Q & A: Audience Artist Interface
21st Natyakala Conference - 2001
Chennai, India


DEC 15, 2001
Navtej Johar (New Delhi) - ďTradition and individual talentĒ
Jan 2002

His remark that he will lie down and scream on stage in the name of Bharatanatyam created more furore in the audience than if he had stripped!! Thatís something he just may do in the futureÖ

Q: In the piece called ĎPastimeí, how did you go about using images and work with Meredith Monkís music to make your work look Indian?
NJ: After all this time, Iíve done about one piece with a commissioned piece of music. The rest have been music just super imposed. Sometimes we improvise with the music and if it gels, we keep it.

Q: What inspired you to do what you did in ĎPlace of Pathí? Whatís your thought process?
NJ: I had in mind, some things from my movement vocabulary. I just start imagining things. Iíve been playing with water and have this strange affinity towards water. I donít know why for the last 2 years, Iíve done a lot of work with water. I love the texture of water, it triggers something.

About 6 months ago, I did this thing for Buddha Jayanthi for which I had a costume made. It was constructed to be worn wet, thatís the way the whole show is. I happen to be working with Sufi musicians for the last 2 years. The very first song is a rumi song. Along the way, I started to improvise with a conch, the last piece was with flowers. My work was clearly improvised but also very practiced; the movements were not all improvised. They were taken from my memory bank of pieces that were created in my studio. And I just remembered them. So the combination of improvising, structuring the whole piece leaving loopholes to contain different structures also came over time.

Q: Regarding skills & communicationÖ
NJ: Before I came into Bharatanatyam, I was going to be a painter. So I tend to look at things very visually. Thatís my nemesis. Number 2, before I came into Bharatanatyam, I was into street theater for 2 years, very political, very strong street theater. When I make a work, which is not Bharatanatyam, one thing I donít want to do is fusion or any such thing. So, from the beginning, I did not want ĎPlace of Pathí to resemble Bharatanatyam at all, even though it was totally influenced and prompted by Bharatanatyam. I did not want even a trace of it.
These are elements that came to me, but the logistics must make sense. Like this is the costume I have, it must say something, the conch, the gobletÖand I start improvising with them. But itís also a choice why I chose that particular object and not something else.

Q: How do you make movement?
NJ: Itís totally out of impulse. I go there and itís like almost without thinking, I slap out a movement. Therefore I get it right away. Then I videotape it and start working on the movement. Once Iíve got it in the first form, then I draft it in different directions, give it the true qualities. The treatment starts after that, the first quality, the second and third quality, dream quality, direction or repetition, fast or slow, all these variations come after I have technically rejected some movement. So, in the process I create an awareness of who I am. Iíve to maybe trigger an impulse 6 times to make six 3-second phrases and then find the correct permutation combination.

Q: How do you reconcile yourself to presenting shows like for the Rado watch launch, or dancing in a place where people, rather most of the audience are there just for curiosity than to seriously want to look at you. Is it necessary that you do it? You love doing it, or..?
NJ: The first question is kind of valid. Jemima and I had gotten into this project. She had come all the way from England and after she arrived, we realized that the money we had to make this piece was very little. But she had come on the surmise that she would do it even for free. After she came, she realized that she could raise money and fortunately got this offer, so we made the piece in 2 weeks flat. It was literally to raise funds.

It also cleared working towards the other piece, ĎReMemberingí which would be premiered in January at the British Council. Thatís for the Science Festival, a serious piece which will explore science and technology and its effects on the body. So it was a time related thing. We started working on the initial piece and took elements from it to make the piece for Rado. I did it because I needed the money, I could not say no, it was done and it was forgotten. Itís like a project, we have to go on.

Secondly, I have absolutely no qualms in that I want to present Bharatanatyam in places, which were not meant for it. Iíve been practicing that by performing in Green Park Market, doing alarippu to thillana non stop!! My problem is not with Bharatanatyam, I absolutely adore it, I love it. My problem is in the way itís come to be viewed, itís that ire alone. I donít need to do all these things, which Iíve been doing. One can just stick to Bharatanatyam and feel totally fulfilled. Yet I do things which some see as unnecessary. I am not stupid. Something moves me to do it. And I do it because something bothers me about the way Bharatanatyam is viewed.
I said 2 years ago that maybe 10 years down the line I will be doing alarippu and thillana with nothing else. But the process involved and everything else becomes part of my physical memory, so that I know itís OK for me to lie down and scream on stage, itís OK for me to sleep on stage, it's OK for me to strip on stage and yet be a very good propaganda for myself. I should be censoring my memory, which I think we are conditioned to. Thatís the actual reason why I do things that are not proper, not to shock, but just because something needs to be shifted, I think.

Shocked gaspsÖshifting bodiesÖ.commotion and confusion of people shifting outside to protest!! That was more for the screaming part than for the stripping...maybe they heard it as tripping?!!
Q: As a contemporary dancer and also somebody very much from a classical tradition, how do you feel that the link works in vice versa. Involvement in contemporary dance and understanding it from view of your classical origins.
NJ: Iíve had the opportunity to work with a lot of contemporary dancers, but my training and understanding is strictly Bharatanatyam. So the outlet is Bharatanatyam which is in my mind, but on the other hand, I would also.. I donít really see a difference. Itís just one technique and 2 ways of doing it. My technique is Bharatanatyam and I do it the proper way or improper way, but thereís no difference to me. It opens a trigger in my mind, thatís about it. I allow myself to go into areas I might not be allowed.

Q: Do you feel like now you might explore with different fashions, which might help view Bharatanatyam in a contemporary fashion?
NJ: Absolutely, thatís what I said. I may come back to Bharatanatyam 10 years from now, but I want this journey. One more thing, earlier it was strategic impulse, but now Iím at a stage where Iíve other dancers to work with. Like you saw in ĎDance Labí Iím working with the craft of Bharatanatyam and visual movement.

Q: What you did for the Rado launch, was it Bharatanatyam?
NJ: No.

Q: Iím sure everybody wants to know about the lying down and screaming. Donít you think itís a level of indulgence.. I can do anything that I want to do in a creative sense and thatís Bharatanatyam? I donít think lying down and screaming is within the framework of Bharatanatyam rules because in no place in Bharatanatyam have we been given even an adavu class to sleep.
NJ:I showed a padam, a close-up of a padam. To answer your question, I think in a padam, itís not the choreography of the movement, itís the choreography of the mental landscape which I place in here, the moon over there and I give the moon that much intensity and the water that much intensity. Iím in some way, designing my inner landscape. That is also part of the choreography though it may not be seen. So it obviously doesnít mean that is like abhinaya. Itís how you design the space, the total void in space within your mind and within that framework. Iím more interested in that framework as opposed to the technical framework. As I said right now, that allows me anything and should allow me anything and that definitely comes within any technique. Iím not saying that Bharatanatyam dancers should be trained to scream and lie down. No. But Bharatanatyam dancers should also feel itís OK to sleep if that may be, if you are pursuing something within youÖAnd if you can pursue that, you can make a journey, a very inward journey.

If I were to do a piece according to myself, I will not be able to do it. Thatís the thing in a performance. I come and make public, an extremely private enquiry, an extremely private pursuit. So I need you to be there. If in that pursuit, I come upon something dark and I canít deal with it, then it warrants that to reach that goal I want a guide and I have to make the screeching sound. Thatís because Iím not dealing with Bharatanatyam as it is.

Q: Why donít you call that dance theatre instead of Bharatanatyam?
NJ: Because Bharatanatyam IS dance theatre. Iím not talking about Bharatanatyam as a form. Iím talking about Bharatanatyam as a mental group of images. So it IS dance theatre.

Q: You said something bothers you about the way Bharatanatyam is viewed. What is it that upsets you?
NJ: I think itís the highly over self-conscious presentation of dance. I think dance is a very self-conscious endeavor whereas dance theater is totally unselfconscious endeavor. There is a percentage of alertness, but I find the way dance is presented as very stifling.

Q: Probably thatís because there is more emphasis on the technique. Suppose somebody learns the technique very well and in the very same style still manages to transcend the technique and becomes used to the subconscious, that would be better than going out of it in a different style.
NJ: There are different ways. One is trying this, one is trying that, but there is not enough focus, or love for the aesthetics is missing. I think we should just acknowledge we are doing this because we love something and in this case, itís Bharatanatyam.

Q: Which means you love Bharatanatyam though it is stifling? You are contradicting yourself.
NJ: Itís the presentation I find stifling, not the form. Itís an absolute gift to the world. Itís exquisite. But yes. I think thereís a lot wanting in the way we have come to perceive it.

Q: The mental bank you are trying to form, you practice that, then leave it, then get back to it after 10 years. You mean to say you need not practice Bharatanatyam, you can censor it and then come back to Bharatanatyam?
NJ: No, I do practice regularly.

Q: Then what is this?
NJ: This is another journey. Iím trying to unlock the door.

Q: Iíve a query about your traditional beard and long hair. Are you maintaining this, so you will look different from others? Or if you cut your hair, will you be going against your religion?
NJ: Itís something I havenít really thought about. To cut it would be too bold a move for me. When I am doing chaste Bharatanatyam, I am told it hides my face, but it does come in handy. Actually, Iíve never given it a thought.

Q: Iím glad Iíve given you something to think about now!
Anita: Many people left before you finished, Navtej, because you made an explosive comment that if you lie on the ground, thatís also Bharatanatyam. People left and were shouting outside. You may be confronted with a lot of questions, so the idea of a conference like this is to really throw up all these areas, not to be self conscious, to be able to ask the questions you want, to be able to throw out questions like Ďreligion principlesí which I donít agree with at all. Bharatanatyam has become a world dance style and many practice dance. Like people in Kalai Kaviri College in Trichy teach Christianity through Bharatanatyam because itís a powerful language.

So, readers, maybe these proceedings have given you all also some things to ponder about!

Q & A: Audience Artist Interface
21st Natyakala Conference - 2001

Interviews