Learn and unlearn

Learning different dance vocabularies adds depth to one's performance, says Kuchipudi dancer Amrita Lahiri

Amrita Lahiri

Often in performing arts, artistes unlearn more than they learn when it comes to two different dance forms. This unlearning is also a coming together of the art forms, which does not always have to be one of collision, but of creativity.

Amrita Lahiri began learning kuchipudi at the age of six, a time when it is difficult to recognise the passion. But as they say, good teachers go a long way, and so it has been for Lahiri. She trained in kuchipudi and bharatanatyam under stalwarts like Anuradha Nehru, Leela Samson, Swapnasundari, Seetha Nagajothy, and Jaikishore Mosalikanti. "It is a huge advantage to know multiple dance languages. Just like verbal languages, dance vocabularies are not watertight compartments; these are not boxes. Dance has been a constant friend to me, so even a day without dance feels incomplete. In practicality, my journey as a dancer has been many hours of hard work in classes, studios, rehearsals. Learning different dance vocabularies adds depth to one's performance. One stays true to the essence of the art form, hence I only perform and practise Kuchipudi. Several times a week I even practise basic fundamental steps of Kuchipudi, just as I learnt them as a child. Learning other forms and watching other dances gives inspiration," says Lahiri. 

But these are also art forms that are centuries old, and the true test of an artiste often lies in how one represents contemporary subjects/issues through them. With roots arguably lying the ancient Sanskrit text of Natyasastra, the task is easier said than done. The relevance of stories, poetry and literature need constant questioning and analysis than simple adaptation when it comes to choreographies.

"Historically, all of the dance forms of India were selected and created as 'classical' dance forms in the 1950s. The states of Andhra and Tamil Nadu also formed only in the 1950s. Before that it was a common Madras Presidency. Telugu people were actually very keen to keep Chennai in the Telugu area of Andhra, but that did not happen. In the Madras Presidency and even today, Chennai is a centre of cultural activity. And since Bharatanatyam got assigned to Tamil Nadu, Bharatanatyam has been the prominent form in Chennai. Bharatanatyam dancers often borrow elements from Kuchipudi, but no fingers are pointed at them! It's because content is more important than form after a certain level,” she says.

As it became a matter of national struggle, each state, too, fought its own battle to be best representative of the Indian culture.

“In Andhra Pradesh too, there was controversy, Kuchipudi was selected as the dance form of Andhra. There were other forms also in Andhra, especially the dance of the devadasis, the Telugu Kalavantulu, but given the atmosphere post-independence, everyone wanted to keep a distance from anything related to devadasis. Much later, Nataraja Ramakrishna and Swapnasundari and such great scholars retrieved the material of the Andhra devadasis who had been neglected,” says Lahiri.

She understands that all art forms are constantly evolving and the way we dance today is not exactly the way it was danced 400 years ago.

Lahiri's choreographic work began in 2011 with Chitra, based on the story of Chitrangada. "It was an important statement on womanhood. She was a princess raised as a boy — strong and courageous, but rejected by Arjuna for being too manly. Poetry and literature has been the starting point for most of my work" says Lahiri. More recently, she produced Samudra, based on a long poem by Tagore on motherhood. Being a mother of two, she says that it was close to her heart. "Because I grew up in the US, my strongest language is English. So I have to get all my texts translated and transliterated to English before I start the dance," says she.

At the recent festival organised by Natya Tarangini, Lahiri performed Jatadhara Shankara, a composition of Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiyar, a poet/musician of the 1700s. "These old compositions have so much depth. The musicians and I enjoyed figuring out the unconventional musical patterns, the rich layered meanings, while choreographing it," adds Lahiri.

She followed with a tarangam, a trademark of kuchipudi, finishing with the dance on the brass plate, choreographed Jaikishore Mosalikanti. She followed it up with Shivashtakam, choreographed by one of great gurus of kuchipudi Vempati Chinna Satyam.

"The Indian classical dance is like an ocean, you can go deeper and deeper. Because it's spread so much, there is some dilution in content and styles of teaching. I've heard of people who learn classical dance from YouTube! That is dangerous for the art form. Dance is more than just moving your body; there is thought process that goes behind every movement. If you don't learn about that thought process from a good teacher, the end result has a weak foundation," she concludes. 

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