Skip links

Through the Lens

Back to Issue | December 2020

Through the Lens

Conversation between Kanak Rele and Matangi Prasan

Being a Gujarati, how did you gravitate towards Kathakali? Since this art form is culturally connected. Were there any moments where you felt disconnected? What efforts did you have to make to imbibe that culture?

(Kanak Rele): My chosen idioms are both from Kerala. I was only 6 when I gravitated towards Kathakali. Guru Karunakara Panicker had migrated to Bombay at an invitation of the cultural organization Seven Arts of which my maternal uncle was one of the founders. In those days Kathakali and Manipuri were well sought after. So my uncle and his friends decide upon getting a fine teacher come from Kerala to teach Kathakali. Sri Ragahavan Nair was initially invited to Mumbai for the same. However, this effort was futile because Bombayites at that time were under the false impression that Kathakali was a “Rakshasi” dance and so no one wanted to learn it! Additionally, the predominant culture in Bombay back then was Maharashtrian and Gujarati, and men from these communities did not pursue dancing back then. Sri Raghavan was very disappointed with this and was keen on teaching.

Growing up, I used to dance all the time and just couldn’t keep still. Seeing my keen interest and passion, someone suggested to my uncle that I train under Guru Raghavan. And that’s how I was introduced to Kathakali at a time when no woman used to dance this form.

Smt. Rajalakshmi used to teach Mohiniyattam at Kerala Kalamdandalam and when she migrated to Mumbai, I went to her to learn Mohiniattam. I must confess, the moment she began training me, I fell in love with the form. It permeates my whole body. But she only taught me four dance sequences! When I requested to be taught more, she said that’s all! I was surprised and shocked. This ignited in me an intense hunger to know more about Mohiniyattam. I then received a grant from the Ford Foundation to go to Kerala and film the last surviving exponents of the form. I reached Kerala and documented 3 different styles of Monhiniyattam!

I think it was providential. I was born to dance Kathakali, born to go close to Kerala. Culturally and aesthetically I am very much a Keralite, I feel. I understand the ambience and the system of Kerala, and their arts and their rhythm, the Sopana Sangeetham.

How did your education in law help you think differently about dance? Did that education help you in looking at a holistic approach to dance leading you to start Nalanda? 

Thank you for this very pertinent question. If you want to work at the university level, with a semblance of pre-designed courses, one must have a legal background, that is what I believe. And I was fortunate to have one. When I approached the University of Mumbai, my professor T.K Tope was the vice chancellor at that time. I was an established performer by the time. When I went to meet him with a request if we could have a “small, little” course in Indian Classical Dance at the university, this 6 ft tall man with great personality stood up and thundered at me, “What do you mean by a small little course? We will have a degree at the university.” He continued in Marathi, “I know you are capable of doing it. Have I not taught you in your legal courses? You know how to formulate contracts, you know  how to write rules and regulations, you know dance so I am sure you can design a good course. Go ahead, we will have a degree course in dance.” And I agreed. Had I known then how time consuming and difficult it would be, I think I‘d have run away in the opposite direction. But I am glad I jumped into that task then and I am very proud that I created these courses. University of Mumbai, now called Mumbai Vidyapeeth, was the first university in the country to have undergraduate courses in Indian Classical Dance. Now, it also offers courses at postgraduate level.

In retrospect, I should be very satisfied. But there is one thing that has left me with a tinge of regret. I was a superb performer and I used to get a lot of performance opportunities. But once the university started, I was the operating officer and I had to manage all the administrative tasks related to the teaching and examinations. These examinations would come up during the peak performance season and as a result my performing career had to suffer. But I am glad, I did it. Today every nook and corner of this country have dance courses.

What is your most favorite choreography and why?

There are two dance sequences that I thoroughly enjoyed choreographing and performing – Kubja and Gandhari. The Jnanpith awardee Dr Sitakant Mohapatra asked me to create a sequence on one of his poems. I had to politely refuse because I worked only with lyrics in Malayalam. He then referred me to the renowned poet Kavalam Narayana Panicker and then Kubja came into existence. The piece was written originally by Dr Sitakant Mohapatra and then beautifully translated into Malayalam by Kavalam Narayana Panicker. Kubja was a great hit, not just in India but all across the world. Gandhari is also written by Kavalam ji. 

Both these works present the essence of womanhood. Both the characters reflect a woman who is tortured and so unhappy but comes out supreme and says, as the world gets going, “I am me. I am a woman. I am supreme”.

When you have a creative block, how will you overcome it?

When I did Gandhari, it was the third attempt that gelled. Poor Kavalamji had to re-write it twice! I had also complained so much that the writing was not gelling with my idea. Sometimes the music won’t just fit the way I envisioned, and I would throw it away! So yes, there were creative blocks. But once an artist knows their  sensibilities, they know it in their bones what facets of dance making work for them. The key is to keep trying it over and over till you get it right.

What advice do you have for the next generation of artists who want to create art responsibly?

Give all your efforts into creating the work, understand and analyze the form. You should be able to have “Vihangaavlokana” – a bird’s eye view of all the aspects of the artwork in its totality. And to achieve that you have to learn, keep at it. And then go beyond the form.

Also, criticize yourself. Be open to making mistakes and learning from them. 

You learnt Kathakali when it was practiced mainly by men. What kind of gender discrimination did you face while you were learning/performing Kathakali?

I didn’t face any gender discrimination, to be honest. My Guru was the ace of Stree Vesham. He was known as Guru “Panchali” Panicker! He taught me how the Stree Veshams are to be danced.

I have been very lucky to have an encouraging mother and Gurus. And I am also very happy that I was in Mumbai. The city doesn’t judge, nor does it banish you for being different or doing anything different. 

What advice do you have for younger artistes?

Never work for free. I have never danced for free. I have always been paid for my performances. To dance is a very expensive thing! There are so many costs involve – makeup, jewelry, costumes, fitness! This needs money! You should be compensated for your work. Dance is work. 

Matangi Prasan

Matangi is a Bangalore based Bharatanatyam dancer and an actor primarily working in the Kannada film industry. She also runs Matangi Nritya Kshetra imparting training to young minds in the practice and critical theory of Bharatanatyam. Instagram: @matangiprasan

Explore the World of Dance Today