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'Question everything': What moulded Aditi Mangaldas' unmouldable style
- Shveta Arora
Pics: Anoop Arora

March 8, 2020

Some time ago, I was at a workshop and performance by the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company - Drishtikon Dance Foundation. Between the workshop and the performance, Kathak veteran and contemporary choreographer Aditi Mangaldas sat down for an interview with Saattvic, a young actor, classical tabla player and Kathak dancer. Aditi is known as much for her abstract contemporary-dance-based-on-Kathak choreographies, featuring powerful, demanding movements, as for her mastery over technical Kathak and bhava and her evocative use of the classical idiom. The conversation was about how the renowned Kathak exponent develops her productions and what triggers these ideas.

Aditi started by elaborating on how she began questioning and experimenting with the traditional Kathak idiom.

"I started dancing at the age of five with my guru Kumudini Lakhia. My influences were her way of thinking and my family, which happened to be very liberal. We were encouraged to question, debate, agree, disagree... Kumiben often said that whatever was written, was written with reference to context. Question everything, she said.

The experimentation and questioning started much before I even started thinking about my own work because that was the atmosphere I grew up in at home and in the Kathak studio. Kumiben would say this is what I show you, this is what I can share with you, but keep your mind and heart open, your body open, to influences and inspirations from wherever you may want. Nothing is written in stone.

Question, question, question!

Photo courtesy: Drishtikon

Intention is very important. It was much, much later, after I started doing my own work that I asked myself... what you call khula naach - I find no imagination in that beyond technical prowess. I'm not a scholar, I don't claim to be one, my understanding is through my own experience, but I think when Kathak moved from the temples along the Gangetic valley into the court, there was a shift in the intention of the dance. In the courts, it was a dance of social engagement, where mythological stories were narrated with more imagination, made larger than life. As it is, our myths are multi-textured and larger than life - people are pregnant for three years, battles last two years. Already it boggles the mind and expands the imagination. Then to take that and put it into a straightforward narrative... for me, that is blasphemous. Rather than say it was written like this, so you must do it like this, think about how you can transform the text. I think one great art cannot be interpreted but can be transformed into another.

In the courts, it was necessary to hold the attention of the nobility to display technical prowess: see how I traverse through this ten-and-a-half matra taal, when I dance this, do you hear clouds or the lightning strike? We took that literally and took it to the proscenium stage and transformed it into the structure of classical Kathak. We removed imagination completely. It's as if the teacher says, 'I know this, so it is knowledge, so I share it with you. You hold the audience and say I don't care where you come from or what your experiences are, I'm taking you down this path.' It becomes about prowess. And that's when I started thinking about - Kumiben and Pandit Birju Maharaj were already doing it - how to weave this into a narrative that's not a full stop but a comma. Everybody comes from a different time zone, a different life experience, so I hope that when I dance or choreograph, when we create work, it resonates with you. So I start a sentence but I don't end it, there's a comma, and if even one person goes back and adds something to that with their own life experiences, my job is done. I think this was the main trigger point for the experimentation.

As dancers in India, we start learning from a very young age and eventually start performing with our gurus and then doing solos. I danced my solo when I was 16, but that doesn't mean this thought was in my head then. But it brews, and you have to be drawn into it totally like in a chakki."

This was followed by a question and answer session, excerpts from which are below.

When you want to go beyond the traditional structure, how do you find the seed of a new piece?
For me, it started off because what I studied in class - and this is my personal experience - was very male-centric. The ashtanayika is beautiful, but I don't want to be constantly revolving around a male figure - upset because he's gone, getting dressed because he's coming. I have some things I want to say about myself or an individual woman. I don't want to be slotted into ashtanayika, I'm a hundred nayikas. That was my knowledge base when I started off. That was the trigger at that point - and some of these were horrible pieces when I look back - but that was the journey. You have to learn, be self-critical. Many of them started with women-based issues. I danced one piece on me talking to my unborn child. The dance was classical Kathak but the text was Oriana Fallaci's book. My mother had given it to me when I was 16, for some reason, and I discovered it lying on my bookshelf much later in life. My son had just been born at the time.

Then there was a piece called Samvad. Even today, I notice that there are many barriers that women put up - many faces. What you feel inside is different from what you show to society - that was the piece, and it was pretty bad! Another one was called Cheekh, and it was about wanting to fly. I started off with women's issues and I think it was like catharsis; I danced it till I was finished with it.

Sometimes, in the Indian classical world, you say it's my way or the highway, that this is the way, there is no other way, no other perspective, no exploration, that this is it. And I really was rebelling inside. That's why pieces started off that were trying to take one emotion, and looking at it from different perspectives. I took love - awakening, desire, caring, bondage, lament... I remember my dad saying, 'My god, does it always end like that?' I said that was the point, that was what I was feeling, and I wanted to look at it like that rather than be coy and do the ashtanayika... Or seasons, because we dance Ritusamharam, so I said let it be like opening a book. It starts with Varsha, which was from Kalidas. I wove it into vilambit. Next was Sharad - this was in madhya and dhrut. Then came Hemant, so we took haiku poetry and translated it into Hindi and then we removed all rhythm from it: just flute and haiku. Then was Shishir - when I read Shishir in Ritusamharam, it was all about feeling cold, agni, lovers meet, darkness. I was talking to my aunt at the time. She asked, 'What does winter mean to you - does it mean a time when you want to take a pause, maybe hibernate?' What is it in me that is most identifiable as Aditi? It's my face. So the whole winter I danced with my back to the audience. Shubha Mudgal's beautiful music was in raga Jog, it sounded like a stream flowing and then suddenly felt like it's going underground, so it's there but not so obvious. All the movements were just about coming to a pause rather than stopping, about slowing down, collecting. So obviously, after that Vasant was like, boom... That was the first time I thought of working with the form. Till then, it was experimenting with different things Kumiben and others had done - poetry, text, costumes, presentation, transformation. But the form up till then was classical Kathak, ghungroos on. This was in 1995. Vasant - how the seed germinates as it bursts forth. For me, this breaking of the soil was like a split. So I worked very hard on my split. And this whole piece was actually doing splits and rising. Then it went into Grishma- not the Grishma outside, but the fire inside me, the anger, it overtakes the fire outside me. We used Faiz's poetry for this. This was looking at Ritusamharam in a textured way.

Aditi Mangaldas in 'Within'

Let's say you found your seed for a given performance. What do you do about it - do you research it, do you just get on the floor, are there any principles you use to stitch a narrative together? You've said several times that your dance is transformative, not interpretive. How do you structure a performance, since you're working outside the idiom?
Even within the idiom it's difficult because every production has a different trigger. Till the last production, it's like a thought enters my mind. It could have entered 10 years before, 10 months before, but what I do is I let it remain in my head for a very, very long time and talk about it to different, random people. Sometimes, someone says, 'I have something really stupid to say' and it turns out to be something really interesting. You just open out that little thought in your head to various influences and inspirations.

How do you get the music done?
I'm not a musical person at all. I have never studied music, unfortunately, and I can't sing to save my life. I only feel it with my heart. When I sit down with my composers, what I do is I talk and discuss and show images, even to the extent of showing what I feel I'm going to wear, the colours coming into my head, other music pieces that occur to me when I'm thinking of it, though I have no idea what raga it is. Then they come back with suggestions and we take it from there.

You're able to look at it from an external point of view. There are many things in our tradition that need someone to look at it from the outside and think about it differently.
In the 70s, Kumiben's composer Atul Desai worked with John Cage, who was an electronic musician with Merce Cunningham in New York. He came back and made a piece called Duvidha using electronic music. It was really interesting. This was 1970. This is to give you an idea of what was happening then, with Kumiben and Maharaj ji; there are some brilliant ways in which they have transformed a thought. That is the most difficult thing: deciding what the treatment is going to be.

Somebody gave me a book in 1999, a trilogy about a man and woman communicating through letters, a love story. There were actual envelopes which you opened, you understood the handwriting, what he wrote, what she wrote, you understood their geography because of the stamp, and it was beautifully illustrated. But at the end, you realized that they never met because it was a parallel existence. It was fascinating.

For the life of me I didn't know how I was going to dance this. How do I put it into dance where I don't go and say there is man and a woman and they are in love... And then there was a very personal experience. At my father's funeral, next to his pyre, I was watching the air. It was a very still day and yet, I saw, across the air, the movement of the plants. And I thought, oh my god, because of the change in the atmosphere, I feel that those still plants are swaying. Is it possible that with a change in something I don't understand, time could sway? Can a man become a child again? Is time reversible? I already had the thought in my head - is time parallel? Then we started asking the questions. Is it cyclic, like in the Hindu philosophy? Does it trip? Is it possible to have time past and time future in time present? Like in the Mahabharata, there is no one timeline, there are multiple. That triggered this production called Timeless. I have drummers who are pakhawaj players - they come and sit right bang centre, four of them, and they form that intangible separation between the two parts of the stage. The rhythm is the demarcation of these parallel universes.

You have an idea, you let it settle and grow for a long time. When you actually start on the floor, how do you wrestle with all this material that you've gathered over time?
That's very difficult to talk about since it's an experience thing. You go on to the floor and you start getting visions. Once you get the treatment, you start getting the whole feel of the stage, the movement vocabulary you feel is going to work best. Then you go into the studio and that exploration starts there. It is difficult to explain because sometimes you make a mistake and that turns out to be the right thing. Sometimes you rehearse something so many times and it just works. Sometimes somebody says, 'Why don't you do it like that?' and you say, yeah! Till the last piece, I get little ideas in my head. I sometimes make little drawings. I have what I call my register. It's a huge ziploc and anywhere I go, any idea I get, I write on something - ticket, boarding pass, a napkin in a restaurant - and throw it in the register. It's a collection and I love going back to it. Shanta Serbjeet Singh had once told me, 'Aditi, everything you know you don't need to dance. It's very important, the art of editing.'

The last time, something triggered this piece about ageing, fragility of the body and inevitability and yet the resilience of the body. I was chatting to Farooq, our dramaturg - he's with the Akram Khan Company - and he said, 'Do me a favour, Aditi. You usually have this packed brain before you go on the stage. Just chill, go on to the floor and go for it. Because you have this feeling about cells dying, about disintegrating, yet you're pushing your body, it's already in you. So just let it happen.' 'Inter_rupted' happened like that. In the rest of the dancers, nothing was dying, they were 20 years old! For them to think about age at 20, it was an interesting process of stringing them together. But it happened straight on the floor.

Aditi Mangaldas in 'Widening Circles'

You use a lot of colour in your themes; how do you fit that in - like dark colours for 'Within' to start and masks and then suddenly radiant colour...
I feel I'm very lucky to have brilliant collaborators. The costuming for 'Knotted' (in 'Within') was by Japanese designer Kimi Nakano. She said, 'I want to be here for one month.' I thought that was crazy.

Our collaborators for 'Within' were from all over the world. Those who were here could come and see the rehearsal, but every week, we would film it and put it on Vimeo for those who weren't and they would all see it. She had already seen it for months, and still she came here to see it first-hand and was here for a month. Then she thinks what colours would work and whether they would work for me, and then what fabrics would work with those colours because it's a heavy piece. Knotted is about the internal brutality in humanity, some inherent violence in each of us. The lighting designer was also watching what the colours are because it's not about lighting me, but about lighting the concept. The second piece was inspired by the Siddha image - it's a Jain statue, but it's actually a negative, a beautiful cutout. It's up to you - you put it against the sky, you see the sky. You put it against a wall, you see the wall.

I do all my classical costumes, but I can't do my contemporary based on Kathak costumes. For 'Within' ... there were two things, claustrophobia opening out, and our inability to see ourselves. So we used the metaphor of the mirror, but we wrapped our heads with dupattas. It was wonderful because many of the boys, whose wives and mothers are all in ghunghat all the time, were all like, 'Oh, didi, we can't breathe!' And I said, 'Hello, go home and see your women. Poor things, they're living their whole lives like that.' What Fabiana Piccioli (the Italian lighting designer for 'Within') does is that when it opens out, I stand in a way that makes me the negative space, and the backdrop becomes completely golden yellow. She took it from the gold of the Siddha statue.

Before there was easy video recording, is there any written record of your compositions?
Like I said I have this little box, with all kinds of wriggles and things and all kinds of inspiration and little poems, little drawings. I can't draw to save my life so no one can recognize what that is... movements are arrows, circles, little whirlpools...

Every production of yours has a textual narrative. When does that come in?
Kathak means jo katha kahe, so we are narrators, storytellers. We communicate stories through our bodies, our minds and our hearts.

Do you write as well?
Yes, I write a lot... I do a lot of writing in that box. Of course, I write the compositions I recite. I have many drawbacks - I don't know music and I don't speak Hindi too well. So I write things down, and then get 100 people to explain it to me. I didn't do it in 'Within' but there are times when I speak in productions. I wouldn't call it poetry, but the text I have written, at times. We are storytellers, but stories have changed.

Yesterday, somebody was asking me about panghat in classical Kathak. One needs to learn that, to show how beautifully you dance that. But none of those dancers have been to a panghat. I was talking about transformation, but that doesn't mean my next choreography is going to be about opening a tap. What panghat teaches you is when you have that very heavy water pot on your head, what is your gait, what is going to happen with that. Or when you take a light pot and fill it against a gushing river. That is what you need to keep in your body and then transform it in a different way.

Do you have any advice for the many dancers here wanting to create new choreographies outside the traditional boundaries?
Zero shortcuts. There is no quick route. The journey is very, very important. I am constantly wanting to reinvent myself. I am 59, but for this new solo I'm going to work on, somebody said, learn popping. I was aghast! But I think maybe I will. And beware of mediocrity. All of us do many things horrible, mediocre, and they might spark something good. But be self-critical, listen to people, expose yourself to art, music, dance from anywhere in the world, text, just open out your experiences.

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