Contemporary dancers and dance companies in India can be counted on your fingertips. Prominent among them are Chandralekha, Astad Deboo, Daksha Seth, Isha Shervani and Jayachandran Palazhy to name a few.
Dance in the past was decided by lineages, religion, caste, tribe or from a particular guru, gurukul or gharana. Contemporary dance operates outside this rigid structure and perhaps this explains why there is very little contemporary dance in India. Unlike classical dance forms, contemporary dance is difficult to define. When one talks about Kathak or Odissi, you know what it is about.
However, Akram Khan, the London-born Bangladeshi contemporary dancer, says that it is a misconception to think that you can do whatever you like in contemporary dance. “It is more abstract, but there are certain rules. It is a bit like sufism,” he said in an interview after a performance in Bangalore, which was part of a six-city tour.
In India, he performed ‘Gnosis’, in which he combines his classical Indian and contemporary dance roots. ‘Gnosis’ is inspired by Mahabharata, especially the story of Gandhari, the wife of the blind king who blindfolds herself for life to share his journey.
Akram, who was born in Wimbledon, began with Bangladeshi folk dance. He began to train in Kathak at the age of seven, training under Pratap Pawar and later becoming his disciple. “I did not choose Kathak as a dance form. It was my mother who chose it for me,” he says. The conservative Bangladeshi community of London was very upset, but my mother insisted that art transcends all religions.
Akram’s mother passed on her love for dancing to her son. She was a secret dancer. She used to carry her dancing bells to school in her tiffin box because her father, a gold medalist in mathematics when Bangladesh was a part of undivided India, did not want her daughters to be dancers.
He began his career at the age of 13, when he was cast in Peter Brook’s Shakespeare Company production of Mahabharata, touring the world between 1987 and 1989 and appearing in the televised version of the play broadcast in 1988. He played the role of Ekalavya, which was reflective of his position as an ‘outcast’ in Bangladeshi society.
“Bangladeshi parents in London are academically inclined and want their children to become doctors and engineers,” he says. However, Akram studied contemporary dance at De Montfort University and performing arts at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.
In August 2000, he launched the Akram Khan Dance Company. His first full-length work ‘Kaash’, a collaboration with sculptor and set designer Anish Kapoor and musician Nithin Sawhney. Nithin Sawhney has composed music for many of his dance creations. “We became friends very early on. Out thinking is very similar. He has collaborated with me and makes music specifically for me,” says Akram.
Akram is disappointed that no big industrial house or the corporate sector puts money into arts and theatre. “What are they doing with all the money? There is a lack of theatre and infrastructure for the arts. To preserve our tradition, we have to put money into it,” he says.
He is critical of reality dance shows on television which, he says, is about immediate success. “Dance involves a sense of devotion, dedication and discipline over a number of years. He refused to be a judge on a dance show episode because he felt everything now was superficial. Dance should be beyond just mere commerce and entertainment,” he says.
Akram’s troupe was part of a dance sequence at the opening ceremony of London Olympics. “This five-minute sequence was called ‘Mortality’, and took one back to the days of the gladiators when athletes were considered as gods. The theme of this sequence was how even these gods have to die one day. It was Danny Boyle’s idea,” explains Akram.
In summer 2006, Akram was invited by Kylie Minogue to choreograph a section of her Showgirl concert. Akram appeared as a huge projection behind the singer as she performed. The songs were set in an Indian temple scenario, inspired by a trip Minogue made to Sri Lanka.
Akram has choreographed the dance sequence of ‘Desert Dance’, a film which co-stars Indian actor Frieda Pinto, Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian and British actor Reece Ritchie.
The film is the directional debut of Richard Raymond and tells the story of Afshin Ghaffarian, who dreams of becoming a dancer, despite the art being illegal in Iran.
The last time Akram performed in India was in 2003. He got to perform in India again after nearly a decade. “I hope to be back again in India soon and not after a decade. By that time, I would have retired,” he says wryly.