PIAF Blog

Scratch the Surface: Within by Aditi Mangaldas

Thursday 7 January 2016

Scratch the Surface is a new blog series written by the minds behind 2016 Perth International Arts Festival events. It aims to bring the stories and themes of some of the productions to the surface and provide you with a deeper understanding of what has been proposed by this year’s artists.

We begin this series with an interview with Aditi Mangaldas, the creator and choreographer of Within. Mangaldas is one of the most celebrated dance-makers in India, known for her ground-breaking classical and contemporary choreography. Her breathtaking group dance piece, Within, is showing at PIAF and we had the chance to ask Mangaldas about the inspiration behind it.

How did you get started in dance and theatre?

Unlike many classical Indian performers, I don't belong to a family of dancers. My family has business people on one side, and intellectuals of philosophy and the sciences on the other. But my desire to dance and create dance was born out of an atmosphere of freedom, an ambience in which ideas and imaginations were encouraged to flow and flower.

My paternal grandmother lived with us and she was the matriarch of the family. The entire extended family would come visiting us in the evenings. (This is a story that I've heard from my parents – I've no recollection of it!) As a very young girl of three or four years, I would jump upon the side table and try to move and communicate my joy at seeing my family through the medium of movement and dance. My parents were convinced that I had some artistic talent! So, from a young age, I was encouraged to take classes in dance, music, theatre, visual arts – even science and maths. Slowly, each one fell away and dance became my calling.

What was it like being a disciple of both Kumudini Lakhia and Shri Birju Maharaj?

Pt. Birju Maharaj and Smt. Kumudini Lakhia Ji are undoubtedly two of the greatest living legends of Kathak. As well as collaborating with each other, they have looked at dance and the classical tradition of dance in very diverse and dynamic ways. I have been extremely lucky to have received training from both these stalwarts. With Smt. Kumudini Lakhia, it was a horizontal exploration where there were widening circles that connected to Kathak in an ever-expanding world. With Pt. Birju Maharaj, it was a vertical exploration where one went deeper and deeper within the style – a sense of coiling into one’s own body and the inherent qualities of the Kathak style.

When I first started dancing, it was under the tutelage of Shrimati Kumudini Lakhia, one of the pioneers of contemporary innovations based on Kathak and among India's leading choreographers. I learnt from her the essence of dance, the courage to be free and fearless, and the ability to understand the relationship between my body and the space that surrounds me. From my second guru, Shri Birju Maharaj, the scion of the traditional Kathak family and India's greatest Kathak maestro, I learnt to love dance as though it were human, to feel its all-encompassing beauty, to centre myself within my body.

What was your inspiration for Within?

When I began conceptualising the piece, I revisited mythological stories in the context of the social turmoil of our times. Mythological stories such as Brahma’s desire for his own daughter and the Shiva Shakti relationship. The gruesome Nirbhaya case (the brutal rape of a young girl by multiple young men, which shocked not only all of us living in Delhi, but also the entire world) triggered an inner turmoil and anger that needed to be addressed. The constant onslaught of violence and the religious, social and political struggles that surround us needed to be questioned. Eventually, these have become the subterranean stream that feeds the work, leaving Within both ‘knotted’ up in our emotions and ‘unwrapped’ of them.

Do the times compel us to look ‘within’? To recognise our deepest and most complex emotions? To explore our inner-most spaces, where humanity and brutality, masculinity and femininity, good and bad seem to lie in half embrace. Waiting to be disentangled. Waiting to be recognised beyond the binaries. Waiting to find expression in ways that shape our lives, our actions and our selves.

Choreographing Within was a very different experience from my last few works. It has been about delving into the self and exploring our deepest emotions, however disturbing they may be. Needless to say, the process of creating it has sometimes been almost too close for comfort.

For those of us who are not overly familiar with Kathak, can you tell us a little about this tradition?

Kathak is a classical dance style of North India. It is the only classical dance to have incorporated within its repertoire both Hindu and Muslim cultures. Kathak is derived from the work ‘katha’, meaning ‘a story’. Hence, the word Kathak originally meant a storyteller who would dance and sing, narrating mythological tales in temples along the Gangetic valley. When the north was invaded by the Mughals, this existing dance form was transported from the temples to the grand Mughal courts. Its purpose as a social dance changed to that of entertainment. It kept its original literature and style but incorporated within its repertoire very dynamic aspects – intricate footwork and rhythmic patterns, stunning pirouettes and Mughal grace or ‘nazaqat’.

Why did you decide to create this show in two parts – Knotted and Unwrapped? How do the classical and contemporary styles intersect?

Essentially, I am a positive human being and though there is immense brutality in the world, I did not want to leave the piece at the point of hopelessness and despair. The first half, Knotted, explores the brutality within each of us. I wanted to create this sense of unease as the viewer pauses through the intermission. However, in the second half, Unwrapped, there is the possibility (as each one of us as a human being has) of finding the humanity within us.

At the 2013 Edinburgh International Book Festival, Salman Rushdie said, ‘Classically, we have defined ourselves by the things we love. By the place which is our home, by our family, by our friends. But in this age, we’re asked to define ourselves by hate. What defines you is what pisses you off. And if nothing pisses you off, who are you?’

Is there another way to discover the sky, the eternity within us? Where does one seek inspiration for this journey?

Using the metaphor of the mirror in the second half, one feels compelled to see the truth of the philosopher J. Krishnamurti’s quote, ‘To understand yourself, you must create a mirror that reflects accurately what you are … only in the understanding of what is, is there freedom from what is.’

In doing so, I found myself inspired by the emptiness and eternal space of the ‘sidhha’ sculpture.

And, therefore, it was very essential to have both Knotted and Unwrapped as part of Within because both of these things make up our inner landscape.

My company comprises classical Kathak dancers and the second half, Unwrapped, explores this classicism further. However in Knotted, I wanted not to be bound by any classical idiom but to use that as a root to explore a different movement vocabulary. Knotted explores raw emotions, often in their barest forms, for which we needed to find a vocabulary that does not necessarily have a formal definition.

From the temples along the Gangetic valley to the Mughal courts and now onto the proscenium stage, Kathak has come a long way and is internationally recognised as one of the most sophisticated and elegant classical dance styles of India.