught me in one sense how to dream and to believe in myself and to know that you can make the impossible happen if you believe in it enough.

Nrityagram after Gaurima  In the beginning Gaurima did ask me to run Nrityagram and I said no because it would mean literally giving up my dance career. Lynne now runs the place and takes care of it in terms of administration and things. Creatively, yes I have taken care of it for a very long time. I call myself a conscience keeper in one sense for the place because I've been there from its inception. Shouldering the responsibility of the direction in which it could go artistically has come quite naturally because even when Gaurima was alive I started restaging and creating some work. She was extremely supportive of it from the beginning. Artistically the way Nrityagram has gone is because of my inherent sense of everything I think dance should be. I would say that my vision was very different from Gaurima's. She was amazing with production and presentation. She was such a star, anything she did was star-like, and she had a great sense of marketing and what could work.

My sense is very different. I believe the excellence speaks for itself and hard work is the essence of everything. That was very different from the way that she functioned. She was the kind of person who came on stage and she was a star. Everything about her was a star. If you were dancing with her it was very likely that people would just look at her simply because she was such a larger-than-life personality whereas for us I think that people look not so much as individuals on that stage but the dance itself. That’s what I believe I want to be and it's quite different from the way she saw it.

Life and biography of Gaurima The biography does not do her justice. What was most extraordinary about her was that she was capable of such immense change overnight. We are the kind of people who think about a lot of things before we can actually make a decision with our lives. She was twenty years ahead of everybody that I knew. If she had a thought, she just put her whole life into it to make it happen. I would sometimes say to her “yesterday you told me that this was going to happen” and she would say “oh god Surupa, life is so different everyday. A million cells have changed since yesterday and you’re still the same”. So she was capable of that change. So it was almost as if she had a belief and she could turn it over on its head overnight and go with it.

It was like you’re in a constant state of discovery but it forces you to look at yourself in such ways that people pushing you to discover yourself and discover life almost as if it’s like death itself every day. That’s why I always say death is such an exciting thing because you have to live life as if you are going to die everyday and that’s how she lived. That's a great thing I have learnt, if you’re going to do something you just do it. It was an extraordinary journey, it was like you were tripping down all the time and if you’re not able to deal with that pace, it’s hard.  I feel like that I was very lucky. 

On her use of rhythms in Odissi The way I use rhythm is quite different and I've had several discussions about it with a rhythmic composer. I compose a lot of my own rhythm and I think of rhythm as mathematics and sound combined so if you have an intense idea of what sound is in Odissi and how you would like the dance to become, then you create rhythm that suits your choreography but at the end it adds up to the number of beats that should summate into a cycle. It is a very different way of using rhythm and my dancers sometimes find it very difficult to understand what I am doing but it always adds up. I think for me it is very much the way that I understand dance and creating music for dance is very different to me than just creating music for music.

On her vision for Nrityagram My vision for it has always been as a place where there is creation of excellence and passing on of passion. I do believe that this is my most powerful, intense longing that I will be able to pass on, the passion that I feel for the art and sense of belief in what it is that you do. In the same way that my guru thought for some time that this is a place where people can dream and dance and live intensely an art form that is so extraordinary that there is no comparison to it really anywhere in the world. 

Words and images (c) Nisha Somasundaram

Report: UK premiere of Torobaka by Akram Khan and Israel Galván

Article first appeared on narthaki.com on 10th of November 2014.

"One brings a knife...one brings prayer beads.” Akram Khan is considering the differences between flamenco and Kathak, two dance styles which are believed to link back to Romani people migrating between India and Spain in the 14th century and the focus of his latest collaboration Torobaka (literally “Bullcow”) with Seville-born flamenco artist Israel Galván. Khan, the British dancer of Bengali background, spoke at the post-show discussion with Galván following the UK premiere of Torobaka which took place at Sadler's Wells on 3 November 2014.

Subversive, humorous and raw, Torobaka sees two exceptional artists playing with rhythm, ideas and each other's respective dance styles from the moment they step onto the orange-lit ring on stage. Galván is the brazen, aggressive counterpart - known for his deconstruction of flamenco - to Khan’s measured, yet powerful grace. This is not about mimicry they stress, but about gaining an understanding of the art forms and using that language to communicate whatever it means to them.

Variously in the performance, Khan takes on the form of a bull wearing flamenco shoes in his hands, Galván flirts with South Asian bols and absurd bird-like movements to comic effect and the entire performance is punctuated by the clamping of each other’s mouths. Khan states it was all a part of discovering the roots of these art forms and what Kathak, flamenco and music were before they were given these particular names. The musicians also play a key role in Torobaka and the gender-defying notes of David Azurza and Christine Leboutte cut through the audience. Khan was initially reluctant to attempt to combine Kathak and flamenco feeling it was “too symmetrical”, but was however convinced after seeing Galván perform at which point the possibilities of performing together started to become clear.

When asked about whether the concept of "duende" in flamenco, the moment when you lose yourself in the moment or reach an elevated state, applies to Kathak, Khan stated it is "not specific to a dance form" and reflected that "Kathak is a prison in structure and form...(but) great dancers like Maharaji break from that prison and start forgetting about form...That is the power of the artist."

Despite the many differences in their styles, Khan and Galván concede that each had an effect on the other beyond Toroboka, and there’s a playfulness and palpable chemistry between them. Galván said following the work on Torobaka he became more "human" and Khan said he was “more of a warrior" - albeit a "peaceful warrior.”