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As a young enthusiastic student-delegate in the ConversAsians conference of 2010, I was thrilled to be taking a masterclass by Aditi Mangaldas – a leading dancer and choreographer in the classical Indian dance form of kathak. With her kajal (kohl)-lined eyes, she began the session by explaining the dance form.
Kathak is deduced from the Vedic Sanskrit term katha which means story while the term kathaka means the person who tells a story. In ancient India, these kathakas were travelling dancer-poets and it is through the spectacular footwork, the soundscape of the ghungroo (small bells adorned at the ankles), poignant pauses and poses, and expressive eye movements, that traditional tales are shared through performance.
As Aditi swirled around the Esplanade Rehearsal Studio to the rhythms of her accompanying tabla artist (the traditional percussion used in kathak), I couldn’t help but see flashes of this dance’s history. As a form, kathak can be seen as a mirror to the invasions that India had faced in its formative years. This classical North Indian dance was initially used as a form of worship for Hindu gods like Radha-Krishna during the Bhakti Movement in the 15th century. It was later adapted for court entertainment for the Muslim audience where Central Asian and Persian themes became part of its repertoire during the Mughal rule from the 16th to mid-18th century.
Once banned during British colonial rule in 1910 and yet standing as a powerful cultural icon of the Indian subcontinent today, one is amazed at how kathak and kathakas have adapted and evolved based on their environments.
Growing up in a household of businessfolk, and intellectuals of philosophy and the sciences, Aditi’s desire to dance and create dance was born out of an atmosphere of freedom, an ambience in which ideas and imaginations were encouraged to flow and flower.
In many lecture-demonstrations and talks that I have attended by her over the years, she always cites the extensive training under the leading gurus of kathak, Shrimati Kumudini Lakhia and Pandit Birju Maharaj, as being pertinent to the development of her artistry. From the former she said she learnt “the essence of dance, the courage to be free and fearless, the ability to understand the relation of my body to the space that surrounds”. From the latter she “learnt to love dance as though it were human, to feel its all-encompassing beauty, to centre myself within my body”.
Today Aditi is recognised for her artistry, technique, eloquence and characteristic energy that mark every performance. Her Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company – the Drishtikon Dance Foundation, has been established with a vision to look at tradition with a modern mind, to explore the past to create a new, imaginative future. Besides dancing and choreographing classical productions, both solo and group, Aditi has broken new ground by using her knowledge and experience of kathak as a springboard to evolve a contemporary dance vocabulary, that is still based off the classical.
In India, she was awarded the Gujarat Sangeet Natak Academy Award in 2007 as well as the National Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2013 – which she declined. In an open letter she wrote, “The category (Creative and Experimental Dance) in which I have been selected is incorrect…Over the years, I have persevered towards preserving, making it relevant, letting it harmoniously and homogeneously evolve, helping the stream of kathak to expand and be ever rejuvenating and full of energy and life.” I recall being stumped and yet full of admiration for this artist who stands firm in what she believes and for dispelling the need for labels.
Although critics and reviewers tend to classify her works with the binary “traditional” or “contemporary”—one that has had contentious repercussions—to Aditi they are two sides of the same coin as her works are still based on the rigour of classical kathak training and strengthened with the yoga spine. To understand this, one just needs to watch her vibrant kathak training sessions at her Drishtikon studio in New Delhi. To Aditi, it is more important to look at the work with “a fresh new mind, new thought, new energy” for that constant novelty is “inherent in great artistic form”. As Leela Venkatraman from The Hindu writes, “…spectacular was Aditi Mangaldas, whose kathak, while innovative, derived totally from parampara (a longstanding tradition).”
Having experienced many of Aditi’s performances live and via mediated platforms over the past decade, her most admirable and striking feature lies in how she continues to keep this dance heritage alive – in the most urban and modern way.
To her, “heritage needs to move, to evolve. If I am aging, my dance must age with me”. When asked about what it means to be true to the roots, Aditi’s metaphor of being a river that constantly rejuvenates itself is one that highlights her dance-life philosophy – life, the environment and the body of kathaka all provide rich fodder for her to explore and enter unchartered seas to create timeless works.
So, it is in the detailing and going deeper into the work itself, beyond binary boundaries, that Aditi is perhaps convinced has the potential to draw the audience into the work. While her more conventional kathak pieces revolve around themes instead of the typical style of lecture-demonstrations, her current works based on kathak training offer the form through “absorption”.
Perhaps it is this rootedness in the current modern times, that constantly allows Aditi to reach out to a highly cosmopolitan audience. In seminal works like Within, where the unsettling social turmoil of our times become conduits for our dark knotted emotions and their unravelling, the arresting footwork and swelling soundscape frame the moving shadow-like bodies. The theatrical presentation of dark emotions finds fruition when diverse Indian and non-Indian audiences alike are touched by the poignancy of the matter. In works like Inter_rupted, the disintegration of the seemingly invincible body highlights the sense of humility and vulnerability that then causes a stirring sensation in our cosmopolitan audience. After all, with our world becoming smaller, as Aditi aptly notes, “our hearts and minds must be bigger”.
Thus, looking at her body of works, it is evident that Aditi Mangaldas is a kathaka who is spearheading tales of today – tales that are imbued with complex emotions and replete with energies that can change the shape of artmaking and art-reception.
Dr Nidya Shanthini Manokara (PhD NUS) is a bharatanatyam and theatre practitioner, who is interested in evolving Asian cultural practices and their affective qualities in performance.
Aditi Mangaldas returns to Kalaa Utsavam for the fourth time, bringing her signature blend of the classical kathak tradition, contemporary dance elements and theatre design.