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Belgium touched by timeless Kathak solo on gender
- Aaricia Ponnet
Photos: Rudy Carlier

June 15, 2019

Shila Mehta paid tribute to her Guru Pt. Vijai Shankar and brought Kathak in its purest form to the Minard Theatre in Ghent on April 25, 2019. With her solo piece 'Nimitta', a powerful interpretation of Amba-Shikhandi, she managed to convey an energy and meaning that didn't need words to be understood. A diverse audience of contemporary artists, Indian art enthusiasts, avid dance lovers and sympathisers was mesmerised by Shila Mehta's expressive style.

Koen Augustijnen, one of the most dynamic forces in contemporary dance, known for his immersive experiments in varied cultural forms, says, "Shila Mehta combines in this solo her maturity, refined dance craft and virtuosity with an open spirit of a young soul. While sharing her traditional Indian dance and performance culture with the Belgian audience in Ghent, you can see that her window stands open to welcome new impulses to let her style evolve and grow. She uses the space and the combination of dance and storytelling in a free and natural way. It struck me in the performance that the expression of emotions was not exaggerated, neither molded into a fixed form. Exit one of my prejudices on Indian dance and performance."

"We all know the soul has no gender," she says in the performance. It's a saying that comes from an ancient Indian story but is more then ever an issue of discussion today in the Western world. Shila Mehta shows how the past and traditional can be relevant and actual today. She is a bridgemaker between past and present, between male and female, between young and old, between Asia and Europe, between dance and theatre. By her performance she invites us warmly to Indian culture and questions our prejudices, our reflexes to categorize and opens by this our window to the world.

The opening of Nimitta instantly establishes an atmosphere of tension. The image of a battlefield unfolds through the words of the Hindi narrator and, for those who don't master the language, his dynamic voice. A small light opens in the centre backstage, making the contours of the dancer and her twirling arm movements visible. We are on the battlefield, and Shila Mehta, known as a graceful and elegant female dancer, has turned into a warrior - a confident smile, broad-legged, powerful footwork. Her sharp movements, invigorated by the roll of the percussion, alert the audience's senses. The narrative of the story is about to unfold.

Deep-rooted tradition expressing contemporary issues
Amba-Shikhandi, the inspiration for this solo piece, is a tale of the Indian epic Mahabharata. A clear introduction in Dutch by Babette Weyns, historian at Ghent University and aspiring Kathak dancer, helps us understand the different passages of the performance. Shikhandi, a male warrior, stands in front of the man he was born to defeat, and is suddenly taunted by memories of his previous life as princess Amba. The princess who was betrayed by the very man he is about to kill.

Shikhandi remembers, and Shila Mehta's movements, dancing an outward battle on the field, gradually evolve into an inner battle between the dancer's masculine and feminine side. Mehta chose the story of Amba-Shikhandi because of its contemporary value, addressing the issue of gender fluidity. Dancing these two characters shows her as a master storyteller, for she makes the audience forget that it is a woman dancing a man's role, until she reveals the female character by skilfully alternating the loud motion of her right body work with the gentle hip curves and subtle hand gestures on her left. The latter movements take over and the performance takes us to princess Amba's palace. She covers the entire stage, catching the momentum with her vigorous movements.

With a more traditional repertoire of movements, we are reminded of the dance style's history being practised in the courtyard of many palaces. Here, the dancers passed on messages of societal value through the stories they danced. This is the great strength of Shila Mehta's dance. She makes the story come to life in such a way, that you can vividly imagine all the characters on stage. She makes the spectator forget that he or she is watching a dancer portraying a story. Mehta becomes the story.

Her amazing abhinaya (expressions) evokes a subtle continuum of emotions, ranging from the valour of the battling Shikhandi, to his disbelief when his opponent refuses to battle, from Amba's romance to her anger, betrayed by everyone, and finally, the inner fight of Amba-Shikhandi. The artist manages to play with the idea of gender fluidity without becoming too dramatic. The underlying issue of the main narrative is well understood by the audience. We are left with a deep impression of this timeless tale.

A layered performance
Nimitta illustrates the research that goes into creating a well-layered dance piece. The piece was choreographed by Mohiniattam exponent Dr. Kanak Rele and adapted to Kathak by Shila Mehta. Mehta conceptualised the music and costume especially for the piece. For the music, composed by Somnath Mishra and guided by Dr. Kanak Rele, she inspired herself on the Charani ballads, a tradition of musical storytelling still existing in West-Indian states like Rajasthan and Gujarat. By cross-composing elements from these deep-rooted traditions, Shila Mehta innovates the Kathak repertoire, thus creating a traditional blend in a contemporary fashion. The music score is a great asset of the performance, alternating between melodic and rhythmic moments, making the audience tap along or close their eyes in enjoyment from time to time. Her red and blue costume, cleverly designed by Sandhya Raman, could be a man's as well as a woman's costume, and at the same time, still suits the movements of her dance.

In honour of Pt. Vijay Shankar
The performance started with a small ceremony that Shila Mehta held in honour of her recently deceased Guru Pt. Vijai Shankar. It set a special tone for the evening. We got a glimpse of Mehta's very personal connection with her teacher, surrounded by all of her disciples in Belgium. One could sense the deep respect with which the Belgian team joined their guru on stage, and this sensation spread through the audience when the dancers returned to their seats.

A few of the dancers had attended the premiere of Nimitta in Mumbai, where Shila Mehta's Kathak institute is based. Even though they did not have the honour of meeting Pt. Vijai Shankar, they could sense a very different energy during this showcase of Shila Mehta's solo. They found it to be one of the most powerful and touching performances they had ever seen. We can only agree, and look forward to seeing this piece being showcased in other theatre halls in Europe.

Aaricia Ponnet is Assistant director of Maya Sapera Dance Company; Kathak scholar, Indian Council for Cultural Relations; PhD Scholar Ghent University Department of Linguistics / Languages and Cultures India. Koen Augustijinen is a choreographer.

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