A woman sits hugging her knees at the side of the stage. Her silky, pastel costume and the profile of her face catch the dim glow of the lights. Her fingers flick; she’s thinking, listening to the sound of a radio. A new energy enters her spine – a subtle transformation. With a sweep of her arm and leg, she rises – a dancer.
The striking simplicity and intimacy continues through this solo, programmed alongside two contemporary dance pieces as part of The Place’s Resolution! 2011 season. The vocabulary in Memory is firmly within the framework of kathak, yet Kasturi sets out to innovate. In the programme notes we are informed that text by Kanimozhi Karunanidhi is a first for the use of Tamil verse in kathak choreography. I am surprised that this boundary has not been crossed before; after all, kathak is now a global, let alone pan-Indian form. Although this element may have been essential in creating the deep personal sense Chennai-born Kasturi brought to the piece, for a viewer who speaks no Indian languages, there was a more striking departure apparent.
The strong sense of flair and performed presentation that is common in traditional kathak was missing here. Shunning the persona of the coquettish diva or the extrovert virtuoso, there was no sense of the show-off in Kasturi. There was some applause after Kasturi reached the climax of one sum, but she did not call for this – for Kasturi these were moments of personal arrival and not applause checkpoints. One particularly beautiful example of this is the completion of a sequence of chakkars by kneeling, arms extended downwards, chest held forwards and eyes downcast with an inward focus rather than the feeling of flirtatious triumph that is often expected.
Throughout Memory there is an interplay between the dancer and the person. These two personas are blurred as we see Kasturi living and re-living her movements and emotions. A familiar tukra is performed, dissected and echoed. We hear the phrase played by Hiren Chate on tabla and spoken alternately by male and female voices, while Kasturi is moved by her muscle memory sometimes seeming to perform the movement and sometimes merely to ‘mark’ it. There is a childlike vulnerability to her darting hastas, innocent, open expression and light footwork as she glides about the space. At times this lightness seemed too much and I missed the characteristic clarity and weight of footwork and focus which kathak conventionally employs. In Ed Alton’s sound-score I also would have liked to hear more tension in what was an amalgam of tabla, voice and warm acoustic guitar which successfully created a dreamlike environment, but somehow lacked a risky vulnerability I was searching for.
As Kasturi reminisces, the viewer witnesses different moods passing on the breeze. Wistful melancholy and quiet joy are replaced by curiosity, anticipation and frustration as a remembered character becomes almost tangible through Kasturi’s abhinaya. The piece passes like a daydream. Soon we are back to the beginning, watching the woman hugging her knees, lost in thought. There is no over-arching climax, no moment of realisation. The re-living of these memories does not seem to have effected any change. At first I am left nonplussed, but as I in turn reflect, it occurs to me that memory is so often not the substance of dramatic flashbacks or penny-dropping moments; it is the familiar, the personal and the intimate that we carry in the present.