CHOREOGRAPHY IN THE INDIAN CONTEXT
KEYNOTE ADDRESS by Kumudini Lakhia
Natya Kala Conference 2001 - December 15
e-mail: kadamb@icenet.net
Feb 2002

India is one of the very few countries, which has preserved its cultural heritage and ancient arts. Preserved in a sense that they are an integral part of the lives of its people and not just hanging behind glass walls in museums. This is why classical dance has survived: there's always been a need for dance in our society. Man needs much more than the basics in order to exist; man must do more than survive and art is a testament to that. One of our most fundamental of ‘needs' is to celebrate; and dance like all art forms, has always played an important role in the act of celebration. In our festivals we need dance as much as we need music, colours, lights etc, it functions as a device to make one's life fuller, to provide meaning to this thing we call existence. This must be, why, for centuries, there was no need for contemporary choreography in the field of classical Indian dance. The forms of Indian classical dance themselves were so rich, so full of life and content that there was no need for change. We are a society of traditions, where traditions are held in deep reverence and preserved with care. Even today, many audiences are very content and satisfied watching classical dance and there is something very noble and wonderful about this.

So, then why introduce choreography into classical dance at all? My first answer, and I take Kathak as an example, is that we are living in a very different kind of world from when Kathak first took shape and the needs of our present society are ever changing. There is a whole new generation of Indians who belong to an international and cosmopolitan community. The world is closing in on us, so to speak, and just as people from different cultures and religions are interrelating through technology, migration, hitech communication, dance also wants to be involved in this process. We are no longer living in the temples or courts; hence we must make a great leap into the international arena of dance.

But beyond this need to expand and explore the world, dance needs to be able to express one's personal emotions and thoughts. Every artist has to have an intimate relationship with the art form that he or she practices.

With reference to my own example, it became difficult for me at a point in time to build that relationship to Kathak as a solo dancer because I could not relate to the values, thought processes and attitudes of my Gurus' mind set, despite the fact that I felt a great reverence and respect for them. Naturally, this created some inner turbulence for which I had to find a judicious balance between my sentiments for my Gurus and my own longings to do something of my own. I wasn't quite sure how this energy that I felt stirring inside me would take shape.

Most of our classical dance forms have been choreographed at some time by the great masters and are passed on to the next generation in that form, hence creating tradition. Choreography, as understood today, requires the dance form to be put into a different kind of space. This requires a new approach of the known structures to suit new concepts. It is simply safer to keep looking over your shoulder for material from the past rather than facing the vast, open plain before you. We must come out of this safe corner and have the courage to confront this thing called creation.

However, choreography can only come after a base is built within you. First and foremost you must master the form and technique and have a strong command over it. Beyond this, you must have motivation, a need to create, then a concept of design for a theme. It must have dynamics translated to the technique you are using. Then the work must contain a rhythm, but by rhythm we don't mean ‘taal'. The rhythm of the universe, the rhythm of life. And lastly, the work must contain a complete vision, a beginning, middle and an end.

For me, this exercise was traumatic in the beginning. We talk about dreams coming true but with me they were not dreams, they were nightmares. Fortunately for me, these nightmares took the form of imagination, leading to creativity. Once I overcame the initial fear, I soon found that I enjoyed the process as much as the outcome. I discovered a whole world of movement, from within and in the space outside.

How do new patterns emerge? I believe that an energy within you sprouts into a new form that takes a variety of shapes and shades, one single image leads to a whole new pattern of movements.

While choosing a theme, most choreographers draw stories from mythology. Presentations based on these stories are easiest to sell to the audiences because they are familiar with these themes. The end result is a popular and acceptable programme.

But choreography is not about acceptability; it is about unique individual expression. The main concern is to stretch the viewers mind to create vision that provokes thoughts. It is from the depth of tensions and sorrows that the urgency to face life with a new fervor emerges.

There is no opportunity for a formal training in choreography in this country. Most choreographers of today are working out of a compulsion for looking at their dance styles in a new light. Solo dancers in this country who have been on the stage for 30 or more years have borne the brunt of substandard stages, bad lighting, poor quality of sound systems and also many a time, audiences who did not have their priorities right in their appreciation of the dance.

I was one of the victims so I began to wonder why I should dance at all? Solo Kathak dance did not excite me any more because it had developed too much gimmickry to it. However, I was deeply rooted in dance and the technique of Kathak itself was very artistic and complete. The way it was presented needed a lot of consideration. A performance needs to embody a certain dignity and finesse. This was my very first commitment to the presentation of Kathak. In my vision, I saw the entire stage filled with dancers, patterns of colours, music which had musicality and not just an accompanying element.

To work alone in the field of choreography is not possible. One needs trained dancers who share your ideas. Working with other dancers is much like living under one roof with a family. The equation, the space factor, vibrations and relationships must be taken into serious consideration. You are no longer performing solo. You belong to a larger image where dance gives shape to ideas and where one grows as a human being through creativity.

Very often I have heard in the Western world that the Indian dance carries its past, which is no longer relevant into the present. One cannot evaluate the Indian classical dance through western eyes. Our traditions and techniques are too deep rooted to be ignored.

I have to admit here that I depend on the Kathak technique for my creative work. Luckily, I am for ever discovering movements in the Kathak format, which have for long been forgotten by solo dancers. In their impulse to gain instant popularity they have concentrated only on what brings an instant response from the audiences. To this day I have not had to look outside the Kathak technique for movements and forms.

My very first attempt at choreography was Dhabkar, which means " Pulse “. Sitting on the floor of an empty room one is contemplating and searching for choice of a theme. I am listening for sound and a beat to help me and that comes from my heart, which is beating heavily, but the pulse is calm and more assuring. I want to search for the pulse of Kathak. This gave rise to " Dhabkar " wherein the Kathak form pulsates in its various tempos of rhythm.

I also experimented with the extension of movement in this piece. One single movement passed from one dancer to another gives the impression of a single movement in an extended form. At times, I did the opposite and broke a pattern of movements into fragments, each performed by a different dancer. The result was thrilling. Success provides an incentive to carry further your beliefs.

The music of ‘Dhabkar' was also quite unique in the sense that it played with the notion of speed and time. When the music was at a fast tempo, the dancers did the opposite and vice versa. The experimentation in ‘Dhabkar' was quite new at the time when first performed in 1973.

I have discovered through my long association with dance that the most important thing for a dancer / choreographer is to keep your senses intact and alert. One misses so much of what is going on around you if you do not see or do not hear or take in the fragrance or taste the complexities or feel the different texture of life. Only when you have discovered the space around you in which you exist can you discover the space within you, which is as infinite as the space outside. One has to look within for sources. Sources are extremely important to choreography. There is an endless store of sources within all of us; we just have to know how to tap them.

A choreographer must go beyond simply dance design, meaning you must pour your life into your work to make it come alive.

I have spent much of my efforts connecting my work with my life experiences and not allowing one to become isolated from the other. Too often, I find that we compartmentalize our lives and our abilities. It is a matter of applying the study of one discipline to another area of your existence. One must get down to making those bridges! ‘Setu', (Bridge), I focused on this idea of composing a dance number on the bridges in one's life, we are in constant need of them. However, I added an element of blindness to the character because we don't see the bridges when we cross them. It is only when we look back that we see the bridge and the water flowing underneath it.

One of the things that inspired me to look at dance in a new light was the fact that in all other art forms, music, painting, architecture, sculpture, poetry, artists tune their mindset to the aesthetic and intellectual needs of their society. In dance, however, nothing was happening. We seemed to be rooted in one place with a society of mutual-admiration around us. I felt this would lead to the death of dance, or at least of Kathak. The arts needed to come closer, just as the world was coming closer. Dance needs to have a dialogue with other creative mediums. Since I was interested in other art forms, I tried to connect Kathak to painting, to architecture, to poetry and literature by creating dance numbers, which imbibed the structure and spirit of these art forms.

Costuming plays an important role in a dance production. Even in the earlier times ‘Aharya‘ was an essential part of theatrical productions. Costumes in Bharatanatyam are very well designed for the dancer's body and show each movement of the dance. Unfortunately, in Kathak the dancers tend to over-dress and have too much loose fabric hanging around them, posing an obstacle for dance. In choreography I personally like to use the bare minimum of a pattern that outlines the shape of the body and doesn't overpower the dance. Colors are equally as important. I like earth colors because they do not take away the spirit from the thematic content. The wrong use of colours can disturb the essence of a production.

Music has always been a companion to dance. One cannot think of dance without music. In classical Kathak dance, music played the role of timekeeper in the form of a "lehara" played on the sarangi. Vocal music was only used in the performance of "thumri", "bhajan", or "hori" where a dancer enacted "abhinaya" word to word. Creative music was never a part of Kathak.

I have been very fortunate to work with like-minded people in the field of music who shared my concerns.

In this profession retirement is not an option. One must always go on. Each day the empty space stares at me in the face; one sees a bare, echoing room. Yet, instead of emptiness I see a space charged with dormant energy waiting to take form. Like waking a sleeping giant, I begin moving the dancer's bodies in space, allowing music to guide me, and the forms begin to emerge. They are forms born from my own life, patterns with which I am closely connected. The bodies become slowly, larger than life, the space becomes flexible, and each time it is like a new conversation between time and space.

Today one finds choreographers from outside India, Germany, France, USA, wanting to weave Indian classical dance into their own work. I have myself collaborated with some of them. Whether the end product is a success or not is irrelevant. The point is that the different dance ideologies of the world have started a dialogue and are now keen to appreciate and approach each other's cultural heritage. It is now time we create an international dance forum, a sharing that can only enrich our thought processes and bring the world of dance closer.
In a career spanning 60 years, no other Indian classical dancer has created the number of compositions based on classical dance as those created by Kumudini Lakhia. She was one of the first amongst the Kathak dancers to visualize this particular dance style in a contemporary context. Some of her well-known choreographic pieces such as "Dhabkar”, "Atah Kim” and "The Coat " are landmarks in the annals of Indian dance. She has participated in numerous dance seminars, given lecture - demonstrations and conducted master classes in many dance centres all over the world. She runs a Kathak dance school Kadamb in Ahmedabad.