Millions have walked by the huge banyan tree near the magnificent Sun Temple of Konark, and reposed under its benign shade.
This ancient sprawling wonder of nature is almost as spectacular as the beautiful temple itself, but not many tend to linger to take in the complexity of this aged tree, the curious twists and turns of its branches as it reaches towards sunlight, and the impress of its many moods in tandem to the changing light of the day.
Early one morning, last year though, the tree came under the collective gaze of a huge crowd of people. This happened when Japanese Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancer Mio Ikeda danced under this tree, moving her slender hands evocatively skywards. Photographer Sam Kumar captured it on camera.
One with nature
Well, Sam has been engineering such moments for a long time now, getting dancers of various genres and nationalities to dance at several such spots across the globe.
Away from their comfort zone of the dance stage, the dancers were asked to react to the natural outdoor environment. The idea? To celebrate nature, and draw the attention of people to the beauty and endangered state of the great outdoors. ‘Environmental Dance’ is what he calls this project.
“When I saw the tree, I was immediately attracted to it and asked Mio to dance slowly under it. I knew it would be a good picture even while I was clicking it. There were about 500 people who enjoyed her impromptu dance and many ended up admiring the tree as well,” recalls Sam.
Likewise, Sam got Singaporean contemporary and Balinese dancer Ama Lia to dance at one of the beautiful beaches of Bali. Then, he had Dutch ballet dancer Marianne to pirouette through the atrium of The Raffles, a historical Singaporean hotel, known for its many palm trees.
“This scene was a good blend of nature and architecture,” Sam shares.
Well, Environmental Dance consists of 30 such photographs of dancers in dialogue with nature. This includes Indian dancers
like Nanditha Prabhu
(Mohiniattam), Kalpana Sivaramakrishnan (Bharata-natyam), Achuta Manasa (Kuchipudi), besides international dancers like Mio Ikeda, Marianne Verhaagen (contemporary), Beverly Yuen (contemporary) Vivian (Ballet), Pon (Thai folk), Courtney Ramm (Ballet), and Vincent (contemporary), the solo male dancer figuring in the project.
The images were captured in India, Singapore, Bali and Thailand between 2010 and 2014. After the project’s world premiere at Pai in Thailand in October last year, the exhibition was shown in Chennai in early January, and will be shown thereafter in Singapore, Japan, Holland, France, Canada and the US.
Dancing for the camera
So, how did dance and photography come together to sing this ode to nature? “I love dance — both classical and contemporary, so it had to be dance,” Sam says. What about the dance stances/sequences, how were they choreographed? “We arrived at the location, and all I did was to request the dancer to dance slowly in response to the nature in front of us. As they danced, I captured the images and chose the moment/shot that best matched the environment,” explains Sam.
Sam used a Nikon D800 camera for this project. “But as they say, it is not the camera which decides the final picture, it is the photographer,” he interjects. Editing was minimal. “The only editing I did was to crop and increase the contrast a bit, if required. There was no manipulation in the photography,” he states.
The photographic view also remains straightforward, with the dancers sometimes facing the camera, and sometimes not. Sam says, “The dancers did not freeze their pose for me. If I didn’t get the right combination of the environment and the dancer’s pose, I would ask them to move differently. We repeated until I got a shot that satisfied me.”
Neither were the dancers instructed on the idea to be conveyed. “The gestures and pose of the dancer had to fit into the composition and be in balance — no specifications beyond that,” informs Sam. He adds, “And yes, the dancers did confide that dancing in nature was an amazing and deeply satisfying experience. All of them have informed me that it was exciting and liberating to dance in open space.”
Apart from nature, in Environmental Dance, we see dancers in the backdrop of skyscrapers, on receding highways, in pillared corridors, near historic monuments, colourful temples and churches, archaeological sites, rocky shorelines and violent waves, and in ancient bungalows.
The images are sometimes silhouetted, sometimes straightforward. The dancers are in their dancing gear in some frames, in others they are in everyday attire. Some of these stances are not even structured, not contained in the grammar of classical dance, but just simply an elegant and graceful way of being.
Besides the sole male dancer Vincent, Environmental Dance is all about female dancers responding to nature. Why didn’t Sam shoot more male dancers, or perhaps children? “The answer is simple.
I had asked a few male dancers, but they were not interested or available, unfortunately. I do hope to work with male dancers in the future. Male or female, I need mature dancers who can create their own movement. This is not possible with children,” Sam explains.
Freezing a flowing movement without getting a blurred image and without letting go of the movement’s vitality and energy is a challenging task. It perhaps helped that Sam has learnt the allied craft of filmmaking from Thai Directors Pen-Ek Ratanurang and Apichatpong Weerasektakul.
Filmmaking does help you master one’s focus on moving narratives. Incidentally, other than filmmaking and photography, Sam has also learnt script-writing from Syd Field, the godfather of modern script writing. Sam has been writing several short film scripts, and is currently penning a Tamil feature film.
He also likes to paint abstracts in oil on canvas. Sam is someone who turned his back on a two-decade-long international IT career to return to his first love — arts. In 2011, he returned to his home town Chennai, to turn his full attention to filmmaking and photography. And, nobody is complaining.