Gauri Sharma Tripathi, artist in residence at London’s South Bank Centre since 2008, has been a key figure in developing its annual Alchemy festival of South Asian arts. For this fourth edition, she invited established artists to participate in an evening of dance called Classical Departures. As it turned out, the programme divided pretty evenly into two halves, the first with the emphasis on ‘departure’, the second more squarely within tradition; yet all the works tapped one of the main currents of south Asian dance: portraiture.
It is most explicit in Ma-Hyphenate, performed by Anita Ratnam and choreographed together with Hari Krishnan. The piece links three images of a woman to three icons of womanhood. Ratnam herself is the woman, holding photos of herself in front of her face, one youthful and unmarked, one bearing a bindi between her eyebrows, and one with saffron daubed across her forehead. Ratnam links an array of hand gestures to each image: the flowing hair and open heart of a young woman; the workaday efficiency and self-effacement of a wife (she wipes a palm before her face as if erasing her own features); the trident and shield of a warrior. When Ratnam moves onto the stage she replays those gestural phrases to bring out different qualities: a nervy, staccato sequence; a rushed recitation. Ratnam is most potent in warrior-mode, squaring herself against all four corners of the stage as if resolved to take on all comers – an effect she reverses by moving into mother-mode, apportioning mounds of rice around a mat as if giving to all comers. Ma-Hyphenate powerfully sets up its premise and though its ideas sometimes outweighs its material, the interplay between individual and icon is always stimulating – at least until the final episode when Ratnam, not helped by some gloopy music, appears to subsume her accumulated complexity not into an icon but a stereotype of motherhood.
Can a quartet be a personal portrait? Mavin Khoo’s Akasha seems to be. Actor Jacob Piccinini appears within a smoky cell of light, his arms clenching in tortuous contortions, so that his white kurta seems to become a straitjacket. Piccinini’s strangled breath is echoed by different gasping voices on the soundtrack; and soon he is accompanied on stage by three others in identical dress – Simeon John-Wake, Florinda Camilleri and finally Khoo himself. They lock and tangle in thorny interactions that appear to be balletic elaborations of Piccinini’s earlier knots, while Piccinini himself slowly paces the perimeter. Where Ratnam had presented three different outward faces, Khoo seems here to show three internal bodies inhabiting the figure of Piccini. As such, it’s a great example of a compositional framework used to embody an idea – though the ‘inner conflicts’ (the duets and trios) could be edited for greater clarity.
his whole body seems to be writing in space; choreography as penmanship.
No such problems for the second excerpt of Akasha, a riveting solo by Khoo which is clarity itself. You could call it a ‘signature’ solo not simply because it shows his characteristic razor-sharp lines and high-definition phrasing, but because it begins with Khoo extending an arm as if writing on air, and develops into an accumulation of precise, detailed actions in which his whole body seems to be ‘writing’ in space; choreography as penmanship.
Chitra Sundaram’s Pashyamey! (which she made in 1982) is the most traditional performance of the evening, and the most fully realised. It portrays the famous moment in the Mahabharata in which prince Arjuna quails at the battle he is about to enter, and Krishna casts off his human guise to reveal his full, terrible form as a god. Bharatanaytam-trained Sundaram, backed by an excellent musical ensemble, mobilises two formidable strengths: her expressive power, and her age. She imparts gravitas to each gesture and expression, a quality that imbues her steps, her stance – even the finger on her right hand that won’t straighten – with something like wisdom. That makes the ending – when Arjuna draws himself together and resolves to go to war – hit all the harder. While a younger performer might embody the story with more physical dynamism, Sundaram achieves something else: not the sense of dramatising the tale, but of understanding what it means.
Kathak performer Gauri Sharma Tripathi ends the evening with Vyuha, another mythological story, this time telling of insult, sacrifice, revenge and resolution. It opens, though, on a note of pure enchantment, Tripathi entering like an apparition and dancing like a spirit, her sweeping spins and floating arms suspended in the sonic blooms of Niraj Chag’s entrancing score. Then she outlines the story for those (like me) who don’t know it, and dances out the drama. It’s a more complex narrative than the Mahabharata episode, and I found it hard to follow, if not to appreciate: Tripathi performs with both grace and gravity.