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Interdisciplinary Rhythms: How Dancers Fuse Inspiration from Alternate Mediums

Dancers draw inspiration from diverse mediums - visual arts, music, film, sculpture, and digital technology. Through interviews with choreographers, and dancers, we discover how they navigate the boundaries between disciplines, blending techniques and ideas to explore newer ways of storytelling


By Ayshwaria Lakshmi


A story can be told in different ways using different mediums. Sometimes, two different mediums can be used to tell a story to retain your audience and gather a crowd. This holds for storytelling through dance. 

The younger audience has drifted away from these forms on account of not connecting with the dancer. In an era where gathering an audience for Indian Classical dance is challenging, the choreographers and dancers present an amalgamation of two or more mediums to tell a story.  

Through this merger, they bring an untold or well-known story in a unique format onto the stage. But the crucial point for the artists is to guide the younger audience closer to their culture that has existed for centuries. Although new mediums for collaboration are emerging for today's audience, they are not novel concepts within the art realm. 

Aishwarya Harish, a Bharata Nrityam artist, says Natyashastra talks about different kinds of theatres and contrivances that can be brought onto the stage or that should not be brought onto this stage. “There (the collaboration) has been something that has existed and it has only been worked upon. If something has existed over so many centuries in its more or less original format, then there should have been something that works over so many aeons keeping itself relevant.”   


Aishwarya Harish


Aishwarya Harish is the student of Dr Jayashree Rajagopalan, also her mother. Dr Jayashree is a student of Guru Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam. Bharata Nrityam is one of the works of Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam based on research of the temple sculptures. The costume worn draws inspiration from the sculptures. Bharata Nrityam is a synthesis of the Marga technique of dance mentioned in the Natyashastra, which has the 108 nritta Karanas as the basic units of dance, along with the conventional techniques of Bharata Natyam. 


Aishwarya has completed her Nritya Shali course on the performance and theory of 108 Karanas of the Natyashastra, under her mother. She choreographed ‘Ritu Ranjan’, a thematic ballet based on environment protection with dialogue, music and dance, and  Navarasa Krishna, a piece on the story of Krishna through the 9 rasas, and many more.  Her choreographies use techniques of Natya or theatre as mentioned in the Natyashastra. 


She shares that Natyashastra mentions costume, colour,  backgrounds, lighting and usage of properties as important elements of performing. She also points out that there was no bifurcation between music and dance earlier and they were looked at from a holistic perspective. 


“In Indian performing arts, the integration of diverse mediums is not a new concept. However, the utilisation of these mediums is driven by individual creative capabilities and the ability of the performance to appeal to audiences.," she explains.


Challenge in amalgamation with Alternate mediums


Divya Hoskere, a Bengaluru-based Bharatanatyam dancer and a traditional puppeteer, performed pieces combining Puppetry and Bharatanatyam. Smt. Anupama Hoskere, her mother, a Padma Shri Awardee and Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee, is the founder-director of Dhaatu Puppet Theater. The Dhaatu theatre and Divya’s Guru Sri P Praveen Kumar put together the first collaborated piece of puppetry and dance in Aabharana, an eight-minute long piece.


Koravanji and Rukmini - Divya Hoskere


The experimental piece received wide acceptance from the audience and became instantly popular. They went on to do two more pieces such as Malavikagnimitram, a puppet and dance musical, directed by Smt. Anupama Hoskere and Sutradhari Vaidharbhi directed by Divya Hoskere in collaboration with Prakruti Hoskere. Malavikagnimitram was well received and the team performed in almost 20 cities in the country.


Malavikagnimitram


While performing with puppets might look interesting for the audience, as dancers, it is difficult. Divya shares that balancing dance and puppetry can be challenging, as the two forms of storytelling have different rhythms and movements. 


“Essentially, I am a living, breathing human being, engaging with a puppet brought to life by another individual. The level of humanism depicted by the puppet character is less pronounced than the realism conveyed by a human character, a stark contrast evident to anyone. Therefore, the challenge lies in bridging this disparity. It's quite amusing conversing with a doll," she reflects.


To overcome this challenge, dancer and puppeteer Divya emphasised the importance of having a good rapport with the puppeteer and increasing her dance skills to match the puppet's movements. The challenge is to get the audience to believe what is going on, to be able to convince the audience of the bhava (emotion)  being expressed. 


“To minimise the noticeable disparity while performing with the puppet, I must significantly enhance my Satvika abhinaya as a dancer, thereby reducing the extent of my own Angika abhinaya," she explains.


She adds that this is the sole method to overcome the challenge. As an example from one of her performances, she recalls a situation where she had to persuade the audience of her character's love for Krishna, portrayed as a two-and-a-half-feet-tall puppet.


She also shared her experience working with a puppeteer to create a seamless integration of dance and puppetry, resulting in a more immersive and engaging performance. She points out that having a good rapport with the puppeteer and for the puppeteer to be trained to dance is the key. The Dhaatu team’s puppeteers are trained in both dance and music.


The need for different formats of storytelling


The misconception that tradition binds one to be in a certain manner is wrong, say the dancers. According to Abhinav Gupta's commentary on Natyashastra, the book highlights some ways of doing the movements but there can be innumerable ways. The first and foremost point is to get the basis and source right. 


Prachi Saati, an accomplished Bharatanatyam performer agrees that marrying choreography with digital technology and animation can create engaging entry points for younger audiences to explore the intersection of dance, technology, and mythology.


Prachi along with Upasana Nattoji Roy created When Walls Dance as a unique 40-minute live performance that brings together the classical dance form of Bharata Natyam, animation and tribal Warli art to tell the story of a little girl Champa and her beloved tree. This production attempts to bring together two age-old art forms - the Indian classical dance form of Bharata Natyam and the tribal art of the indigenous Warli tribe - through scenography including motion design and projection.


Prachi Saati


Prachi had her initial training with Guru Vaibhav Arekar and received further guidance under Guru Lata Raman. Presently, she is training under the tutelage of her Guru Smt. Rama Vaidyanathan. Prachi is an A-grade Doordarshan artist and is also empanelled with the ICCR.


“What I kept in mind as I created this piece was younger audiences. We have a whole young population who are interested in dancing and then after five to seven years, they just wander off because of education or loss of interest. They do not relate to the pinning Nayaki (heroine) anymore. There is so much that they can relate to and would like to talk about and we need to give them that freedom to explore the ideas” she says. 


But of course, she adds, “To move to this thought you have to go through the traditional route. You have to master the Margam to reach a point where you are convinced about your form to tell and share these ideas.”


Such modernist formats are a much-needed entry point for these younger students. These experimental mergers bring technology and dance together to tell a story. Therein lies the scope for these younger audiences to understand the magnificence of these art forms and what they can do with them.


“I believe the path ahead lies in collaboration and integrating diverse mediums. Whether it is innovating storytelling formats, upholding the tradition of Margam, or embracing evolving technologies like AI, there must be space for all to coexist harmoniously," she concludes.


***

Ayshwaria Lakshmi is a writer based in Chennai. She has a passion for Bharatanatyam and has been a practicing dancer from a very young age.



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