Anjani Ambegaokar, director of Anjani’s Kathak Dance of India, does not put limitations on her art form. She has done everything from teach kathak to underprivileged students in Los Angeles to choreograph a basketball-themed kathak dance. So last February, when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s art director Bill Rauch invited Ambegaokar to choreograph the dancing for their production of The Clay Cart (a translation of Sudraka’s Sanskrit play Mrichchhakatika), she accepted immediately.
Having studied Sanskrit in India, Ambegaokar knew that Mrichchhakatika, which is about a courtesan who falls in love with a Brahmin, “is done as a dance drama in India.” The plot follows the besotted brahmin, Charudatta, and the courtesan, Vasasantasena, who is subject to the whims of the King’s brother. Things are complicated by mistaken identities, thieves, gamblers, and political fugitives.
Ambegaokar was invited to stay in Ashland, Oregon, to choreograph the movements for the entire show in six weeks. The racially diverse 24-person cast included only two Indian men and two half-Indian women, including the lead. According to Ambegaokar, the biggest challenge in working with the cast was composing the opening Shiva benediction, in which every single actor had to take a pose of Shiva.
“They were ages 22-75. Men and women [of] different shapes, different sizes,” says Ambegaokar, adding that one of the older actors even confided that he sometimes could not feel his feet.
She also brought the lead actress, Miriam Laube, to Los Angeles for four days of intensive training. It was not just about dance, she explained, since Miriam’s character only does kathak for a few minutes in the entire show.
“It’s more about movement and facial expressions. I had to work on her looking like a dancer. When a courtesan in the Indian tradition sits she is a dancer, when she gets up she is a dancer. When she moves, she is a dancer. That’s what I was involved in.”
Ambegaokar’s contributions to the production were not just limited to choreography. She brought to the production a deep understanding of Sanskrit and Indian culture that comes from her background in kathak.
“As kathak dancers, we encompass everything else [in our dance]: culture, tradition, language, rituals.
Everything is music.”
After four or five days of attending just dance rehearsals, Ambegaokar decided to get more involved in the show. “So then I asked Bill, ‘Can I watch and be part of this?’ and he said, ‘Sure.’ So I [was] not choreographing, but I [was] putting in my two cents everywhere.”
Soon, she was analyzing many of the scenes, getting deeply involved in everything from costuming to how to apply kunku and how to conduct a puja, to where it is appropriate to include untouchables: “Bill [Rauch] realized that in our Sanskrit plays, there is always mention of the deities, the culture of life, the ritual, and the tradition. Everything that exists is part of the play. You have to know more than just the dialogue. We had to dig deeper to getting to the place where it was possible for everyone to understand.”
Rauch even liked the look of the traditional kathak pranam, which is the act of seeking the blessings of the gods and paying respect when the performer enters the stage, so much that he had Ambegaokar incorporate it into the show. Some of the actors, however, were not comfortable incorporating religious practices in their performance.
“Spirituality is part of Indian dance; actors don’t necessarily accept that,” Ambegaokar says. She held a discussion with the actors to address their concerns: “What is it that Shiva is all about, and why is it that we are doing what we are doing? [We are] seeking his blessings. It is about spirituality, not religion.”
The actors eventually came around, relating the idea of the spirituality of dance to that of yoga, with which many of the actors were familiar. Despite these hurdles, Ambegaokar feels that she developed, “a whole family over there,” and looks forward to returning to Ashland later this summer to engage with the performers and audiences.
Supriya Limaye is a sophomore at Lewis and Clark College.
The Clay Cart plays at Oregon Shakespeare Festival until November 2, 2008. For ticket information, visit www.osfashland.org.