Through the Lens
Conversation with Kumudhini Lakhia and Saranya Chandran
Early Years …
With your academic qualification in Agriculture, how did dance become your calling?
After finishing school (Matriculation from Queen Mary’s in Lahore in 1945), there was the question of what to do next. In those days, there were only two options available – either become a Doctor or a Lawyer. My mother who was a vocalist (AIR Bombay, 1930; HMV Records) wanted me to be a singer, but she was disappointed with my voice quality – so let us try dance, she said. I was taken to every dance class in Bombay and the teachers said I was very good. So ‘dance‘ it would be.
Unfortunately, my mother passed away before my school results were out. Now it would be my father’s decision. He was always doing something different! His great desire was to become a farmer after he retired. “Why don’t you do Agriculture? Would be of great help on the farm.“ So that was the Naini College of Agriculture, where I was enrolled alongside 38 boys with me as the only girl! I endured four years and passed out. But this future farmer’s father was still busy with his engineering contracts, so the farm had to wait.
My brother who studied at Sherwood College, Nainital was going back to school after his vacation. I was seeing him off at Bombay Central station. I felt a tap on my shoulder from behind, I turned around to see Comlata Dutt, my father’s friend. She, being a regular visitor in our house knew that I danced and had taken training from good teachers. “What are you doing nowadays?,” she asked. “Do you still dance? Ram Gopal, the well-known dancer, wants a girl dancer for his troupe. Will you go?”
In a week’s time I was in London, as a member of the Ram Gopal Dance Company. This was March 1948, now it is Aug 2020, 72 years of my being in this profession called dance.
What was it like to dance with Ram Gopal ji, that too in colonial times?
Ram was not a great dancer but then he was the greatest showman. He knew stagecraft, he was intelligent, he was well-read, he had very good taste and he was an artist. He was also a disciplinarian, hardworking, at the same time fun-loving and cracked bad jokes. What has inspired me during my later years of work is his influence and trying to give one’s whole to whatever one does.
We went to many countries in Europe, Russia, and the USA. As this was just after World War-II, the audiences thronged to the theatres to see the colourful dancers from India. They had only seen the colours of war for so long. It was always a full house at the theatre, we were doing eight shows a week.
What are your memories of 15th August 1947?
I was visiting my grandparents in Bombay. I went to the JJ School of Arts with a friend as they were celebrating Independence Day. All wearing white, singing national songs, flag hoisting, speeches, distribution of seats. The feeling all round was very charged with the achievement of Azadi (freedom).
You have always believed that Kathak is beyond Radha-Krishna narratives. Can you take us down memory lane with your first experiment with non-traditional or neo-narratives in Kathak? How did you feel just before and after that experience?
My first experience with choreography was ‘Dhabkar’ in 1973 which means ‘pulse’. The funny reason for creating ‘Dhabkar’ was that I was so saturated with Kathak that I felt my pulse probably beats Kathak bols. Actually, I wanted to discover how Kathak pulsates. Is it in the footwork, the micro mini movements of the wrists and neck, the arms, or the bhramaris. You will probably ask me “Did you find out?” No! My whole body pulsates with the joy of dance. There were five dancers in ‘Dhabkar” who danced like one body. This production had many firsts: (1) the use of levels on the stage, (2) music specially composed for the dance and (3) all white costumes. No one had thought of white as a colour. Dancers were always in very bright colours which I wanted to change. In Delhi some people asked us if we had come from a funeral!
I was not trained in choreography. In fact, the word choreography did not exist. After my training, I always wanted to give Radha-Krishna a rest. Krishna was either stealing butter or breaking the sakhis’ pots. Instead of giving a physical interpretation to a story I tried the reverse. Give a story to the physical movement. Hence, ‘Dhabkar’, an abstract idea. There were mixed reactions, some liked it, some were critical. I loved it. So most of my following work was on abstract themes.
What, to you, is the creative impulse for a new production; and what is your choreographic process?
I felt a great responsibility towards Kathak. I did not like the way it was presented by dancers as if they are selling a product and giving credit only to their family (the Gharana system). Kathak is a beautiful form of movement and traditional bol patterns. It needed to be given an artistic character and aesthetic value.
I visualize the stage area “length, breadth and height“ as a canvas to paint on. The dancers are my colours who are continuously designing the space and creating a visual experience. I consider myself a painter, an architect, and a poet while I choreograph.
How do you bring out a dancer’s individuality in a group based/ institutionalised system of teaching dance?
Most students are intelligent. They go to good schools, they collect knowledge from the internet so that becomes more challenging for me as a teacher, and I cannot stop at giving one tukra after another in the class. Sometimes I give them some bols and tell them to make visuals. This is an exercise in ‘seeing’ what you ’hear’ or it may be vice versa. Give them a picture and ask for percussion bols as accompaniment instead of music. This is just another exercise.
What is your expectation from your students at Kadamb?
My expectations from my students are nil. We have only one motto in Kadamb: come in smiling and leave smiling. Not everyone does that, because those who have expectations from us are unhappy.
My students who are now professional dancers throughout the globe are all doing creative work. Each one is different in his or her approach to Kathak dance. They were encouraged to follow their own independent thinking. That is the joy of being a creative artist.
What is your view on the changing landscape of dance in COVID times?
These Covid times have taken a toll on the entire human race. Dancers suffer equally like everyone else. They have taken to online learning and teaching. But it is not the same. The space is always limited, the image is small but most of all the human touch is not there. The arts need a personal relationship. I really don’t know, I am worried and frightened about what Covid will be doing to us.
Favourite Movie: I can’t pinpoint one, have seen so many in the past 80 years from Marathi comedies, Gone with the Wind, Rashomon, Chaudhvin ka Chand…so many more…but I don’t like Bollywood.
Role Model: Me, myself
Favourite Book: Again many writers…Stories from Mahabharata, Enid Blyton, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Munshi Premchand…and so many others…
Favourite Poet: William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, Tennyson, Mirabai, Kabir, and many more!
Something that irritates you: Stupidity irritates me
Something that makes you laugh: Good, intelligent and clean humour
Words of Wisdom
It would be great if you could share a message for us young dancers.
I am no God man to give sermons. Each one should live their life the way he or she wishes.
Sharanya Chandran, daughter & disciple of Geeta Chandran, has been learning, choreographing and performing Bharatanatyam for over 25 years. She has performed in India, and other countries both as a solo artist and as a senior member of the Natya Vriksha Dance Company. Follow on Instagram @chandran.sharanya