Radical, progressive and global in form and content, Indian classical dance is striking out in new ways, says festival co-curator Mavin Khoo…
By Sailesh Ram
IT IS QUITE simply one of the great festivals on the South Asian arts calendar and has a distinct identity all of its own, separate from the classical music festival hosted at the Barbican mainly, in London, this September.
It might only be four days – but there is a lot packed into those three days covering different aspects of practice and theory and each evening has at least one performance by a dancer of world repute.
In this interview, co-director of Darbar Dance, Mavin Khoo, himself a highly distinguished bharatanatyam dancer, who is Malaysian and had his training India and is also choreographer of international stature now, talks about the theme of ensembles in Indian classical dance and why they chose to focus on this aspect for 2019…
www.asianculturevulture.com (acv): What was the thinking in basing Darbar Dance around the theme of ensembles this year? You say in the promotional blurb you want “to break the myth that Indian dance sits within a singular framework”? Can you explain please…
Mavin Khoo (MK): I think Akram (Khan, curator Darbar Dance) had this idea from the very beginning of showing the multiplicity of where Indian classic dance is today from a progressive prospective.
The first year of Darbar Dance was solos, the second, duets and this year, it is ensembles and each determines a different perspective on how one approaches choreography within the form.
Essentially, we are investigating the possibilities that sit within the tradition and framework of classicism, but in a context that is contemporary in thinking – so that the work isn’t diluted.
The immersion of a thought process behind it is current and therefore allows for a contemporary setting in the presentation of the form – that’s the trigger point in which this year’s team of ensemble work on the main stage sits.
There is a counter-point in the Bayliss Theatre and that is in Abhinaya (the interpretation of a poetic text). You have two very different approaches by two artists – Aditi Mangaldas and Nahid Siddiqui.
It will be very interesting for audiences to see – both are within the context of Kathak (the predominant tradition of Indian classical dance in northern India) but there is a completely different perspective in terms of how those artists approach the element of interpretation.
ACV: It is a very global offering with dancers from Malaysia and the incomparable Nahid Siddiqui (who is of Pakistani origin) and is this another facet of Darbar Dance to show that the practice of Indian classical dance is global and that regional variation also adds richly to the tradition?
MK: What is fascinating about Indian classical dance today is that it no longer sits within the confines of India (itself) – the nature of the globalised world and the Indian diaspora around the world has allowed for the context of the form to be amalgamated within the cultural context of the space – within which those forms (of Indian dance) are relived or regenerated.
So, with the Temple of Fine Arts (performing on Sunday) – they are all Malaysian, but within that some are from a Chinese background, some Malay and others Indian – so not only do their cultural backgrounds diverge, but also the cultural languages that sit within them. The nature of any Malaysian (identity) is this very hybrid, multi-cultural, layered body and sensibility and it allows for bharatanatyam to be enriched and nourished by this kind of hybrid body.
Nahid Siddiqui is from Pakistan and has this long history in the UK as well and you have this very strong element of a very beautiful mature artist who has evolved through a sense of lived experiences.
ACV: Your own choreographed piece with the Temple of Fine Arts – an all male ensemble but accompanied by female musicians sounds path-breaking and unusual…
MK: Absolutely, it presents a very interesting dynamic. Bharatanatyam is essentially known as a female dance form and within that form the works are told from the perspective of a female protagonist – in this work, although it is based on ‘The Ramayana’ (a Hindu epic tale), the emphasis in on Ravana (Rama’s deadly rival) and we are looking at a very specific kind of masculinity; this is counter-pointed with the energy of the female musicians and it is very unusual to have female musician and we are very lucky to have Rajna Swaminathan, who is known around the world. It’s a fantastic collaboration and for me as choreographer, it is particularly interesting because predominantly my work is based upon queerness and in this I’ve created a work that is investigating masculinity in a very specific way and retelling ‘The Ramayana’ more from a south-east Asian perspective, where the story is more about Ravanna than Rama, and so it combines a juxtaposition of the Hindu Ramayana with the south-east asian Muslim story of Ravanna.
ACV: Do you think audiences will be surprised by anything this year and how do you assess the growth of Darbar Dance, now in its third year…?
MK: There is a very much the assumption that Indian classical dance is purely interpretative and that kind of choreographic craftsmanship is still naive – I think what we are demonstrating is that there is some very exciting and interesting new work being developed in Indian classical dance and also there is an assumption here that if an Indian dance maker wants to create new work they have to start making contemporary pieces that move away from the genre of classical dance – whereas, in fact, we are trying to show within the festival itself that there is a tremendous amount of choreographic development – and it is really about a re-immersion into classicism in order to find new accents and new voices.
You also have the juxtaposition of young ensembles (Temple of Fine Arts) and very profound ,mature solo artists (Aditi Mangaldas & Nahid Siddiqui).
Yes, what is lovely about the audiences growing is that slowly there has been a beautiful partnership between Akram, Darbar and Sadler’s Wells and the cross-section of audience follow them – to put it like that – are coming to the festival and watching the work.
Darbar Dance Festival November 23-26.
Opening, Saturday, 5.15pm – Rosebery Room, Akram Khan Company & Darbar Festival – Genesis: An evening with Padma Shri (Indian honouree) Pratap Pawar – shown as sold out but check returns, etc below…
7pm – Lilian Bayliss Studio, (Sadler’s Wells), Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R
Aditi Mangaldas – Movement, Murdra & Abhinaya – recognised the world over as one of the great Indian classical dancers of the age, Mangaldas explores poetry, and language through mudra (hand gestures) and Abhinaya in three short pieces with both live musical and recorded accompaniment.
Full programme: https://www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/2019/darbar-festival-2019/