DAKSHA SHETH: MY JOURNEY IN DANCE
(Natya Kala Conference December 20, 2000)
The Daksha Sheth Dance Company has won international acclaim for its dance theater productions that bring together performing artistes from various disciplines. Bridging the contemporary and traditional, the productions have their roots in diverse traditions of Indian performing arts practice like Kathak, Mayurbhanj Chhau, Vedic chanting, Kalaripayattu and Mallakhamb. Led by Daksha Sheth, the company has developed a unique dance vocabulary and has performed widely in India and abroad. Some of her famous works include “Search for my Tongue”, “Sarpagati” and her latest production “Bhukham”.
The following is a report of the interactive session at the 20th Annual Natya Kala Conference at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai on December 20, 2000 where Daksha, her husband Devissaro and daughter Isha answered questions from the audience.
Your posture is distinctly different from Isha's. It seemed to be something that came from Kathak. What sort of training is Isha undergoing?
DAKSHA: The Kathak training in my body is very difficult to take out and I am thankful for to my Kathak training. Isha's training is not so strong yet in traditional dance, though she likes Kathak very much. I want to train her in Kathak, though she started her training initially in Kalaripayattu, yoga and gymnastics as a child. I took most of the children to gymnastics. Recently, Mallakhamb, rope training, is very useful in developing arms and stomach muscles. So, you can see that the postures I have is from Kathak and that does not come quickly, it takes years. Even in Bharatanatyam, it takes years and that she has to get. The development of arms, the use of arms comes with maturity and experience, after years of learning.
DEVISSARO: Isha started learning Kathak when she was quite a young girl. But she was never greatly enthusiastic about Kathak. She is much more interested in doing her own thing. But now, she's doing some Kathak.
In 'Sarpagati', you use sound against your body, like the African dancers who use tins and coconut shells for rhythm. What was the reaction of the audience to the sensuous movements when you first performed it?
DAKSHA: I have 2 male dancers. I usually like people with Bharatanatyam background, where they have a good araimandi, because in the kind of dancing I do, I like squatting a lot. At the same time, when they join us, I train them in a different way. I don't like dancers with too many long years of training in a particular form, because then they become so rigid, it is very difficult to undo what they have learnt. There's a mental block too when they move in one style. It was difficult for me too because I had 22 to 24 years of Kathak training in my body. Fortunately, I had learnt Chhau too, so there was a balance inherent in me. But I had problems. To undo what you have already done is very tough. As soon as the dancers join us, I give them training in yogasanas, gymnastics and Kalari. They let loose and are able to mould in a different way. I train them in rhythm in a very simple Kathak way and then go into more complex, rhythmic work.
DEVISSARO: Kalari has certainly become a valuable training to our company and everyday after the first warm-up session, there's always a Kalari session. The one thing that is important to us is not to just present Kalari as Kalari. But like Daksha, with all the traditions she's trained in, to really master them to the point when it becomes ingrained in the body, is not just what you are putting on, but is part of the way in which the body works.
DAKSHA: Initially, it was quite shocking to people. I live in the outskirts of Trivandrum. Though the audience loved it, I was told it was very aggravating, that it was like pornography, that I should be banned from the dance field. People wrote that my dancers wore langot (loin cloth). I used to dance what Isha does now in my place, but I used to wear leotards while she wears something like a langot now. After the first 4 shows at Khajuraho, Mangalore and Bombay, we had to put the production on the shelf for 2 years, because nobody wanted to see us, nobody even wanted to call me for any shows. So, we were just doing our own work, being happy in our studios and we rarely got performances. We carry on with whatever we do, we believe in ourselves and go ahead and do what we want to do. Then, somebody in Germany invited us and we had to revive 'Sarpagati” again. It was an incredible success in Germany. After hearing that we have done very well in Germany, we were invited to England and Croatia and for different festivals. Suddenly, we started getting invitations from people in India. So, last year, we again did 3 shows of 'Sarpagati' in Kerala and it was well received. So, the scene is changing.
The music in 'Sarpagati' is extraordinary. So in sync with the serpentine movements. Who are the musicians? Is it only a single instrument?
DAKSHA: Devissaro scored the music. The flute is also played by him.
DEVISSARO: 'Sarpagati' has live music. It has 2 musicians, a percussionist and myself.
Have you all had ballet training? Some movements look like ballet. Is it incidental or accidental?
DAKSHA: We do not have ballet training, but Chhau has lots of movements on toes, so when you turn, you take the balance on the toe. Kathak has the balance on the heel. Most of martial training is on the heel, not the toe. I am comfortable with both toe and heel movement. Because of my Kathak posture, it is so upright, it gives an impression that I've had ballet training, but I'm no ballet trainee.
Any inputs from the Hollywood musicals of the 30's and 40's? For example, the movements and choreography in 'Bhukham'..
DEVISSARO: The answer to that is No. In every production, we try to explore a new field, in terms of theme, in terms of music and in terms of dance. For us, each production becomes a process of growth. In a way, it's a little confusing because what tends to happen is, people will see one production and say “I really like that”. And they see the next production and say, “What's going on here? It's different”. We like it that way. We keep on challenging ourselves; we keep on trying to open up new areas. In the case of 'Bhukham', we wanted the piece to reach a new audience, really upfront, no holds barred. 'Bhukham' is called “The circus of earth and sky”. There are certain qualities of circus that I really admire. I like its upfrontness, its entertainment value. I like its sense of risk - the flying sections are quite spectacular and very skilful, the level of physical skill is quite high. The use of apparatus too. So, in that sense, we were looking for sound that is very accessible, very upbeat.... that's why the electric guitar has come into the piece. In that sense, there may be something similar….
The use of hand beat over the body…. Where did you take that idea from?
DAKSHA: From Kathak. I thought, why not use on the body itself. I started developing that sound, maybe to fill in a gap with my clap. And I really enjoy doing it.
What sort of training do your male dancers receive?
DAKSHA: What I feel is important, is to see a style where you don't say, ”This is a piece of Kathak”, “Now we see Bharatanatyam', “that's Kalari”… And then forget about it and do what comes naturally. And it will come out the natural way.
If the dancers did not have Kalari training, they would not have been able to do the floor movement in 'Moonwalk'. At the same time, you can hardly see Kalari in it. It's completely different.
Have you trained in flamenco?
DAKSHA: I have not learnt flamenco. I have seen it and like it very much. I like the spirit of flamenco.
There is a group of people who depend on classical, traditional dance and try to innovate something new from that style / styles. The other group of people who try to innovate something very new and try to work out a new vocabulary, almost like a Thesaurus. Whatever you do, you have a bit of the rebel in you. Would you agree?
DAKSHA: You can call me a rebel, but I started the contemporary work not as a negation to tradition. I still dance traditional Kathak and a few were surprised, as my Kathak is different. So, it's not that I don't like tradition. I can still perform traditional dance very well. I might well be India's only Kathak dancer who has lived in a temple and offered dance to Krishna for 3 years! I don't think anybody knows about that part of my life, what a traditional life I have led. Because I have tremendous respect for tradition and if I did not have my solid Kathak background, I don't think I would be able to do what I'm doing now. I am thankful to all my gurus, that through them I've really been nurtured and nourished so well and on those roots, I'm standing on my contemporary work.
DEVISSARO: At the same time, I must add that she's very much a rebel!! Gurus tend to like disciples to be images of themselves, like photocopies, which is why disciples are sometimes very poor dancers. Photocopies are not interesting, the original is interesting. The photocopy of Michelangelo's work is not worth 2Rs. Gurus fail to understand that and get very upset when students refuse to be a photocopy and get labeled as a rebel. I think it's a part of growth. Everyone has to do that. In that sense, Daksha is also pretty much a rebel.
Isha, are you enjoying becoming a star? Have you given up regular school now that you have become a professional dancer?
ISHA: I left school 2 ½ years ago after my 6th. Now I study at home. Rehearsals are from 8am to 3pm. After lunch, I study for a good 5 hours in order to pass my exams.
Tell us something about your collaboration with Finnish composer Eero Hameenniemi.
DEVISSARO: I can't remember how it all began. Some years back, we did a collaboration with Eero. It was interesting. Eero had come to meet us and we decided we would like to do something together. At that time, I was working with a young male choir in Trivandrum. Eero returned to Finland and started faxing me pages of music to try out with the choir. I used to fax back my comments. Then Eero came to Trivandrum for 3 weeks and he heard how his material had been managed by the choir and he organized the whole into a piece called 'Sangeetam'. Daksha choreographed that and I think it's been a very interesting collaboration. We have a performance in Finland coming up and Eero has arranged performances with a small but very high-class orchestra in Finland. We'll do the new piece composed by Eero for the orchestra and choreographed by Daksha. We have even discussed the possibility of the orchestra playing Vivaldi live and Daksha will dance.
Your experimentations have been in the context of international initiatives. Do you see yourself in the context of an international family? If so,how does India support you creatively or in terms of funding?
DEVISSARO: We see ourselves in an international context, yes. I am Australian!! And this is a collaboration that's been going on for 15 years,so in some senses, it is an international collaboration! Secondly, our work has been performed overseas and we really enjoy presenting our work in international festivals. I must be a little proud to say it's been received extremely well. When we performed in the Hamburg Summer Theater Festival, which had very famous groups, there were several compliments paid to us. The one I liked most of all was from the technical director of the festival. He said, in his opinion, ours was the best-produced work of the entire festival. I think one of the reasons he said that was because we are able to get maximum results with minimum means. We arrived with no excess baggage, the props, the instruments, went onour 20kgs allowance per person. And the total cost of 'Sarpagati' was about 500$ which is not even tea money for the other companies. In terms of impact, it can't be any better than this. We have a stage set, which is so beautiful, so impressive and so neat, that no one will believe how it travels around. 'Bhukham' will have excess baggage because we use apparatus, which includes the Mallakhamb pole. It is 8-½ ft high and is quite heavy. At least in terms of our production, which is spectacular and extraordinarily compact, I don't think anyone can beat 'Sarpagati'.
You are Indian. What has India contributed to you? Tell us about that aspect of your roots.
DAKSHA: My contemporary work is based on the Indian traditions. When I got the opportunity to go abroad to study western dance, or modern dance or contemporary dance, whatever you call it, I've always refused to do that because I believed that India has enough resources to offer us and on those resources, we can stand strongly. The incredible martial art forms, incredible music, incredible resources of rhythm exist here and the new research on the rope has completely transformed our work to a different level. Lots of people in the West are doing rope work,but ours is unique because it has been evolved through the centuries. I have kept the training of the dancers very traditional and from there, like in any other work, we take to our own direction. We are doing what we are doing because we live in India. I don't think we can create this kind of work anywhere else and always my resources will be from India. In terms of funding, we have a very small grant from the Ministry of Culture, which allows me to give salaries to my dancers throughout the year. It's very small, it comes at its own time, but I know it will come some day!! Otherwise, in terms of funding, there's none. Nobody has funded my work. In 'Bhukham', we didn't have money to do costumes. I hardly had money to travel up to Bombay, but we thought if we present the work and people see it, then we can slowly cover the costs. When we get some money, we will make the costumes!
Whether one likes Daksha's work or not, a lot of vigor and attention to detail has gone into the work. Having a Kathak and contemporary background, why did you choose Trivandrum as your base?
DAKSHA: One of the major reasons why I chose Trivandrum is, my Kalari guru lives in Trivandrum. I'd traveled all over Kerala to find a guru for Kalari. I'm very particular about choosing my guru, because for me the most important thing is to have a relationship of mutual respect with my guru. There were many good teachers, but I felt I could not communicate with them, because I was learning Kalari not to perform, but to understand my own body through martial training. With this teacher, I have a very good relationship on different levels. I can talk to him, I can ask questions. He's also a very good doctor. He's always there to help me out with any injuries, which are always present. Several other practical reasons like an international airport, trains etc. We have a beautiful piece of land by the lake; it is 2 acres with about 100 coconut trees.It's a beautiful space to work and have a studio. It is just outside Trivandrum, which makes our stay very pleasant and gives an incredible working environment.
DEVISSARO: In a way, the relationship between Daksha and her guru demonstrate what we see as an ideal working relationship. The guru is very clear that his job is to preserve tradition, not to innovate. Daksha and I go to a teacher who teaches tradition. We don't go there to try and get advice on how to innovate. They are valuable; they are resource people, particularly because they are holders of tradition. This relationship is very special because he enjoys what Daksha does with her innovation and he often comes and sees her new productions. He visits our studio. There's a very clear demarcation of roles. His role is to stay with tradition, to preserve that tradition. It's because he does that, that we can feel comfortable then about creating something new, to experiment. For example, in Chhau, the traditions are not so strong, they're under threat and if Daksha were to work in Chhau, I think she'll not be doing innovations but choreographing traditional items to try and strengthen tradition.
Does Isha miss the life of other 15 year olds?
ISHA: After the shows and when I'm on tour, I feel this is the best thing. But when I'm at home, I have no friends. Not one. I'm rehearsing everyday. 5 days a week is always booked. On weekends, I have to work extra hard to catch up because my schoolwork is so hard. Everyday, my study schedule is planned out and if I don't work properly, O my God! If I lived in a big city, maybe I could go to parties. But then, that's life…
Where does Mallakhamb have a strong position?
DAKSHA: In Gujarat and Maharashtra where there are very good 'akhadas'. That's another research that's going on for 4 years. Whenever we are near Bombay, I visit the different 'akhadas'. When I was in Vrindavan too, I often visited the 'akhadas'. They were very offended by my visit and sometimes I was asked to get out. Mallakhamb has 2 types of training. One is pole training, which is for the boys. I tried to train Isha in that but it was too difficult. If she says it's difficult, it's really difficult. The other is rope training. It's more comfortable for the girls. Boys don't like it, as it tends to hurt them. Another apparatus is the hanging pole. After 7 to 8 years of pole training, one can try the hanging pole. It is even more difficult. Maybe we will try that in our 3rd production. The pole is suspended. When you grip the pole, it starts swinging. So, you need much more strength. I was totally floored when I saw it for the first time. I thought, if my dancers start doing this, then the process of developing themselves would be much faster. The truth is, it's so difficult, most of the people give up. Pole is the symbol of a partner in 'gusti'. Instead of going to a gym, you go to an 'akhada' which is like a traditional gym.
The physical demands on the body of a dancer are so great in your kind of choreography. Do you have cases of injury, if so, do you have doctors who are able to attend to this?
DAKSHA: While doing 'Bhukham', we had big injuries with Isha. She broke her toe and had to perform with it in Taiwan. Shoulder injuries happen all the time because of so much rope work. The new rope work that we have evolved, we call it 'Aarti rope'!! It's a new, original rope work. I've tried it and I still have injuries in my arms. So injuries happen often. But as I mentioned earlier, I'm lucky to have a teacher who is an excellent doctor. He's the best one to deal with when I have a dance injury, with herbal treatment, massages and oils. That's the great advantage of being in Kerala, where Ayurveda is so strong.
DEVISSARO: I can say that 'Bhukham' is the most physical dance that has ever been seen in India. It really pushes physicality to real extremes.That's the area we were interested to explore. Being Australian, I'm a slave to a very physical culture. Australians love sports, when they play sports, they are very physical about it. I've always found Indians to be very tentative about the very physical. Mallakhamb is a very physical exercise. We want to highlight this physicality and 'Bhukham' does that.
How would you define your work? Is it contemporary Kathak? Or contemporary? Or…?
DEVISSARO: When we present our work, we present it as contemporary work. No confusion about that at all. From the time Daksha began to experiment, she has virtually dropped out of the field of a traditional Kathak dancer. She is not trying to have both pieces of the cake by promoting herself on the one hand as a Kathak dancer in traditional festivals and on the other hand as a contemporary dancer in contemporary festivals. It's a professionally very difficult decision because the head is bigger on the traditional side and it just comes on the contemporary side. As that's unnatural turf, she may certainly have been more successful if she had never ventured into contemporary dance. But having done that, she has put her all into it and not tried to sit on both sides of the fence. That's why her hold is strong unlike people who try to be traditional and add touches of a little bit of contemporary work.
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