Unlike most classical dancers, you do not belong to a family of dancers. How did you decide on a career in Kathak?
This is a story that my parents remind me of—I honestly don’t have any memory of it. My family has been industrialists on one side, and academicians on the other. My paternal grandmother used to live with us in Ahmedabad. It’s a very large family, so every evening the entire Mangaldas family would come to our home to meet my grandmother. I have been told that there was this little table on which I would promptly jump up and somehow try to attract their attention and tell little stories and do other things, mostly using movement.
My parents were both very liberal. They encouraged both my brother and Ito explore our maximum. Within their possibilities, they tried to expose us to different cultures, music, dance, art and sculpture. Further, there was a community science centre that I went to as a young child where I became really interested in mathematics, and went on to graduate in the subject later. Gradually, all the classes fell off, and dance seemed to be my calling.
I don’t remember any particular moment when I decided to become a professional. I don’t remember a time when I was not dancing. My earliest memories are of me in class with my gurus. They did put me in a Bharatnatyam class to start with because Mrinalini Sarabhai was a family friend, but my best friend was in a Kathak class. When I went there, I fell in love and it was magic to see the class of my guru Shrimati Kumudini Lakhia. So, I implored my parents to move me and they did. Thereon, started my lifelong immersion, passion and dedication with Kathak. That’s how the first steps were taken in Kathak.
Also, I went to a very liberal school called Shreyas that encouraged music and dance along with mathematics, languages and the rest. Being in such an environment, with my parents and my guru, where art can prosper, helped. Later on, I left Ahmedabad and came to Delhi and joined my second guru, Pandit Birju Maharaj. I was with him for many years, and then decided that I need to find my own language. For me, life has been the greatest guru, because you find that strength within you to relearn everything and forge your own path. So, dance just became a part of my existence.
Tell us a little about your extensive training under the leading gurus of Kathak, Shrimati Kumudini Lakhia and Pandit Birju Maharaj.
I was really lucky to have these two stalwarts as my gurus. If I see it in a broader sense as to what my learning and education has been from them: from Kumudini ji, I learnt the relationship of this tiny body in terms of the vast space around us—a horizontal understanding, a connection with not only the space, but with lights, music and text. Similarly, with Pandit Birju Maharaj, I learnt to see this body itself as the centre of the universe. What is the central part of the body that reaches out to the edges? I also learnt how this body is self-sufficient on its own and the intricacies of movement within the body.
Kumudini ji also always told us never to wear blinkers; to observe and be open to whatever is happening around us. That really helped me to constantly question. My family also always encouraged questioning, discussions, debates and arguments—not to take anything written in stone. So what if something is written 2,000 or 5,000 years ago? You are free to question it and find your own relevance with it. Maharaj ji, on the other hand, expected us to go deeper and deeper into the style. So, you shed all the externals and constantly did sadhana or dedicated practice—got immersed in the dance. Eventually, I always consider my family and life my two ultimate gurus. The experience of learning from life is something quite different.
Tell us about the contemporary vocabulary/movement language that you have devised.
There are two streams under which my work can be categorized—classical Kathak and contemporary dance based on Kathak. There is one stream of thought according to which what we call khula naach is one in which one comes and recites the bols and communicates with the audience, and it’s not a structured performance. I prefer to structure my performances in a way that a certain concept is woven through it, and the pieces that I dance to, are like little gems that are strung on the piece. I do a lot of solos and also choreograph many group works. All of this is about 80 percent of my work.
At the same time, I found that there are many things that I want to communicate. As Kathakars, we are storytellers, and sometimes the stories we want to communicate, cannot be best communicated through the medium of classical Kathak. For example, when I wanted to communicate claustrophobia, I found it impossible to do so within the broader parameters of classical Kathak. So, I had to find a movement vocabulary that allows me to communicate it. As an artist, I have a desire to communicate things, and I should not stop myself from doing so. So, I asked myself how to go about it. How do I develop a vocabulary that is informed by our history and geography, but not bogged down by it? How does this new exploration start? I don’t believe in fusion—it’s like cutting a branch of an apple tree and grafting it on a mango tree.
My attempt, however, is to sow the seed of Kathak and water it with contemporary sensibilities, movement, thought, music and inspirations from life. So, the fruits are firmly entrenched in Kathak, and yet the tree that grows out is very different from my Kathak tree. This contemporary dance based on Kathak tree is totally rooted in Kathak. No one can do it who is not a Kathak dancer. Classical Kathak has a kind of external boundary, though one that is constantly expanding. Whereas in this case, it’s like absorption—not fusion, or deconstructing the form.
You will turn 60 next year. What are some of your upcoming performances, tours, and other activities of the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company – The Drishtikon Dance Foundation that you head.
There are many exciting things coming up in the future. We have a whole set of performances happening in India, many of which are my solos. We just performed as a group at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai for their 50th anniversary and I’m also dancing a classical solo for them. I’m also performing in Chennai for a festival. We are performing all over India this year. We are also going to Russia and Turkey. We have also just returned from an extensive tour of Germany with 11 performances of our work which is within classical and contemporary dance based on Kathak. We are also scheduled to be going to the Middle East. In April 2020, I will be performing Immersed at the “Dancing the Gods Festival” in New York.
Since last year, under Dance Drishtikon, we have also started sponsoring young dancers and giving them an opportunity to completely make their own work—from the concept to the choreography, etc. That happened in May this year, and now we are going to present another young dancer and four young choreographers. Among all these, the most exciting is the work I’ve started on three new productions, one of which is a contemporary solo. All our collaborators are from England. It’s about why society is scared of female fantasy. Some of the top names in light design, dramaturgy, costume design and set design are my collaborators. We will premiere it in November 2020. The other group work—both classical and contemporary—is also going to be premiered sometime in 2020 or early 2021. I’m also talking to Shubha Mudgal for the music composition, and working on another fully classical solo.
Another series we have started is the baithak, to give young dancers and musicians an opportunity to perform in an intimate atmosphere. Since last year, we have had eight baithaks—five in our own home studio and three at other venues, like the Oddbird Theatre or the Serendipity Foundation. My only involvement is that I curate the piece. Another series that I have started are the workshops in which I teach myself. We are also planning to start a series called Saturdays with Aditi, which will be a very intensive training in the classical form of Kathak for three hours over many Saturdays.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. You can read all her published work on www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com