India's dancer Aditi Mangaldas weaves the silver threads of Kathak into Egyptian audience

Ati Metwaly , Friday 28 Apr 2017

Aditi Mangaldas performed 'Uncharted Seas' in Cairo and Alexandria, as part of the India by the Nile festival

Aditi Mangaldas
Uncharted Seas by Aditi Mangaldas (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

In her olive green dress, she enters the stage. The spotlight that illuminates her gracious posture, face and hands, cuts through the darkness of the theatre. The mudras increase, the rhythm intensifies, the drops of North India’s creative charge pour into the Cairo Opera hall, “like the soft sound of a dew drop falling upon a leaf in a dream,” as Aditi Mangaldas quotes Josh Malihabadi, the noted Urdu poet, “nothing is gentler than this.” Nothing can touch you deeper.

Veiled in a profound theatrical atmosphere, an unusual setting for classical Kathak, Uncharted Seas relies on dimmed lights and occasional candles aiming to reveal just a figure or a hand gesture of the performer, no more and no less.

The dancers appear on stage, one by one, first as multiplications of Mangaldas and soon in the imaginative compositions of poses sculpted in fluid grace and the dark colours of their skirts. The rhythmic sound of ghungroos (bells) unveils the captivating complexity of tatkar (footwork) and sets fast chakkars (spins) in motion. As the dancers gain momentum, Mangaldas occasionally slows down, looks into a distant void; she asks questions but does she expect to find answers? “I seek the beloved,” she asks. “Is it a man? Is it a woman? Is it truth; is it beauty; is it love?”

Aditi Mangaldas
Uncharted Seas by Aditi Mangaldas (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

Her seemingly microscopic presence in the boundless universe is amplified by her devotion to art. “You feel so insignificant in the whole melody of the cosmos, and yet individual passion is so important,” Mangaldas reminisces over breakfast one of the following mornings. This time her face is illuminated by sun rays coming in through the large hotel windows.

It is a bright Cairo morning; she seems relaxed and curious, excited by her travels, almost like a child, even if it is just one country on her long list of international appearances. “Would you like some coffee?” she asks and looks towards the Nile on the other side of which stands the Cairo Opera House where she performed on 18 April. “It’s a very unique city, full of life… We went for a long walk last night. It was beautiful. People are very friendly too.”

Egypt witnessed a few Kathak performances in the past, all captivating in their own right. But Mangaldas has something unique. She infuses her show with her own boundless creative lexicon; she reconstructs the visual aspect of the classical dance and its style, but moves beyond it.

Uncharted Seas is not limited to an impeccable presentation of skill, fast spins and footwork which to her seem to be the rudimentary components of an art she represents and respects. Mangaldas creates a performance that provokes reflections on a broad concept of creativity, born to yet not chained by India’s great tradition. She enthralls as well as challenges, she ask questions about conceptual conviction, art and creativity, never afraid to move through time and space.

 “My parents always encouraged debate and questioning, even the arguments,” she places an evident accent on the last word while giving a swift, playful smile, barely noticeable. Without delay however she moves onto the home atmosphere that pushed her towards inquiry. The only artist in her large family, whose members hail from industrial and academic backgrounds, Aditi showed interest in dance when she was a toddler.

“My parents felt that maybe, from some strange inheritance, some mistaken evolution,” she laughs charmingly yet again, briefly, “I inherited some artistic genes,” Mangaldas continues her story.

“I also went to an experimental school, where they exposed us to cultures from different parts of the world. I explored music, science, dance... Everything fell off one by one, but dance remained.” Mangaldas’s creative and intellectual inquiries were further extended by her two biggest gurus, Shrimati Kumudini Lakhia, “one of the pioneers of contemporary innovations based on Kathak” and Shri Birju Maharaj. “Do you take milk with your coffee?” her tonality is still hooked to memories. “But, guess what, I actually graduated in mathematics. But I didn’t take this any further. I dedicated my life to dance.”

Aditi Mangaldas
Uncharted Seas by Aditi Mangaldas (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

The gurus fuelled Mangaldas’s “open” — as opposed to tunnel — vision of Kathak while her skills and creativity pushed her to establishing her own Drishtikon Dance Foundation which since 1991 has stretched the horizons of Kathak.

“My company, yes… Initially there was just me!” Those little quips prove very refreshing in the morning. “Then I worked with another dancer… then the company grew. Now it’s quite big, with many dancers on board. We train five days a week. We do mostly Kathak but we also practice martial arts, yoga and contemporary dance movements,” she sips her coffee slowly as if revising the list, “but it is all just to facilitate different movements for the body and the mind.” For performances, “I don’t want to delve, as yet, into bodies and choreographies that are not Kathak oriented.”

Unlike other performers — for instance, Akram Khan, who fuses Kathak with Western contemporary dance — Mangaldas and her company are deeply rooted in India’s classical tradition. “I don’t have the knowledge that Khan has. I work with Kathak dancers, those who study and train in Kathak. When I use the word ‘contemporary’, I do not necessarily mean Western contemporary dance. I mean today, the time we live in,” Mangaldas explains, indicating how Kathak constitutes the vocabulary that serves her specific vision and how she expands it to support the show’s main concept. “It all starts like a small idea somewhere here,” she points to her head. “Different components are pulled together to support the growing idea.”

Mangaldas provides the main concept and designs the choreography. She is often involved in the choice of costumes, its fabrics and colours. “That’s definitely part of my textile family genetics,” she chuckles. “I love doing costuming.” But she also collaborates with many artists, including the light designer whose simple yet powerful work helped to build the unique atmosphere of the show. “I also work with India’s greatest musicians, Mohit Gangani on tabla, Ashish Gangani on pakhwaj [barrel shaped drum] and Faraz Ahmed on harmonium and as a vocalist; they did the music compositions for Uncharted Seas.”

It is very difficult for the viewer not acquainted with India’s dance vocabulary to understand the meaning of the gestures, let alone the literature used in the performance. However it is the visual experience and the soundscape that allows the audience to appreciate the show. “I create windows through which the audience can enter the work. I don’t like a single layer, but multiple layers so that you can experience different components of the performance.”

Aditi Mangaldas
Uncharted Seas by Aditi Mangaldas (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

Uncharted Seas premiered in 2006 and toured the whole world before coming to Egypt. Mangaldas’s website enumerates several other shows, classified under classical Kathak and contemporary Kathak, which expresses her unique interest in pushing out the walls surrounding Indian classical dance. While this creative procedure attracted a lot of appreciation from the international audience and garnered her much recognition and awards, it was also antagonized by Kathak purists.

“But what do you mean by classical Kathak? Do you go five years back, 10 or all the way back to the Mughal era?” That is when Kathak developed as a form of palace entertainment. “Or maybe we should move back even further, to the temples? But then I shouldn’t be dancing because only men danced then? Where do you draw the line?” The cell phone ringing interrupts Mangaldas’ rhetorical questions. She answers in short sentences, assuring the person at the other end that she won’t be late. “I still have to check out before taking the bus to Alexandria,” she tells me. Her second performance is on 22 April. I would have loved to attend, but I am chained to Cairo.

Mangaldas resumes her thought — in the heat of it. She recalls receiving a letter signed by a few gurus from the National Centre of Kathak. “They told me I should not call myself a Kathak dancer, that I do not even wear a veil. This freaked me out. You can’t tell me what to wear! I will wear a veil when the concept, aesthetics and design of the performance need it! If it doesn’t, I won’t wear it. Even if this is what the tradition says, I can still question it. There is this whole nonsense about how we have to adhere to what the tradition says, as otherwise we face the risk of becoming westernised, easternised, maybe even northernised!” It is in this context that Mangaldas approaches Kathak as a performer and a human searching for expressive freedom.

Mangaldas orders an orange juice now; as if the phone call never happened… “I am very lucky to be Indian. We have a great history but we are living today. We should be informed by our history and traditions, be respectful towards them, but not bogged down by them just because this or that was written two thousand years ago. We have to let the life of today speak through our art. Academia is another thing. Academics study and document the dance; academia should not reprimand Kathak’s natural development.”

She goes on to explain how Kathak in itself evolved over centuries, adapting to different functions, in the temples and the palaces, and how despite being looked down on under the British Raj it managed to benefit from post-colonial revival. “We all know that through the centuries, Kathak has changed. So why this fear of breathing new air into it?” the passion speaks through Mangaldas as the tension rises in her voice. “What paranoia!”

Aditi Mangaldas
Uncharted Seas by Aditi Mangaldas (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

If in classical Kathak performances — such as Uncharted Seas, Footprints of Water, Widening Circles, Hori, Earth Diaries, etc — Mangaldas challenges the barriers with a non-classical stage design and lighting, she pushes the boundaries even further in contemporary Kathak performances such as Timeless, Textures of Silence, Changing Landscapes “or, our latest, Inter Rupted. It premiered less than a year ago and it is about the inevitability of disintegration. We hope to bring our contemporary work to Egypt in the future…”

In some contemporary Kathak performances the dancers not only drop elements of traditional clothing, they also fuse movements such as rolling on the floor into the show. The gestures remain deeply rooted in Kathak, however, and the profound technical ability that serves as Mangaldas’s lexicon. “I really feel that everything we do has to come from a certain skill level. I ask for the best possible level, otherwise let’s not do it. It works only when you can forget the physical part, when your technical ability becomes second nature and you can use it to transfer the ideas.”

Kathak is Mangaldas’s life and the only dance form she knows well and practices continuously. It also gives her purpose, a way of asking questions and dealing with the universe. It is in and through Kathak that she questions and revises the sheer kinetics of movement and eventually finds freedom: an ability to seek, to explore, while crossing all tangible and intangible barriers. To her Kathak can be a storm but also a dream, a space for thought, passion and abandon. The performance that captures all that becomes a meeting point for music, literature, architecture and poetry, a journey through time and space. There must be a special connection between her and the sun entering the windows to illuminate the curiosity in her eyes and provide a morning blanket for her small yet fit figure, which moves with each sentence she pronounces.

“I feel that throughout history, there has been a compulsion to make walls, constantly putting things into compartments, be they territorial, linguistic, religious or cultural. They constantly box you in. I feel that this is limiting because you become so small in yourself. I’m just trying to be a good human being. That’s the basis of all my art, at least as I see it. I don’t try to force my views on anybody but just ask questions.”

While she asks many questions in her work, Mangaldas also creates bridges, not so much between territories as out onto open ended paths. “I prefer my work not to be a sentence with a full stop at the end. I prefer to leave my sentences with a comma, and the rest of the sentence depends on the person with whom I am communicating, with his or her own life experiences and emotions. This is the journey I’m on. I give it to you, and if you like it, you can add to it. It’s not only about this moment or this performance…”

Though the phone rings again, and Mangaldas reaches for her orange juice with no more words, her mind is probably on one of her journeys through Kathak and life. When she asks about Alexandria, where she is headed next, I understand she must leave. She has already offered us a fraction of her journey, weaving the silver threads of herself into our lives. It is time she moved further, leaving us with the splendour of her unfinished sentences and questions we might never be able to answer. But that’s the point. 

Aditi Mangaldas
One of the dancers performing in Uncharted Seas alongside Aditi Mangaldas (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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