Asian Music and Dance

Making of Karna & Yerma

Two dance pieces specially commissioned for the UK Gharana Season by zeroClassical and Encee Academy premiered on the penultimate night of the Festival.

Abhay Shankar Mishra, kathak teacher at London’s Bharatiya Bhavan had the rare opportunity of creating a work on himself. He selected the theme of the marginalised hero of the Mahabharata, whose unknown family lineage makes him vulnerable to rebukes of society. This story is placed within twenty-first-century Britain: a youth with a rucksack awkwardly makes his way to the bus stop and is taunted by a group gathered at the kerbside. He is obviously a newcomer, a stranger to these parts.

Challenged, the young man explodes in a series of pirouettes and elegantly stretched movements to the tabla bols of Deepak Sahai. The fluidity of the dance combined with the dynamism and sharpness of the delivery comes as a surprise, which builds to sheer delight as the senses are filled by beautiful modern music and an exciting range of movements. The various elements of kathak are exploited: the tukras and tohras, infused by leaps and bounds, chakkars and tatkar with refreshing variations. 

The playfulness with rhythm is particularly pleasing as the dancer finds new ways of marking time and layering with cross-rhythms. This is communicated variously – now through a Chaplin-like walk with feet turned outwards and relaxed knees, or through a section of body-slapping (used extensively by dancers such as Sonia Sabri) combined with finger-clicking modulated to add greater texture.

As the tension builds, the group represented by the five musicians lob the question insistently at the solo dancer, “Jati kaun?” (“What’s your caste?”). Text in Hindi voiced over in the soundtrack takes head-on the issue of caste identity, while the dancer’s movements become more martial. There is a sense that the individual is taking on both the intellectual and physical challenge of his opponents and of the wider society. The outsider is no longer a victim, but a victor.

The Making of Karna has a sort of West Side Story universalism. The depiction of youth and street culture is a theme that never dates. Abhay’s slim frame and boyish looks, his hero-like walk, make him perfect for the part which he plays with relish while displaying formidable technique. The show is the triumph of content married to technique. In that special thanks must go to Shobana Jeyasingh for providing the ‘outside eye’ and to the composer Sivanesan for an imaginative and joyous musical scoring. May Karna have many, many showings.

Inspired by the Spanish playwright Lorca’s study of the pain of a childless woman, Yerma is adapted as a dance theatre piece. A complex structure uses an actor pair playing the husband and wife and dancer Amina Khayyam, reflecting the inner life of the woman. A trio of dancers acts as a chorus, commenting on and amplifying the mood. 

As the audience files into the auditorium, the central character has a bowed head while the trio of young women flutter around playfully. Giggling, they disperse as the lead dancer played by the petite, waif-like Amina Khayyam in the white paint of Pierrot establishes herself in a substantial solo with movements that have a slow, fluid circularity. The chorus in a martial-like march with stiff arms and torsos rotated side to side mark out the square of the space, as if imposing the fences that society insists upon. 

The action switches between dance to straightforward acting, finely delivered, in which we learn of the estrangement between the couple. The hint of menace towards the woman in a highly patriarchal society painted by Lorca lurks throughout the piece. It builds to a climax as the disappointed and frustrated woman loses her sense of balance and is moved to commit a horrific act.

Amina Khayyam has a quiet charisma and plays the tragic heroine with clarity and conviction. There is one point, however, where the songs convey the impression that the music feels too light for the gravity of the situation. Also dramatically the piece suffers from the problem of presenting two separate art forms by two sets of performers. The acting and dancing halves do not integrate. In some ways if the dancers themselves or a narrator, a sutradhar, delivered the text, this problem could be overcome. Also judicious editing by an outside eye to prune down to a tight thirty to forty minutes would strengthen the piece significantly.



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