Exploring the Artistic Journey of a Modern Classical Dancer
Interview with Amrita Lahiri, Indian Classical Dancer.
Q: What do you find most fulfilling about performing classical dance? Is there a particular aspect or element that you enjoy the most?
A: I've always enjoyed being a student. Learning is when I feel most alive. When you are a dancer, there are endless possibilities for growth and learning. When we perform, what the audience sees is just the tip of the iceberg. It's the process that I find most enjoyable- the research, the improv, even the physical training of the body, the classes, sweat, and conversations- it takes many hours of this to create a few minutes of dance on stage. Of course, the audience appreciation is fulfilling too- can't deny it!
Q: Having been brought up in the US, lived in New Delhi, Mumbai, and Singapore, and practiced a traditional South Indian dance form, how has your multicultural experience influenced your artistic work?
A : Travelling helps you see the world from different perspectives. You realize that there are certain common features of humanity, regardless of age, origin, etc. We all feel certain emotions as human beings- joy, love, grief, jealousy, disappointment, pride. Art has to make you feel something- it has to move you. So whether you are a radical contemporary visual artist or a practitioner of a dance form that originated many centuries ago, as an artist, you have to reveal these common human emotions in yourself and your audience.
Ironically, multicultural experience has given me conviction in the power and vitality of the dance that I have trained in, and in Indian classical dance forms in general.
Q: How did you navigate the process of learning Bharatanatyam after being trained in Kuchipudi? Were there any specific challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?
A : I started learning Bharatanatyam at the age of 16, after training in Kuchipudi for 10 years before that. Age 6-16 was Kuchipudi only. Age 16-26 was both Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam. It was not difficult to manage the transitions because of two reasons- 1. The dance forms are similar because of some shared cultural history 2. I have outstanding and open-minded gurus- Leela Samson, Anuradha Nehru, and Kishore Mosalikanti. As an artist, these boxes and labels of 'Bharatanatyam' and 'Kuchipudi' become irrelevant once you have mastered the grammar and vocabulary. More important is what are you trying to say as an artist. What do you want the audience to feel? Are you able to communicate something with your dance? Or is it just a form?
Q: You have explored contemporary and non-traditional themes in your work. How do you ensure that you maintain the authenticity of Kuchipudi in your performances while exploring these themes?
A: I detest the word 'authentic'. The only thing that I am 'Authentically' is myself. Those who claim to know what is 'authentic' are usually insecure or seeking power. I believe in what my gurus taught me. The same way they believed in what their gurus taught them. Because of the richness of the Kuchipudi vocabulary, or any dance style's vocabulary, I can explore any theme I choose. However, some are more suited to the medium than others. I try to keep the integrity of my dance by getting feedback from my gurus. I'm fortunate to have gurus who are also loving critics of my work!
Q: How important is it for artists to have the freedom to take risks and explore unconventional ideas? How do you personally embrace experimentation and innovation in your artistic process?
A: Very important for artists to have the freedom to take risks and explore any idea that they choose. However, it's also important to keep the poetics of classical dance in mind. I don't enjoy prosaic, literal interpretations- I like layers that reveal themselves slowly over many iterations. To me, that is the joy of performing or watching classical dance- the layers of music, poetry, history, and characters. Experimentation is very important, and it is as natural as a child who learns a language and wants to use it to express himself. Personally, experimentation in my dance has been a result of my curiosity, a kind of thirst to learn, and lucky opportunities to collaborate with other artists.
Q: How do you see the future of Kuchipudi evolving?
A: Unfortunately, I can't predict the future! I sense that we are in a moment of evolution in classical dance where form is becoming less important and content is taking precedence. There was a period during the past 60 years when it was important for dancers and gurus to define the look and basics of the form itself- these steps and items will be labeled 'Kuchipudi' or these steps and pieces originating from Orissa will be called 'Odissi'. I think the whole world now has a clear definition of what these forms are. The question now is what do we say with these forms? How do we communicate with these forms to an audience today?
What makes them so relevant even today, centuries after they first started? The answer is that what makes them so relevant today is the same thing that has given them life for hundreds of years- the rigour, the precision, the poetry, the layers, the way that these dance forms evoke the most primal emotions of humanity- whether 400 years ago or today; whether in Mumbai or New York or in the village of Kuchipudi itself.