The nayika rediscovered
she was hot
a deliberate coquette
who never did without what she wanted
and she wanted to be unforgettable.
When I first danced the “passion flower of south west Los Angeles” , a character from ntozake shange’s choreopoem for an assignment in my M.A.course in English literature at the SNDT University the discomfort I had with the stereotype of the ever-pining and coy nayika of classical dance fell away in an instant. Here was a character who was celebrating her sexuality unabashedly and living out her complex existence with great passion and courage. I discovered in her my empowered nayika who didn’t need to be glorified or slotted as she entered my Kathak body so natuarally.
My study of literature gave me an entry into the world of politics, feminism, movements in modern art and literature. My first two choreographic ventures happened thanks to this urge to engage with the literary text in different ways. The first was interpreting Kabir as composed to music by Kumar Gandharva, Akath Katha in collaboration with Hindustani vocalist and poet, Anand Thakore. The second was a tribute to women poets around the world through poetry music and dance, Let Her be Born, a quilt of poems discovered and embodied by my three colleagues Neha Kudchadkar, Neha John and Prajakta Bhide and me, using an array of different forms and approaches. These two projects also heralded the birth of beej.
Unlearning the form to discover it anew
I won British Council’s Charles Wallace scholarship to pursue a diploma in dance studies at the Laban centre in London. I set out to understand what language my body wished to speak in, rather than the indoctrinated Kathak body which by then I almost felt I was born with. I was told that my posture was completely misaligned. I had to do intensive pilates and release technique lessons to discover my neutral posture. I spent six months unlearning before I was ready for my first contemporary class where my body seemed ready to grasp. But this re–engagement with my body, its anatomy brought with it a new knowledge of embodied dance like I had never known before. Also subjects like choreology and improvisation opened doors to newer possibilities in movement. Dancing Kathak in my new found body and environment was a new challange and delight. It had the familiarity and comfort of home and yet was a place of boundless discovery. The time away from home also helped me contextualise my practice in the larger world of performing arts.
Since my return, I have done workshops and training sessions with Katy Duck [the Netherlands] exploring improvisation practises, Trisha Watts [Australia] on voice movement therapy, Susanna Linke and Urs Dietriche [Germany] on body strengthening and awareness.
One of my most significant developments was the exploration of abhinaya: Navarasa Sadhana with G. Venu at Natana Kiairali in Kerala. This experiential training and insight along with yoga and meditation practices helped me develop an inner strength and groundedness. This reflects in my everyday activities, my approach to dance and life .
My journey with improvisation
I began working on Bheetar Baahar exploring improvisation as performance in collaboration with vocalist Makrand Deshpande in October 2010 after I returned from a long and intensive year at the Laban Centre for dance in London. I discovered in my studio based research and practice in London that some of the best moments in a piece of choreography were ones that were improvised and they could never be replicated.
I therefore wanted to experiment with the idea of dancing a completely improvised piece. I wanted to address improvisation as a skill that grows through practice and engagement. A musician learns how to play and once he is familiar with the structure and technique of music, he can let go and make the music happen, respond to immediate sound around him, jam. In the case of Indian classical music, one allows the raga to unfold. I began asking similar questions in dance.
Can I allow the space around me to dictate what unfolds?
Can I respond to the floor, the air, the vibrations…
so that I am not the DANCER at all times
but also the DANCED?
The process led to a scary and rather intimidating turn inwards as an artiste and as a human being. I began to discover certain shortcuts I use, certain movements I tend to overuse, habits which recurred even when as I choreographed. One of my friends happened to point out that in an improvisation you would tend to repeat what came easy endlessly without going into spaces that challenge. I found that happening too. But we then began to structure the rules of the improvisation in such a way that we could push the boundaries of our forms, in my case of Kathak and my body. We worked with breath, with words, with imagery, with tools of technique. The impetus was to not choreograph in the head but let the body take charge completely. This process helped me discover myself and my dancing body tremendously. And I continue to explore improvisation as a studio based practice and it is part of my teaching methodologies as well.
I was not what one would call a natural dancer. I was enthralled like many children are with storytelling. I loved to play, sing, dance and tell stories as as a child. I was thrown into performance at an age so young that I had no concept of stage fright. I loved my teacher, Rajashree Shirke, who worked night and day for years inculcating in all of us the values of relentless riyaaz, the need for perfection and detail, group dynamics and individual thought in what we did. I surrendered myself to acquiring the Kathak form and to the service of Lasya. I was proud to be a part it’s journey witness its ups and downs and the making of Lasya as an established centre dedicated to Classical dance. I am grateful for all the time I spent with didi, more than two decades, learning, trying to embody the Kathak form, playing, writing, dreaming, dancing, travelling, assisting as teacher, manager at Lasya. We lived together. My colleagues and friends, Pranali, Neha, Pooja, Prajakta, Preeti and I became a collective sisterhood that stood by each other. We shared much more than stage space and continue to do so today.
My encounter with Pandit Murli Manohar Shukla happened when I was almost twenty and craving to learn vocal music. I was amazed by this gentle but extremely generous person, who taught by example. Ragas and melodies would come alive in the small room where we gathered three times a week and sang until night fall.That was my initiation into the world of Hindustani music.
Chetan Datar, a man of many moods and incredible energy worked with hundreds of Marathi and Hindi theatre actors, sowing the seed of theatre. I’m grateful I was one of them and our few but insightful interactions have honed me into the performer-director I am today. Chetan would disturb and constanty throw questions at you. Engaging with him and more than anything else, watching him working with actors was magical like witnessing a metamorphosis.
“What is precision without love?”
Some of my most cherished learnings have happened in classrooms, workshops and studio spaces through the varied students and collaborators I interact with. My students across ages and contexts broaden my horizons as their engagement with dance, their resistance and questions offer me multiple new ways of being, seeing and embodiment to sharpen and alter not just my pedagogy but my practice.
My cherished collaborators, audience members, critics have led me to find newer paths of conceptualising, making, expression and reflection. My mother, Shaila Wagh and family by blood and too many adopted members across the world to list here who have nourished me and kept me going. To them all I remain grateful.
This journey of many beginnings became starting point for many others to come. It is also special as it marks the birth of beej. My fellow founders, Pranali Kakade and Neha Kudchadkar and core group members see beej growing as an eco-system of learning and discovery, converging and dispersing. Our journey has been of rooting oneself firmly but equally about losing oneself and notions of oneself over and over to start anew. beej.