Supriya Nayak, ODISSI DANCER

Riyaaz: Community Building Through Practising Form (Part 1)

This project is enabled through the Community Chest residency programme at Hub 14, Toronto. The aim of the residency is to initiate a conversation about how multiple Indian dance forms are being practiced in the GTA and different ways in which practitioners locate themselves and respond to living here by working individually and collaboratively across disciplines, and experimenting with content, space and duration in performance.

It is a space for dancers to share skills and curiosities about practising, performing and teaching Indian dance forms in Toronto focused around four curated workshops by Neeraja Ramani (Bharatanatyam), Deepti Gupta (Kathak), Brandy Leary (Chhau/Kalari) and Harikishan S Nair (Kuchipudi/Bharatanatyam/Mohiniyattam/Kathakali).

Part 1 of Riyaaz took place on December 15, 2017.

Artist: Neeraja Ramani is a Bharatantyam (BN) practitioner based in Oshawa. At present she teaches BN and creates works through collaborations with visual artists, writers and dancers. Neeraja’s relationship with BN is a work-in-progress grounded in her training at Kalakshetra, and currently shaped by the artistic and community-based relationships she has developed in Canada, especially within the Tamil community.,

The proposal: The proposal I bring to this residency is an experiment. To suggest that dancers trained in Indian dance forms have a common language and the ability to be in riyaaz collectively is odd and unusual at many levels.

1. Each Indian dance form is very specific and distinct in the ways the body is seen and used, the ways it is constructed, the use of specific languages and music.

2. Even practitioners of the same form are likely to struggle to find ways to be in practice together—if they are trained by different teachers, they will at the very least be dealing with variations in technique and different repertoires. The forms are historically transmitted as an oral tradition and so, these personal differences are natural. Repertoires tend to be very specific to particular dance lineages.

3. Although training largely takes place in group classes under individual gurus or in institutional settings, the pedagogical intention is to create performers of specific dance forms, often as soloists. From this perspective, our training does not really prepare us to work collaboratively--this is a skill we have to work on developing.

So, to ask a BN practitioner to lead a diverse group of dancers in a collective practice is throwing a challenge at her. This challenge will continue with Brandy Leary, Deepti Gupta and Harikishan Nair, all with training in different Indian dance forms, in future months.

The session: How does this proposal serve dancers? I must admit that I had hoped more dancers would come out for the evening. It turned out that everyone in the room knew either Neeraja or me, or both of us, so in some sense we were all there because of existing relationships. Neeraja and I have shared studio time and worked together in the past, and the conversations we had leading up to Riyaaz Part 1 were focused on the questions she currently holds in her practice as a performer/creator, specifically questions about the changing/aging body of the BN dancer and the use of literature in BN.

The challenge was for Neeraja to lead a workshop, not for future BN dancers but people who already hold knowledge and curiosities about the dancing body, and lead us through her process of working with the vocabulary and aesthetics of BN. Neeraja responded by opening the session with an open rehearsal of her creations ‘Uyiri’ and ‘Sindanai’. She then led a technique class focused on holding an araimandi, the importance of a strong core for the BN dancer and movements of the feet and arms. The upper body’s role of directing the displacement and re-centering of energy, were emphasized.

The last part of the session was centered on a Tamil poem by Yalini Jothilingam, on which Neeraja’s dance ‘Sindanai’ is based. Neeraja’s intention was for participants to create movement based on the poem which speaks of the trauma of war and specifically, the impact of war on people who experience it directly and those who are affected from a distance. We did not actually do any movement with this poem--one of the barriers might have been that it was in Tamil with only two Tamil-speakers in the room (although a brief translation in English was provided). For me personally, the question of permission was also present--Neeraja's personal relationship with the poet allowed her access to the material which did not become available in a short 3-hour workshop setting. This task did however lead us into a rich conversation about creating work, building relationships, challenging conventions, specifically through the lens of Indian dance and aesthetics. As she travels out of the 'traditional' sringar and bhakti based themes in BN, Neeraja wants her dance not simply to be 'pretty'. Neeraja mentioned that with her BN background, she needs a script/text to create work. She is interested in seeing how movement could be evoked from the emotional content of the material and she too was concerned that she did not have direct experience of war and forced migration, but rather had engaged in many conversations about it. Both Neeraja and Divya Sarma spoke about the importance of self-care when interpreting such material. In her journey as a creator, Neeraja is inspired by her collaborators, especially those in the Pulari Collective and her musical collaborator on 'Uyiri', Anupa Khemadasa, who was present for the session. Among her challenges is the way her audience responds to a BN dancer choosing to work on 'unconventional' themes.

Almost everyone present in the room had lived and trained in India and that is where the sense of home, especially a dance home, lies. At the end of the session the questions on my mind were: How does living and working in Toronto impact our work as practitioners of BN and other south Asian dance forms? Would the conversation shift, and how would it shift, with the involvement of dancers who have grown up and trained in Canada?

Thanks to Aparita Bhandari for comments.

Pictures by Divya Sarma and Supriya Nayak