“What, then, is time? If no-one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain to the one who asks, I know not.”
Treating an abstract theme presents a challenge for any choreographer trained in Indian classical dance. How can the body reproduce the naturally disembodied? After all, goddesses, mischief and jilted lovers are kathak’s forte. How does one stop the representation from replacing its subject?
Trained by two of its brightest luminaries, Kumudini Lakhia and Birju Maharaj, Aditi Mangaldas raises clouds of controversy in the dusty back-offices of traditional kathak. Modern sensibilities infuse all her pieces, be they classical kathak or contemporary dance based on kathak, drawing many a harrumph from the policers of the dance form.
This year, she had chosen to present a subject no smaller than Time itself. A barrage of questions about Time was printed on the free-sheet. Anyone expecting the piece to answer them would have been disappointed, but it was never its purpose to do so. Rather, it held up Time to the light, rotating it from side to side in order to examine it as an irresoluble curiosity.
Timeless draws on Mangaldas’ contemporary vocabulary, derived mainly from classical kathak and yoga. When classical, it is undeniably kathak: taka thung and kitataka thun thun appear out of nowhere, but ephemerally; completed, they are gone as suddenly as they arrived. A tihai is blown clapping onto the stage and upon its sam vanishes on a journey to who-knows-where. Spins are executed by the company’s male dancers at speeds that defy physics; clean, polished movements gleam coolly in the light.
It is dance designed for the stage, not merely dance presented on the stage. As Mangaldas said, had she decided to seat the musicians in their conventional position stage right, that in itself would have been a statement. Instead, the vocalist was freed to roam the stage; the pakhavaj players briefly held the centre in a file. Fabiana Piccioli’s excellent lighting design was integrated into the performance. The live musicians worked cohesively with the dancers, although certain elements of the recorded music sounded a little dated by today’s fashions. The company’s dancers handled the piece’s high-energy demands with aplomb and Mangaldas’ slight stature belied a core of serpentine muscle that ducked and wove throughout the piece with impressive ease.
Two scenes were memorable, coincidentally both extremes in their depiction of Time. The first, a macroscopic view, saw the dancers, arms raised, spinning across the stage like elementary particles in the cold, distant reaches of space, their trajectories strikingly evoking the vast, cosmic machinations of an inexorably ticking universe.
And then, in the midst of the performance, came the moment of absolute contrast: Mangaldas’ solo, startling in its intimacy. The relentless advance of stamping feet faded into the warmth of Shubha Mudgal’s voice and we could almost see the tiny constituent particles of each moment catch, twinkling, in the beams of sunlight as Mangaldas floated, whirled and wrapped herself in a single, honeyed instant.
In the context of a decades-long debate about what is and what is not kathak, it is telling that the pieces in the company’s repertoire are each badged either as ‘classical kathak’ or ‘contemporary dance based on kathak’, as if to forestall any arguments about their nature.
Kathak itself is a hard toil; having to bear the scouring burden of tradition’s gaze only adds to the effort. Mangaldas’ pieces work hard to try our beliefs, to test the load a classical dance form can bear, to investigate how it may change.
Here is an Indian dance company sailing out confidently on the seas of modernity: even if their uncompromisingly forward-looking attitude means their faces are wind-raw, they should know that their labours are not going unnoticed or unappreciated.
tihai: a rhythmic phrase repeated three times that acts as a full stop.
sam: the final beat of a time cycle which is also the first beat of the next. The point is marked by a flourish.