Asian Music and Dance

Dance in Drawing: energy captured

Subodh Poddar in Mumbai, India and Noelle Williamson in Cheshire, UK have both been smitten by the romance of capturing the energy fields that build up around dancers. Between them they use pencil, inks, charcoal and watercolours. 

Isabel Putinja asks them, what is the draw?

The inspiration suddenly came to artist Subodh Poddar during a performance in Mumbai in December 1988. Four great dancers, Birju Maharaj, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Sanjukta Panigrahi and Sonal Mansingh were all taking to the stage on the same evening. “This was an electrifying experience and the first time I felt like drawing dance live,” he reveals. Using a black pen and the bright red invitation card as his canvas, he attempted to capture the energy of the dance movements he was seeing on stage. Soon both sides of the card were covered with his sketches. He then borrowed his neighbour’s card and continued drawing. This was the birth of Subodh’s project Dancescapes and from that day on, he has never attended a dance performance without his sketchbook and pen. Over the past twenty years he has had the opportunity to sketch many celebrated dancers including Mrinalini Sarabhai, Birju Maharaj, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Sanjukta Panigrahi, Malavika Sarukkai, Astad Deboo, Saswati Sen and Sujata Mohapatra to name only a few.

Different art forms have often inspired each other. Sometimes they even cross-pollinate and create another artwork together. When drawing or painting dance, the artist can become a part of the performance, taking the creative energy of a momentary dance movement and capturing it on a canvas for posterity. Noelle Williamson discovered that “capturing a moment of dance on paper requires great concentration, some adrenaline and, if successful, is very satisfying”. It was during an art class at Liverpool’s John Moores that Noelle first attempted to draw movement. “Bisakha Sarker, an Indian creative dancer, was invited to dance for our class so we could practise drawing movement,” recalls Noelle. “That was my introduction to Indian classical dance and to drawing movement.” Since then, Noelle has had the opportunity to paint the renowned kathak dancer Kumudini Lakhia, odissi dancer Shankar Behera, and a number of UK-based artists who have performed in Liverpool and Manchester, including Kali Chandra Segaram, Sangeeta Ghosh, Archana Senathiraja, Thanuja Shankar, Sri Sarkar, Darren Swareze, Ann Dickie and Jackie Guy. 

“…it becomes an artwork which is alive.”

In the eye of the artist, the speed of the movements made by dancers becomes fleeting images which he or she mentally records before transferring them onto the page or canvas. As a result, what is captured is often abstract. There are no faces, only lines and forms suggesting movement and expressing the energy and mood of the performance. The artist observes a dancer in three dimensions, as well as space and time. Though a drawing or painting is one-dimensional, because it also records the essence and energy of movement it becomes an artwork which is alive and not static. 

“He would capture the scenes of everyday life… through the train window.”

“As soon as I have settled down with my paper and inks,” explains Noelle, “I am totally engaged in watching the dancer… looking at the beauty of line or for an unusual angle and deciding where to place the image on the page.” Subodh agrees that capturing fast-moving dance on a canvas requires “intensified concentration”. While an art student at the JJ Institute of Applied Arts in Mumbai, he would diligently work on the twenty sketches he was required to produce every day during his long morning commute on Mumbai’s suburban trains. Using his pen and sketchbook, he would capture the scenes of everyday life he caught glimpses of through the train window. This is how he learned to capture these blurred, passing images, which he feels is no different to drawing fast-moving dance.

“The advantage (of live drawing) is that I am unable to control the image.”

Both artists prefer to draw live rather than from photographs, as it gives their work a freshness and spontaneity, though this is not without its challenges. “I prefer to draw live as the results are definitely the most spontaneous and the advantage is that I am unable to control the image,” explains Noelle. “The challenge is to reproduce on paper an impression of a moment of movement in the most spontaneous manner possible. Some drawings I work on away from the performance and then I would use preliminary sketches and photographs for reference. The results are less impressionistic but I am able to think more about composition and colour. I may use a stand-in model to correct the foreshortening on an arm or leg for example. These studies are not as immediate as ‘live’ drawings but within them I still try to capture a moment in time.”

“The first challenge is to finish even before I’ve started.” 

“My work is completely spontaneous,” echoes Subodh. “Art is composition. So the first challenge is to finish even before I’ve started, as my sketches happen in seconds. I have to be able to see the image before putting pen to paper. I make rapid drawings with a brush on paper, fast, one after the other, continuously. I have to eliminate unwanted details like costume and jewellery, to be able to get to the essence of a dancer’s body. I work only in black so the elimination of colour is also a challenge.” 

Each artist has an individualised way of working with different tools and materials which is often influenced by the dance form being depicted as well as the creative environment. “I use pen on paper most of the time when I’m sketching dance performances from my seat,” explains Subodh. “But when I visit a dance school or a workshop, I carry my easel, paper and ink and use various kinds of brushes to suit the dancer’s body language. I love the effect of Chinese ink on rice paper. But the slow-drying ink is very difficult to manage.” Noelle also uses ink diluted with water and applied with a brush. “For the lines I use a wooden stick rather than a pen as I find a stick gives a more lively line. I also usually draw while seated on the floor.”

Both artists have sketched a variety of dance forms and find that each has their own challenges. “I am willing to attempt most forms of dance,” says Noelle, “Indian, modern dance or fusion. I find Indian dance with its defined movements the most challenging.” Subodh is attracted to contemporary dance forms: “I like to draw Western contemporary dance because they only make forms with their bodies unlike Indian classical dance which is mainly narrating stories. But I don’t get many opportunities to sketch Western dance.”

If Subodh and Noelle’s artwork is inspired by dance, can the artists’ work inspire dancers in return? How do dancers react to their work? “I think I can safely say that all dancers are interested in seeing a painting of their dance,” affirms Noelle, “though I always emphasise that it is an impression.” Subodh recalls the reactions he has received from some of the famous stalwarts of Indian classical dance. “Mallika Sarabhai saw my work and said to her students: ‘Shouldn’t we get inspired by Subodh’s work like he gets inspired by ours?’ When I asked Mrinalini Sarabhai to autograph one of my sketches she wrote: All movement is life intensified. She was so right! Once I went backstage to take Birju Maharaj’s autograph. He carefully looked at all my sketches and said: ‘I will sign all your sketches if you give me one.’ This is the best compliment I ever got! Kelucharan Mohapatra would always say: ‘Look I can also draw,’ and draw a dancer in the corner and then sign. My friend Antonella Usai, an Italian bharatanatyam and contemporary dancer said: ‘From Subodh’s drawings we get to see the movements that were created and also died on the stage.’ ”

Though the applause has faded and the curtains have come down, the spirit of the dance will live on, because thanks to artists like Subodh and Noelle, fleeting movements have become lasting images.



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