I met Aditi Mangaldas at her residence. I had gone prepared with a list of questions. My questions ranged from her entry into the dance world, to the interiorisation of her process, to communicating the innermost vulnerabilities, anxieties on stage, to the secret to her infinite energy. As we sat and talked for more than two hours, time slipped by without we realising we had almost come to the close of the meeting, and we had only discussed the first question! But in that answer, the reader will find the leads to the answers of all the questions that remained. And probably that is the case with artists like Aditi Mangaldas, whose thought process does not follow rules, structures, and boundaries, but is limitless and if we have to witness their flight, we will have to let go of all limitations.
Aditi Mangaldas: First of all, I answer instinctively. It's not a studied reply, it's a lived reply. That's all I can say. I constantly get confused in the geography and history of things. But it's something, it's a thing that has slowly, slowly absorbed into my body since I was five years old . And so it becomes a part of you.
I don’t know, I don’t know the—the break up of the air that I breathe. That's what I want to be very clear. That I am not a scholar and it's just a personal experience through this whole forest of dance.
We discuss the questions before, and she asks how I would like to go about the interview since all questions were quite extensive. She says that she is very tangential and can go off track when it comes to talking about her dance. She warns me ample number of times that she will totally take off in other direction while answering a particular question, and she doesn’t know how to talk in structures at all.
Siddhi Goel: Tell us something about how you began dancing, the gurus you learned from, and from that the journey to establishing Drishtikon Dance Foundation.
A.M.: Okay. Please stop me because I can go on forever. You can reference this on my website and other places because I have said it ad infinitum—I don’t come from a family of dancers or musicians. It's a family of business people and academics. But the important thing I think is, the way, good or bad, the way I ended up being, is because I think it was an extremely liberal family. And by liberal not of ‘that time’. Just liberal. So they encouraged a kind of debate in the house…they encouraged it…argumentation, debate, questioning, not agreeing, agreeing, and, an equal responsibility and respect given to me as a girl child. There was no discrimination per se between me and my brother.
Of course i would feel it around in my extended family—not in a way discrimination but like stereotyping, ki ye to karega ye to vo karegi. But my parents, my immediate family, my grandparents, my grand aunt, people who are close to this close knit family, that was not there. and I think that was really important. One was questioning everything. Just because it was written down 5000 years ago, or 2000 years or whenever, it didn’t mean that it was gospel truth. Question it. If it makes relevance for you today. And I think this was more reinforced, in a more structured fashion when I went to study with Kumi ben (Kumudini Lakhia) at age five. My mother remembers it at 5, Kumiben says six.
And, how did this come about—because, my maternal aunt used to live with us, and we come from this endlessly huge family. This extended family would visit my grandmother, my dad’s mom every single day. Now this is reinforced in my memory. They would all congregate together in the evening, and I would jump on a table and demand attention. And try to communicate through the medium of movement. It is strange that I have a memory of a Marathi song that my mother used to sing—nachga pori, kasiga nachun, aangan wakda, kasiga nachu…These are the words I remember.
So they thought that my god, thats its from some distant genetic pool that this girl has…there’s some artistic thing in her. Though my mother when she was young, would always dance around. But her father was very anglicised, and just said no. He said no none of this dancing and all that. Listen to Western classical music, and do ballet. I’m talking about 60-70 years ago. But I think she had a great desire to dance. And there was a short story written by her, to a pair of dancing shoes. But it never found expression. So I’m just saying, somewhere…some genetic pool.
So they said cool—they put me in dance, into music, into art, whatever the possibilities were. And in Amdavad (Ahmedabad)…our school itself encouraged arts. Very much so! You know every year we would adopt a country, there would be this whole thing, about that country ka dance, music, literature, food, everything. So my first performance was when I was six years old, for the school. 3000 people in the audience. And it was very aesthetically done. It was an amphitheatre. It's an old school called Shreyas…and it's an amphitheatre built by one of the greatest architects of India—Balkrishna Doshi. And the curtain was…it is huge…I can't even…three thousand people…. stage is like from…you know…can you imagine?
This is when I was like four years old. This was mind blowing—this school. And I think it's important to have these inputs of aesthetic experiences. So your mind is not one-dimensional, and the reason why I am talking about this Siddhi is because I think of dance as multi-textural. Layers and layers and layers within…and to have a sense of mystery and imagination. Not just knowledge.
So I think these were big influences. And then of course, painting, sculpture, and Community Science Centre also I used to go to as a young kid. Everything. Of course. Vocal toh my god. My Guruji said: 'Bheja accha hai par awaaz…’.
But everything fell off and dance remained. I don’t remember a time when I was not dancing. And, and then because we have very close family connections to Darpana…Mrinalini (Sarabhai) ben, I was put there…that was the first dance school I went to. But there was something, at that age it didn’t work for me. I didn’t understand it of course; and my school friend was going to another dance class. We were like four-five years old. So I did a little bit of zid (tantrum), which I was doing all the time— mujhe vo wala class jana hai (I want to go to that class). That was Kumi ben’s class. And, I remember that when I went, I was just, I don’t remember the first day or anything of that sort…but it was a sense of magic. Of finding a place that was immediately fun, and yet somewhere that I continued going for the rest of my life!
And there Kumi ben herself reinforced this. We were taught classical Kathak, nothing else. But she said DO NOT WEAR BLINKERS. Observe. When we went abroad with her, when we chatted with her, when we looked at colour, music, painting, everything was…observe it! Training was in Kathak…I think its very important to have respect, but not be completely reverential to a point of no questioning. So if I say…now in our time if I say I respect our history, and our geography greatly, and I’m informed by it, but I do not want to be bogged down by it. Because the moment ‘now’ is far more important! This air that I’m breathing, this pulse that is beating at this point, the life that is connecting me at this moment—to everything else.
Anyway, Kumi ben was also, going beyond— experimenting herself or creating herself. With bringing in a sense of contemporaneity to Kathak. So though form was Kathak, she was pushing the boundaries of the form itself. Now. Pehle pehle unhone costuming ko dekha. Fir unhone literature ko dekha. Fir unhone text ko dekha (First she looked at costuming, then literature, then the text). Music. Space…What is space…What is transformation in comparison to translation?
Very later on in my life I understood this. It's a Greek quote that says that: One form of great art, cannot be translated into another form of great art. It can only be transformed. I only heard this quote 10 years ago…but it's been a driving force. In the sense that it has been something that has consumed me. And I think the facilitator of that was Kumi ben. To give you an example, I think it was 1968…I think I was eight years old. When she did a piece called Venu Naad.
What did she do? You know we are dancing about Krishna, and Krishna Lila…what she did was, she took a painting…miniature painting. And she asked a billboard painter to make a backdrop of it. The entire backdrop is a miniature painting. So of course it is a paradox. Because it is a miniature painting, and she was enlarging it. But she removed the figures from it. So, this was the backdrop of the miniature painting, but the figures were removed from the painting. We the dancers, were the figures of the miniature painting…and it…so…we are sitting. And I was eight years old. And I was so excited to be part of this bigger production! Me and my other friend Tejal Doshi, had to sit for twenty minutes, it was a thirty minute production. Twenty five minutes we had to sit, five minutes we danced. Three main senior dancers were dancing.
So it was…when the flute of Krishna permeated these static figures they came to life, and they danced. And when the flute…like when he leaves… you know this whole thing about…how they become lifeless, which means they went back into the painting. They stopped. And it was a three dimensional miniature painting. Look at the concept!
I mean in my mind it is beyond brilliant. 1968! Even today it is very new. Today I would say Kumi ben ‘Chaliye lets revive it’. So what is this? This is transforming it! You don’t take a miniature painting, project it at the back and then you do something in front of it. You know…okay Krishna leaves. Different ways of showing this complete sorrow—that you are lifeless. What can be more sorrowful than that?
There were many examples— Dhabkaar— heart beat. That went into abstraction. There was not a single word in that piece. Nothing that said this is my heartbeat. But it worked. In Atah Kim— going…stretching the boundaries of Kathak, in her own piece Duvidha also.
When I turned 20, by the way, I love mathematics. I did four years of Mathematics in college. But I never…exam aati thi toh I used to I think six months not dance. But dance was always part of my everyday…I never…it never happened that professional banna hai ki nahi banna hai. Dance karna hai ki nahi karna hai..vo sawal hi nahi…like breathe karna hai ki nahi karna hai…khana khana hai ki nahi khana hai. Are you connected with your parents, are you wanting to fall in love or not? It was not a question. It was something that just happened. I say it was never a conscious decision…it was part of my life since I was five! I don’t remember a time when I was not dancing.
When I was 22, I think ignited by the fact that my parents, and Kumi ben herself…I felt something in me was not dancing. I said there is something in me that is not dancing. I don’t know what it is. I can’t pinpoint it. Then, talking to a lot of people, I thought I would want to go to Maharaj ji (Pandit Birju Maharaj)…who is the…what's the right word…where the river starts…the source of this great tradition…of Kathak. And, I had known Maharaj ji, because Kumi ben and Maharaj ji had worked together for so many years…also…and Maharaj ji used to come to Amdavad. He’s also come and sung at our house in Ahmedabad. So anyway. I joined Maharaj ji.
And, it was magic again. You know the first day I came to Kathak Kendra, it was…I came for six months. Keshav Kothari ji, and my aunt Pupul Jayakar said why don’t you come here? They facilitated me to come for six months. and I came from a position of thinking, ‘I know it’. I had been dancing for like fifteen years, I had travelled with Kumi ben quite a bit all over the world. I was quite experienced on stage. I didn’t think I had any stage fright; and Kumi ben trains dancers very beautifully for a stage presentation—like a whole aesthetic about how to be on stage. A stage meaning a platform where you are, it could be your studio also. So, I came with that…of course with everybody talking about my backless blouse! And oh god, Kathak Kendra was like…wearing safety pins on the side of the slit, dupattas on their body…and we never had any of this in Ahmedabad. In fact I had a habit of wearing a kurta, churidar and belt on my waist, so it would accentuate my body movement and I could see ki main sahi karti hun ki nahi…I used to always wear a flexible belt, like we tie the chunni/dupatta. But not like covering the bust and all that nonsense. Anyway. So I only know this because later on my friends Veronique and all said, ‘Oh my god!’ and told me everyone’s reactions. Yeah, I said let's shake it up a bit.
So, anyway the first day he said ‘Aao’. He knew me from before and he said ‘Chalo kuch karo (Come, dance something)’. So maine toh ekdum confidently uthke unki aalingan ki jo aamad hai. He said— What you’re dancing, do you know it? Then he started questioning. And I just said—Oh wow! It was as if the bottom of the secure world I had thought I had come from—just dropped. I was in this amazing space, where it was, just sheer …uhm…again magic! But, understandably at a more adult level. Because I was 21, I was not five years old. Those years with Maharaj ji were magical.
S.G.: How many years did you stay with Maharaj ji?
A.M: I was 1982- 83- 84- 85- 86. So i came for six months, and I stayed back. I’m thankful to Keshav ji who facilitated because there was no Diploma (Hons) course. I had already danced it so much. So there was no course. Then Keshav ji told me come for six months. Then he said specialisation karo. So there was two years of specialisation. Then he said okay, stay on as a Fellow. I was there from morning 10 o'clock till night 9-10 pm at times. Because I don’t think I did anything else. I was consumed by this entire experience. The fascinating way with which he taught— with metaphors! And it was just…inner space completely opened out…wow, I have never looked at it like this. Now I was lucky that within my first year he took me into his performing troupe. So in 1982 we went to the festival of India, aur fir jahan bhi we were performing. It was not Kathak Kendra, but it was Maharaj ji's private shows.
S.G.: You never joined the Kathak Kendra Repertory?
A.M: No…Repertory to us time thi hi nahi na. Alag se repertory nahi thi. Jo Maharaj ji karte the ya jo dusre Guru karte the— sabke students ko leke karte the. Like Geeta didi (Geetanjali Lal) used to be so many times in Maharaj ji’s productions, ‘Ashtanayika’...all these. So it was a hazy line. If it was a Kathak Kendra production we were all in it. Kitni baar ‘Hori Dhoom Machori’ kiya. But I was lucky to be taken into his performing personal troupe also very early on. Abroad and all that. That was also an experience.
Now when I look back as a thinking person—in two short things if I have to say…What was it? With Kumi ben it was the little five year old, extremely thin body, in connection to the entire ambience around. That's what I learned. The connection of this body with the space around me. With the music around me, whatever was there…with other bodies around me. It was an external horizontal exploration.
With Maharaj ji it was about finding that internal space. And the connection of the rest of my body with that internal space. So it didn’t matter who was dancing next to me, what the space was, what was that, it was understanding of the inner architecture of the body itself.
And you will understand this because you have been a student of Cheeku (Pandit Jai Kishan Maharaj, the elder son of Maharaj ji, as he is fondly called). You would know how fabulously it is to understand where that is coming from…what is the structure…that you…so. For me it's a sense of centred-ness and every movement is attached to breath. And every movement has a reason of where it is going. And it's a choreography of the body itself. So I feel very privileged and lucky to have had these great gurus.
But by my nature…it was 1986…again this feeling that there is something missing. I don’t know what it was…how…there is this something…and some part of me that is not dancing. And I remember the trigger point came if I’m not mistaken during ‘Krishnayan’ (a dance production by Maharaj ji). Beautifully choreographed. As a gopi, going to fetch water, holding the ghada, Krishna breaking pot—it didn’t resonate with me. The movements were beautiful. The whole way Maharaj ji taught— how you would lift an empty pot and how you would lift a heavy pot…beautiful! What it did to the back of your neck, to your chest, to your walk, to your expression, to your concentration, its fascinating. But I asked myself: Great, as a dance language this is great to know, to learn, and to be able to excel in it. But what beyond that? Can I use…life as a heavy burden? At a particular point…how sorrow burdened you, how happiness, light, can that be part of my exploration? Rather than a ghada.
While we were doing it, it felt irrelevant to me, and dated. And this…some peon was asked to bring the…the cradle of Krishna…and I saw it…it was pink nylon…and then something said - No. That's it. Of course, I had certain personal reasons, that are relevant to my inner landscape. My personal life. At which point I said enough. I can’t do this and I left midway.
S.G.: By midway you mean the rehearsal?
A.M.: Midway I mean in the rehearsals of the production. I know it was a bit unprofessional, I hope no dancer does this to me. The programme was some five-ten days later. I wrote a letter to Maharaj ji saying I am emotionally disturbed and a few more things, and then I just disappeared. I think i was so petrified of him since then! As always petrified. Just now after the performance (February 4, 2018), we all went up to him. He was so sweet he said ‘good’. And I was like, 'Maharaj ji aapne good bola? Pachaas saal ke baad.'
And I think what's important…very, very important for me, that when I left…you know I had been dancing with my Gurus at places like Lincoln Centre, etc. And suddenly I was on my own. I literally need to start to walk again. I decided no one, that I need to find my own path. Nahi honge performances…galti hogi…nahi sahi hoga.
Kyunki Kumi ben aur Maharaj ji ke paas jaana bahut aasaan hai…they are like a huge banyan tree. They will solve your problem in no time, but it will be their solution not yours. I want to find my path. I want to find what I can do or can’t do. Right? And it was tough because nothing was happening. But you persevere, and then life teaches. I feel my first guru is life. And of course my two gurus, and of course my family. But life and experiences.
S.G.: So you went back to Ahmedabad?
A.M.: No, then I settled in Delhi. My boyfriend was in Delhi. And I had become quite part of the Delhi dance scene and all that, and I somehow never wanted to live in Ahmedabad. So I was happy to live in Delhi.
Initially it started off because as a child I was brought up with equality. And never really faced it in my everyday personal interactions. Though observed it at a distance, but to me personally it didn’t happen. But things like when we were dancing we were always satellites. Centre is always someone else. Vo ashtanayika hain, but the centre is someone else. Which is beautiful to dance. It's a beautiful emotion to have and dance. Yet, I said there are some times as a woman, it's not that I don’t have. I love the myriad relationships that exist between the female and the male characters, but I want to do something that is—I’m not a satellite. I’m the centre. I meaning the female characters are the centre. And that's where the exploration started, with many of my works.
I think it was in 1986, when I went for ‘Kathak aur Kavita’. They had three sections - Classical Indian Poem jaise Meera which is tried and tested and danced to; Classical Kathak poem mein Bindadin Maharaj ki bandish, tried and tested and danced to. It's a different matter whether it's good or bad, but it was already an established convention. Then came Contemporary poem. And you know because I had left because something in me was not dancing, there was a feeling of claustrophobia in me. You know…kya hai…kuch hai…ki mujhe samajh nahi aa raha hai, par kya hai…kaise…how do I find it?
And then—‘Agyay’ ki ek kavita hai—‘Aaye to tum thoda baras to gaye’. At that time Jeevan da was the Kathak Kendra director. He got another feel of the poem and he expressed it. But I said, 'Jeevan da, I feel it's claustrophobic'. He said, okay lets see. So I asked someone to make music for it and in a tried and tested way.
There is no sringar in claustrophobia. Whatever rasas and bhavas we dance a tleast in kathak, have a base in sringar. So, karuna also is not gut wrenching sorrow—it's because your lover has left you, gone with somebody else, is somewhere else (pardes). There is a referential sorrow that can be overcome…but claustrophobia…doesn’t have that. So when we contextualised it with what I had been dancing in the way we were used to doing bandishes. Unless I say ki main claustrophobic hun, kisi ko ata pata bhi nahi lagta ki naach kya rahi hai.
One day, I was very stressed. This was happening in five days time. And I didn’t like the piece at all. I was completely stressed. I had this small mirror in my room. It was really tiny. And that evening, I was living with my boyfriend and he had invited his friends who were all rock music fans, so they were playing loud music outside. And I was in my room preparing. It was around 11 pm at night. The mirror was tiny. Every time I moved out of it something got cut out. So to try to be inside I had to contain my movement. And the rock music was banging. And strangely, in the morning the piece was ready. It was so experiential—the two things—the blaring music and the tiny mirror.
So the next day, I took the theka, and I asked the tabla player, 'Ki aap theka hi bajao, kuch aur nahi. Sirf theka.' It became a repetitive cycle around the viewer’s imagination, which is itself, an aural claustrophobia. Because you’re like 'Stop!' Do something else! And I removed the melody from the words. Because that was adding too much of sringar aesthetic. Today, I would remove even the words but this was 1986, I’ve just left from Krishanayan. And lots of images of Kumiben doing one piece, I told the light designer that I just want one spot. The whole thing is about taking off, but not being able to. Because the mirror was not allowing me to move.
So, this was my first piece, the movements are all Kathak. And costume toh maine Kumi ben ko dekha tha, 'Duvidha' mein saari pehne hue to maine bhi sari pehna. Copying and being influenced slowly, slowly goes. But it's important to know where it's come from. It's very important—the intention. It's not like you saw something and just pasted it without thinking, without questioning it.
So here it started. After that there were many cathartic processes one after another. Then I did ‘Cheekh’. Then I did ‘Samvad’, between my inner self and outer self, but using two dancers. Then I did…at the same time dancing my classical solos in the traditional format. So, I would be dancing my classical solos. Beginning with Vandana, etc., the way it is conventionally done. That is going on in parallel. But it was all about women being the central…and then eventually I got married, then I had a son. And I did a piece called ‘Letter to a Child Never Born' by Oriana Fallaci.
As I was searching, very influenced by Kumi ben by external and Maharaj ji by internal space...so I asked different architects, artists, etc., to design…music..literature. This is the first piece I did I think. My mother had given this book to me when I was sixteen years old. It was a pregnant woman talking to her unborn child. She gave it to me about her connection with me. And this book is still with me. I gave it to Shubha (Mudgal). I made the English and Shubha's father converted it to Hindi. And Shubha did the music. That was our first collaboration together. I don’t remember the dates…1992…1991…but it was one after another— these pieces, parallel with my solos.
‘Namaskar, sabhi guruon se aagya leti hun.’ Talking in Hindi became the biggest stress on me so I decided main English mein bolungi. I can’t help it, I’m not a language person. I wish I had learned it. I wish Keshav ji had not said this to me, but he did. He said, 'Tabla, vocal, etc., tum mat seekho, you just concentrate with Maharaj ji”. So I never did any of the allied subjects. In Ahmedabad also. So there is a huge lacuna. For me to do a language at the age of 26, it was not impossible but just too much at that point given my circumstances.
First few years went in finding myself walking again, doing the solos that one is used to doing. Like a kind of interactive space. Lecture demonstrations formatted into a dance piece—performance. Plus bandishes: vandana, vilambit, thumri, bhajan, tarana. Phir madhya, drut— that structure and—‘Cheekh', ‘Samvad’, ‘Letters to a Child Never Born’. But it was first this female wanting…looking at space, music, costuming always, literature, there were a whole lot of…removing music completely- ‘Textures of Silence’— looking at…probably premiered in 1991. But these dates I’m all a little fuzzy. 1989 I did a piece called ‘Shadows of the Mind’ —Am I a man dreaming I’m a butterfly or I’m a butterfly dreaming that I’m a man— That was the quote that inspired me. It was given to me by Daksha (Seth). Then we both developed our…then followed ‘Letters To A Child Never Born’…there was…a piece called ‘Utsav’, ‘Main Kaun’…who am I…So this was between finding my identity and saying that Yeah come on I would love to do this Thumri but I also want to be the central character , and discover spaces within the expanded format of Kathak.
Oh! I think I’ve answered all your questions, I think I spoke too much (laughs).
These were a whole lot of pieces—Jaise 1994 mein I did—Haan! Fir kya hone laga. I think magic is very important. I’m saying it now in words, at that time putting it in words was not possible. If the onion is cut and put in front of you, or one by one you peel off the layers…or lets say leaving something to the imagination of the spectator. Today if I say something like
“Ab dekhiye battees chakkar. Aur giniye. Main bhi ginu, aur aap bhi gino.”
Aur fir unhe accha laga toh log taaliyan bajayenge aur uske baad shayad bhul jayenge. Aur yaad rahega ki kitna ganda chakkar kiya ya kitna accha chakkar kiya. Kya baat hai.
Kya baat hai. Thats it.
But if I bring in these 32 chakkars in a sense like suppose there is a storm. So maybe in the audience’s psyche, a storm is created. A memory is triggered of being in love I suppose or resting into a geographic space where there was actual storm. Or the person feels madly in passion with someone, this sense of total abandonment— That may or may not have a response of ‘aah kya baat hai’, but I feel it will resonate. So you have gone beyond time and space, it will resonate many many years late. Maybe—I’m not saying it does.
But I have you know, I have this piece and over the years I have done it in many choreographies, its become a kind of referential piece where I remove everything— lights, sounds, dancers, everything. And I’m only doing footwork, with the sound of my ghunghrus and ankles. It was about, there’s no light, theres no music, and there’s just one hope— which is like the little bit of life flickering…I…uhm…when my mother’s younger brother was passing away…I was standing next to him and watching his heart beat on the monitor…and you know I cant forget that…though this piece was made much before that…I’m jumping, this ghunghru piece was made much before— In ‘Unchartered Seas’, then I’ve referenced it in ‘Within’ also, in ‘Seeking The Beloved’ also. But now when I do one of the pieces— He was going…and I could see it…I’m sorry I get so emotional. I could see the heart monitor. For me when I’m dancing that…that image…I can’t help it. Every time I feel that if I feel, maybe somewhere it will connect to somebody. And so many people have come back stage and mentioned about this piece to me, after 1.5 hours of dancing, they mention this piece to me. This is…I think its because there is a whole—its not just about technical prowess. Thats what I mean when I say dancing—You need to have the intention.
So we were at the imagery, that this is what I wanted to do, and not want to go on stage and say “Ye lo Siddhi, ab aamad dekho” — Nahi. For example, Aamad is inviting the dance, okay…So….So how have I invited…I don’t want to drag you. That come down to the path I’m going. I want to say that this is my path, you take your own.
When you are walking down a forest, I will not say thats the tree I’m looking at and don’t you dare look at anything around. Just look at that tree. And there’s one bird, only listen to that bird. That for me was the usual presentation of Kathak. I’m sorry.
You see the prowess of it but you miss out—Arre ye dekho there’s a little caterpillar. Arre look at this other! Whoosh! Wow what was that shush whoosh whoosh in the tree. You don’t know as a spectator the entire gamut of the forest! Sound! Sound of feet, under your feet..the soil under the the feet, the textures of the trees and the shrubs and the dry leaves.
So I started making pieces which wove these things into a comprehensive—and then people started saying ‘ye to Kathak nahi hai’. I said thats okay I honestly don’t know where this format of presenting came. My rationale thinking could have only been in that this format came in the courts. Because thats where you need to address, and show your chamatkaari, that was the intention. “Ab dekhiye mein baadal ki gat kar rahi hun, ab dekhiye ki main pair mein kaise…jo bhi”—it was chamatkaari! That was the intention. If I was in a court I would do that! I will not think so much about imagination, they might throw me out of the court if they don’t connect with my imagination. That was the intention. Why would I dance like this in a temple? When the Kathakars were in the temples narrating stories they did not need to do chamatkaar, they needed to talk about the miracles of the mythological figures. So it was a different way of storytelling in different times and spaces.
But the fact that you are presenting—as if to a Nawab. If I was in an 18th Century court with a Nawab I would also say “Ab dekhiye” But I’m not in court!
I’m on a proscenium stage. There are people from all walks of life. From all understanding of Kathak, Classical dance, Non classical dance, age fifteen to eighty five. So I want to build in them …uhm…a whole of magic! And I…uhm…so…But I needed to ask myself. This is my own thinking and I maybe completely wrong—
What is Vandana? To me it is an invocation to still the mind. See I’m a born Hindu but I’m not a Hindu, Muslim, Christian. I’m not an organised religion person. I believe in spirituality and humanity. So whether its to a particular God of the Hindu pantheon or to objects in nature. My role as a performer is to still the mind. Then comes paer ki uthaan. We all come from different time and space experiences that brings everybody in the audience come to the same time and space. So everyone has converged into one time and space.
People today watch things on internet because you can’t bring everybody to the same space. But here in a performance you can. So you do paer ki uthaan. Cut it to a point of such minute permutations that the time cycle starts to weave in.
And then Thaat comes when you try to still the body. So invocation is the heart and the mind, try to enter it, still it. Then bring everybody on the same plain. Then Thaat— let your breath pass to every little pore. Expand yourself in the ambience. What I feel when I do Thaat is Kumi ben and Maharaj ji coming together— That the whole going of breath to every part of my body, and my body as if expanding to the universe.
It may not happen. But to me thats what I’m thinking.
When you do Uthaan, its like revving. In the morning you have to rev the car and then it suddenly vibrates and starts. All the vibrating particle of the body—
“Dig dig thei ta thei ta thei”—Sudden movement! Everything is shaking up, shaken up and held. So there is a dynamic. Then aamad. When we invite the dance, then the whole thing starts with paran amad, toda, tukda, etc.
For me this was the structure. So I started making my pieces according to this structure.
I think then came a phase…I just felt—Lot of people were very obstinate about what is right. ‘Ye hi sach hai, aur koi sach nahi hai’. So after the cathartic experience of women’s issues it was to look at something in a more textured way. See nobody was much concerned when the literature changed in Kathak, or the music changed. Costuming was always evolving, look at five different dancers there are five different ways of wearing it. So use some music from there or use some literature from here was okay. As long as you worked with the movement vocabulary of the body. That was the big issue.So I started thinking about in two directions- the vertical and horizontal expansion. Overall it is a larger area of Kathak that you’re working on. Also, the whole structure of the Kathak repertoire is so different. Four Gurus will have four different ways of dance. So, you would recognize this. I think its the responsibility of the artist to keep on pushing these boundaries. Otherwise you are an imitator. I mean a great artist is someone who is a creative person. So...that and...and the need to you know…somebody asked me...do you love dance or...I heard somebody saying that “Ye to Kathak nahi hai main to apna naam badal dun lekin ye Kathak nahi karungi”...something like that. Wow, I asked myself--Do I love Kathak or do I love dance, which comes first?
In my mind, am I concerned about the history of Kathak, or am I concerned with the history of the human mind. And I don’t think in my mind...for me...I love to dance. And second I love to dance Kathak. I definitely take the precedence of the history of the human mind over the history of Kathak which is like a drop in the ocean of the history of the universe.
Therefore I felt that there was an emotion which required totally stepping out of the broader parameters of Kathak. Do I say ‘No you can’t do it’, or do I say ‘I’m going to try’. I want to dance, I want to do it. Now I told myself, I have one life; and if I want to dance, why should some notion of a particular style stop me? Then it started getting very clear in my head--When I dance Kathak and when I dance what I call my ‘contemporary dance based on Kathak’ , I don’t have a better word, I wish I did but I don’t, and I haven’t found it in the last 15-20 years that I have been working on this--That I plant the seed of Kathak and I water it with contemporary sensibilities. Its not grafting one orange tree onto an apple tree. Whatever tree or plant or shrub grows out of that, its roots are Kathak. It has taken it to a completely different space and the possibility of many thought process.
Like claustrophobia say--If today I am making it I don’t think it would it in the broader parametres of Kathak repertoire. I don’t think even by pushing the movement repertoire of Kathak it would be communicating it really well, if I want to let my body mould to the feeling of claustrophobia. Which may not fall within the Kathak parameter. Then came ‘Footprints on Water’, I think very iconic for me in my life, for me, 1996. This was classical but it was like opening a book. I was just attempting going into contemporary which is in the last section in ‘Grishma’, where I sit like this and knees are opened out and the chauk position is brought in. The beginning ‘Varsha’ is vilambit, and the season as it opens it goes according to the ‘margam’ of Kathak. Thaat, tukde, abhinaya, etc. Its to this date one of my favourite works. I enjoyed dancing it a lot. Because we put in a lot of reading, and textures, and rehearsals, and with Shubha(Mudgal) it was a great experience. It was looking at seasons from different perspectives. Then there was this...I danced...It was in 4 parts- Awakening, Desire, Caring, Bondage and Lament. My dad said all love is going into Lament (laughs). Lament and Bondage I danced till quite…but its a process…some of the pieces…like winter…I dance it with my back to the audience completely. Some pieces work…
After that it was 1998. Then it was classical pieces like ‘Sundar Badan’. Many many beech mein vo to main bata nahi rahi, chhote chhote bandish banake. ‘Varsha’ ,‘Sharad’, ‘Hemant’ they are all classical. Anyway so this, that is when drishtikon, 1989 in a very draft way, 1991 we got the actual grant. Seven hundred rupees per dancer. Three dancers. Because I also wanted to see. Till 1989 I was only doing solos. 1989 was was one girl I asked to work with me.
Then the interest in choreography also. In terms of more bodies dancing. Then the new phase which I call from 2006 which majoritively started with ‘Earth, Sun and Moon’, now I call it ‘Widening Circles’.
Then ‘Immersed’, ‘Seeking The Beloved’, ‘Samvet’- on five elements, ‘Utsav’, etc. Then there were other major productions like ‘Uncharted Seas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Within’ and ‘Interrupted’ being the most recent one. So you know where the process has gone and I’m very clear about it.
Siddhi - Dancers, especially Kathak dancers(because of extensive use of footwork) reach a burn out level very soon in their careers. At the same time one looks at you in sheer wonder as you are one dancer who has defied the concept of age with your continued practise and performance. What advice would you give to young artists so as to ensure our longevity as a dancer. What kind of body training techniques do you use in your practise and what disciplines do you draw from?
Aditi Mangaldas- Fifteen years ago, I had a really major knee problem. That's when doctors actually stopped me from dancing. I was not allowed to shift my knee even beyond 90 degrees it was so severe. They were completely frayed. That's when I really--Yoga--very important. Yoga was part of my life since I was a child. I found it helped not only in the physical aspect but in finding my centre also. I was telling my yoga teacher Mini Shastri that it really helped in finding my centre; which was so good. Understanding the breath, so important. Plus the whole understanding of the body.
Secondly, gym to kaun jayega. I used to think like that when I was in my 20s. What is the need to go the gym I dance so much; and if I go to the gym I’ll become like a body -builder. But that can’t happen! We don’t put on that kind of musculature. Plus the weight has helped me dance again. Because I had to strengthen my quadriceps to pull up the knee. I think that really really helped.
Third thing is floor. We all grew up dancing on hard floor. All my dancers, they’re all so young, itna bhi flat land hoga tatkaar jaake uspe karenge. They don’t want to dance on this floor because the patak sound feels good during riyaaz. But they don’t understand thats going to damage their knees. Plus the attitude that there are no shortcuts.
Nothing happens without riyaz and sadhana. But that doesn’t mean thinking about it in an esoteric way, but actually getting up and doing it. Because when you keep at it, you go beyond the technique, and then maybe something can happen. Thats absolutely essential.
Siddhi- What do you think is the role of national institutions of dance disseminating/dictating cultural discourse
Aditi Mangaldas- I think you need to ask yourself- What is the role of national institutes. Is it narrowed vision or is it a far reaching international vision. Where, it is not just training in the best possible quality, but also exposing the students to what is happening in the world now. Its important to know where we are coming from. Our history, historical perspective--but in reference to TODAY. Are they taken to museums, to see exhibitions, to see…yeah some of them maybe go, but it would be within the Hindustani Classical. Do they go and expose themselves to different places, do they see what else in dance is happening in the rest of the world. Is there an understanding in the institution, that some people have this of performance-finding their own path. That has been mine, at least till today. Burn all the praise and criticism and start afresh. But do they expose you to dance history, scholarship, somebody wants to do performance, somebody wants to teach. Everyone wants to perform-you build up that…How do we distinguish between mediocrity and excellence. Honestly there is so much mediocre stuff. Me saying it doesn’t mean I’m excellent. I might be part of the mediocre gang.
That to get on a same platform there has to be levels of dance. Where is that sensitivity? That ye wale festival mein karne ke liye you need to be of that calibre nahi to mauka milne wala nahi hai, aur agar mauna nahi milega, then the dancer will think. That maybe my strong point is also in something else. My strong point might be in some other way, maybe film on dance, filming, direction, who knows?
I think that is not given.
Yesterday I read an article written by ,Malvika Sarukkai that I really enjoyed; when dancers become artists, that is the great-these are the great performers who have reached that level of artistry. It takes you on an imaginary path! Build on your music, structure of your movements. It is like a pan, this vision of 180 degrees. So its wonderful.
The interview ends here, as the conversation gradually fades.