Around 20 people sit along the walls of a basement room that functions as a dance studio in a quiet Delhi neighbourhood. They look on as dancer Veena Basavarajaiah, who is trained in Bharatnatyam, Kalaripayattu and Western classical ballet, moves to the pulse of a metronome, a drum and a Tibetan prayer bell. All through her 10-minute dance piece, titled Maya tatam idam sarvam jagat, she stays within a 2m-wide circle marked out with tiny red bulbs. The Bhagvad Gita-inspired piece is spectacular, but Basavarajaiah’s mentors and facilitators at Gati’s dance residency programme find it much too conventional. With only three weeks left at the time for the final performance, they ask her to strip it of structure and see where it goes. “It’s too clean,” one of them says, while another adds, “If you perfect this, we’ve had it.”
Gati is a Delhi-based non-profit organization that has been working as a support network for dancers for two years. Its novel programme, Gati Summer Dance Residency 2009, has been designed as a research laboratory for dance. Over July and August, three emerging choreographers— Veena Basavarajaiah (27), Manola K. Gayatri (28) and Swati Mohan (32)—have been mentored by eminent dance and theatre personalities to find new idioms in contemporary dance and movement. One of the mentors, thespian Maya K. Rao, says that while picking participants she and the other mentors (Bharatnatyam exponent Navtej Johar; theatre personality Zuleikha Choudhary) looked for those who were searching for something through dance; those who had the best questions and not necessarily those who were the best performers.
Fluid grace: Choreographer Swati Mohan develops her Kabir-inspired piece Doha with partner Sangeet. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
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Founded by dancers, the organization’s activities include conducting workshops in technique and choreography and an online resource for dancers—www. gatidance.com. The residency is Gati’s latest venture, the first instalment of an annual eight-week programme that will provide financial support, mentoring, workshops, rehearsal space and production assistance to emerging dance creators in the country.
Gati’s residency programme, like its other activities, is funded by an assorted list of supporters that range from embassies to national arts organizations and corporations. The list includes Max Mueller Bhavan, the French Embassy, India Habitat Centre, Sangeet Natak Akademi, National School of Drama and Bharat Forge Limited.
Anusha Lall, who facilitates the mix of events along with co-founders Mandeep Raikhy, Mehneer Sudan and Ewa Ferens, says the idea for Gati came when she and her dancer friends were pondering the fate of new dance languages in India. She believes that dance needs to be about a lot more than just showcasing. “Performance is important but it’s the last stage. There’s so much that needs to go into making dance vital; to make it an honest interaction between the artist and the art form,” says Lall.
So rare are resources for emerging dance creators in the country that Gati resident Gayatri recalls being “mildly shocked” when she first heard about the programme through an announcement at the 10-day international festival, Attakkalari India Biennial, in Bangalore, in February. “Generally, all of us are pushing furniture around the house and managing with ad hoc spaces, even for ticketed performances. A funded residency for contemporary dance seemed quite unimaginable!”
In India, with its rich tradition of classical forms that emphasize performance, a key area that is ignored is dance creation or choreography.
The well-known dancer and choreographer Mallika Sarabhai, who works with both classical and contemporary forms, says “choreography” is a much-abused word in the country. “It is used as a term for just about anyone who has the power or resources to play puppeteer with a bunch of dancers,” she says over the phone. At the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad that was founded by her mother—the celebrated classical danseuse Mrinalini Sarabhai—in 1948, original dance creation is encouraged along with classical forms. “But this might be the first time that something like this is happening outside of a dance institution,” she says about the Gati programme, adding, “It’s really great.”
Veena Basavarajaiah negotiates illusions through Maya, her work-in-progress piece. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
A question of funds
Several young choreographers blame the lack of support for contemporary dance on the perception of the genre itself. Swati Mohan from Gati’s residency programme recalls an episode at a grant-giving government arts institution she is reluctant to name. “I was asked why I was interested in ‘Western’ forms when we have our own heritage of classical dance,” she says. Frustrated and unable to secure funding, she and her dance partners finally self-funded the project and held an open show at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi in March.
Mallika Sarabhai’s son, Revanta, who has been experimenting with choreography over the last couple of years, empathizes with such experiences. He feels it is difficult even for an established institution such as Darpana to secure development funding for experimental forms. “Funders do have agendas to push. And with backing from national arts institutions, there is generally some pressure to showcase an idea of classic ‘Indianness’,” says the 25-year-old. He believes that corporate sponsorship can occasionally mean more creative freedom because their idea of India is more dynamic and hence more inclusive of contemporary dance.
Barring a handful of innovators such as Sarabhai, Daksha Seth and Astad Deboo, who have been working on contemporary styles for over a decade and have received accolades both in India and abroad, attempts at dance creation have been few and middling. This half-baked status of contemporary dance in the country is what possibly raises scepticism from funders and supporters. But as the youngest Sarabhai points out, new art forms don’t materialize overnight. “It is unfair to put contemporary dance from the West— which feeds off a long tradition of Western classical dance forms like ballet—at par with how it stands in India today,” he says. Things are moving in new directions and many emerging dance creators show promise. But for now, contemporary dance in India warrants some laboratory time.
Gati’s Summer Dance Residency 2009 will culminate with All Warmed Up on 29 August, 7.30pm, at Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. Three choreographers will showcase their works: Maya (Veena Basavarajaiah), Doha (Swati Mohan) and Excess (Manola K. Gayatri).