Dance, Dance, Dance

On Wednesday evening I had the pleasure of seeing Divya Kasturi and Shane Shambu perform a Mixed Double Bill at Southbank Centre. Both of them was presenting their own choreography in The Clore Ballroom, a space, which I have come to perceive as one of the most liberating and pleasurable places to both be in and perform in.

In this double bill Shane and Divya gave the audience an insight into the diversity that is present in South Asian dance and within that, it was also very clear that these two dancers both had their own individual interests and approaches to the movement that they had created stemming from different backgrounds and training.

Shane Shambu performed first that evening in a piece that combined visual theatre with striking physicality and artistic dexterity, all of which was deeply rooted in his Bharatanatyam training. The strong narrative drew on strong emotions that were conveyed to the audience with an intensity and clarity, thus, making it compelling to watch. Divya Kasturi’s work was one of articulated beauty, sincerity and a level of technical skill that any dancer would be in awe of. Divya’s background has seen her train in Kathak and Bharatanatyam. In addition to this she is also an accomplished singer, which her work that evening was also able to highlight.

I was completely drawn into the performances; the enticing beauty of the articulation in the hands in the mudras, the defined and eclectic use of different rhythms and how the dancers inhabited the movement in every sense, including through facial expression.

Another style in South Asian dance, which I have touched upon in a previous blog  when I interviewed Katie Ryan, was Odissi, so I thought I would just finish off this blog by sharing a little about what Katie has shared with me about it.

Odissi is a classical dance style that originates from Orissa in Eastern India. Prior to being performed as stage art, Odissi was danced in a religious context as a form of worship.

The Odissi that we see performed today takes influences from contextual sculpture and text. Odissi can be in a ‘pure dance’ form (Nritta) and ‘expressional’ (Nritya/Abhinaya) most commonly to convey a narrative.

It is characterised by two stances –

1. Tribhanga (which literally means, ‘three parts break’, so there are 3 bends in the body; at the neck, waist and knee, hence the body is oppositely curved at waist and neck which gives it a gentle “S” shape )

2. Chauka (where there is equal weight distribution, with a wide stance in the legs and outstretched arms to create 4 right angles in the body).

Then, this is layered with the intricate hand gestures, neck movements and articulations; as well as movements with the eyes and of course, the astounding rhythmical footwork.

The relationship that South Asian dance, has with the musical accompaniment I find to be jaw-dropping and beautifully hypnotic. The body becomes the artistic instrument to highlight and accent the layers of rhythm, creating complementing accents that connect the two art forms within the one performance.

Whilst learning about Odissi I discovered that a classical programme of Odissi repertoire would conclude with ‘Moksha’. Moksha is described as a pure dance piece that increases in speed. The aim is for it to be performed with a meditative feeling, where the dancer is aiming “to reach salvation through their dancing”. This demonstrates perfectly the relationship between movement and music. As a dancer myself, I find it truly fascinating and it must be absolutely wonderful when you manage to achieve that level of ‘connection’ between your body and the accompaniment.

I am desperate to try it! Who wants to come dancing?


Urban Vani Podcast

Hannah Ratcliffe interviews Shlomo and Gauri Sharma Tripathi about their collaboration Urban Vani. Whilst Artists in Residence at Southbank Centre, Gauri and Shlomo found synergy between their art forms – Kathak and Beat Box – and worked together to create something new with a company of young people. Last friday they impressed audiences at Alchemy with new performance of Urban Vani. Listen to the company rehearsing and interviews with Shlomo, Gauri and some of the peformers.

An Introduction to Kathak

Although dance of any style and genre fascinates me, my background is in contemporary. So like you, I’m excited to learn more about South Asian dance styles.

Blogging has created the perfect opportunity to have a catch up with my dancing friend, Katie Ryan. I first met Katie four years ago, when she was a final year student at London Contemporary Dance School. As part of their BA degree programme, LCDS offer the opportunity to study Ballet or South Asian Kathak technique in support of contemporary. Katie was studying Kathak, so I thought this would be a good place to begin our conversation…

What made you decide to study Kathak alongside contemporary during your training at London Contemporary Dance School?

I had already been training in another style of South Asian classical dance called Odissi since I was 6. Although Odissi and Kathak are different in a lot of ways, there are some common principals which run though South Asian dance and I thought it would be good to keep developing my strengths in these areas whilst training in Contemporary dance.

What would you say are the fundamental differences between these two dance styles?

Although they often share the same venues and programming in a UK theatre context I would say classical forms of South Asian dance such as kathak, bharatanatyam and odissi are more parallel to ballet in that they are formal styles with a set technique and codified movement vocabulary that identifies the style and its particular aesthetic. Traditionally South Asian classical dance uses a combination of abstract and narrative composition. There is a very strong link between the music composition and movement composition – the rhythm of the percussion is mirrored by the rhythm of the dancer’s footwork, the musical phrasing generally matches the movement phrasing. Historically the narratives expressed through dance have been religious poetry set to music and interpreted by the dancers – these narratives are mostly from the Hindu mythological tradition, but there are also many Islamic influences in kathak. Many of the South Asian dance styles have evolved from temple dance forms – danced worship – to be the stage art forms they are today. Kathak has a different heritage – a combination of a storytelling tradition and a performance tradition from the royal Mugal courts gave birth to this dance style.

So…those are distinct differences in historical development, content and context.

In terms of differences in movement vocabulary and technique between kathak and contemporary, kathak would be set apart by its use of rhythmic footwork, multiple turns on the heel, detailed use of hand gesture, more limited use of floorwork (kneeling and sitting – yes, lying down and rolling – very unlikely), eye movements, animated facial expression – sometimes quite exaggerated/stylised, more limited use of jumping or rising (small jumps or rises are used, but less frequently than in contemporary).

There would be a different list again for each style of South Asian classical dance…but the common elements would be:

  • rhythmic footwork
  • animated facial expressions
  • detailed hand gestures

It is important to note that the above are all characteristics of the traditions, but they do not define it – as with all dance forms they are evolving into more contemporary/ neo-classical forms or extending the boundaries within the classical tradition.

Are there any similarities between contemporary dance and Kathak?

Hmm..tough one – it’s also very hard to define contemporary dance – which I would say is more amorphous!

Common elements between kathak and contemporary dance could be: grounded quality, a fluid movement quality, use of high speed movement… I’m sure there are more…

What Kathak dancers and performances have inspired you?

Akram Khan (Desh & Zero Degrees are my favourites)

Aditi Mangaldas

Kumudini Lakhia (choreographer and director of Kadamb)

Aakash Odedra

Yuko Inoue

Gauri Sharma – my teacher at LCDS

Urja Thakore

Diya Kasturi 

What are your top tips for anyone who would like to learn to dance Kathak? and for events and classes listings.

There are lots of classes out there now and you can even do exams in kathak with the ISTD syllabus if you want. 

Katie Ryan (left) performing as part of Odissi Ensemble with Khavita Kaur. Image credit - Simon Richardson

Writing to you…

So, Monday evening I was at the Southbank Centre and there I sat on the Clore Ballroom floor as I listened to Nikesh Shukla’s talk entitled ‘The Ethnic Writer: How to Avoid Labels’.

First and foremost it was great to hear Nikesh define himself as a writer and to be so passionate about his craft.

It struck me just how important it is to believe in what you do and in what you write.

We can all be pigeon-holed in some way (in this instance, as an ‘ethnic writer’), but who is to say that we have to accept this label or indeed conform to it?

In his talk, Nikesh Shukla spoke to us about how, because publishers are interested in numbers and selling potential, it is essential that you, as a writer, know how you want to sell your writing. As a writer you also have to be your own promoter and willing to work on your own marketing too. You have to be able to talk about what you have written and what the audience will get from it.

Of course, as a writer you want your writing to have a wider appeal and you strive to get your work published. The publishing deal is the ultimate aim, but as Nikesh Shukla said, it is important to find ways of raising your own profile and raising awareness about what it is that you do. This is where social networking could prove very useful. Maybe you could host an event to showcase your own work in some way? Or find your own ways of self-promotion?

As a writer, validation from sources outside of your own family and friends (even though that is a lovely thing too!) is important in order to help you realise that your writing can have a wider appeal.

So it seems that to all those aspiring writers out there, the message is ‘keep going’!

Persevere with what you WANT to write, as Nikesh Shukla said yesterday, “as long as the piece is well-written, there WILL be an audience for what you have written”.

Happy writing!

It’s all begun…

Subtle Kraft Co.
'Cravings of Intimacy & Solitude' - Image credited to Gabriela

So Alchemy is underway. Over the next ten days we will get the opportunity to experience artistry, beauty, harmony and deliciousness as South Asia comes to Royal Festival Hall.

Alchemy explores the contrasts and connections between cultures in the UK, India and South Asia. This festival at Southbank Centre got me thinking…how do I, as an individual, as Kimberley, have a connection to both of these cultures?

In my case, my connection is simultaneously ‘very close to home’ but also, strangely far away…

I am mixed race – my Mum is from the UK and my Dad is originally from India.

However, the strange situation arises when part of your heritage remains hidden from view. So, to explain a bit more… I have been born and raised in the UK, but circumstances have meant that I have only ever known my Mum’s side of the family. Therefore, I have been raised in a Caucasian family where in fact I am the only one with a dual cultural heritage.

I was only made aware of this in my late teens, but it is a factor that greatly intrigues and interests me because as I have got older I have realised that in fact there is part of my identity that I have yet to discover and ‘get to know’.

Although I can appreciate that there is a big disadvantage to not having been bought up being dually exposed to both cultures, now I am consciously making the choice to change that by educating myself and embracing the diversity within Indian culture that is part of who I am.

I’d love to have an adventure and go to India at some point, but until I raise enough funds I am going to enjoy this exploration, satisfying my senses of sight, sounds, touch, tastes and smell with all the different events by delving head first into what Alchemy Festival has to offer. Come and join me!

Find what draws you in…what catches your eye?…What inspires you to learn more?

What or who connects you to South Asia?

Have fun discovering!!

Katie Ryan and Khavita Kaur (part of Odissi Ensemble). The photography credit is Simon Richardson

A crash course in Bollywood Dance

Aaah Bollywood. I love it. The drama, the action, the music and, of course, the dancing.

The leading ladies, delicately flicking their wrists and jangling their anklets, an inheritance from the courtesans and dancing girls who elevated their trade to an art form. In the background, a cast of hundreds sways together with a collective grace.

It was with this romantic view of Bollywood dance that I decide to join the workshops taking place last weekend. The organisers of Alchemy had set themselves the task of filming an entire Bollywood film in a week, and that meant a LOT of dancing.

I’ve watched enough films and have been known to bust some pretty snazzy moves at family weddings, so I was fairly confident that I’d got what it takes to add some pizazz to the movie’s grand finale.

An amazing choreographer was on hand – actress and dancer Shobna Gulati – who charmed us with her warm northern patter while managing to get us jumping, wiggling and twirling at her command.

We start off with a wiggly arm move, which Shobna described as the ‘many-armed goddess’. So far, so good, I think I’ve got this one pretty much sussed… I can’t help thinking about the ‘ugly sisters dance’ from East is East each time I do it though.

Team Bollywood Bitesized in a row

Many armed goddesses - the Bollywood Bitesized team all in a row.

The classic ‘thumka’ (saucy hip wiggle) comes next. It seemed relatively simple to master. Surely, it’s just a matter of hip up, hip down, suggestive eyebrow raise and come hither smile, as perfected by the likes of Madhuri Dixit. This, I’m convinced, is going to be easy-peasy.

Alas, not so.

It seems my hip has trouble moving independently of the rest of my body. So when it goes up so does the rest of my leg, while my upper body curves over in a most ungraceful manner, making it look as though I’m suffering from severe stomach cramps.

I also note that while Shobna’s hands arch elegantly, mine look as though they’re trying to help planes land. In fact, I seem to have spent my life unaware of just how big my hands are, so I have to thank Alchemy for drawing this to my attention.

Bollywood Bitesized Sadaf Ahmed

Big hands

Regardless, I soldier on, having been blessed with a healthy over-estimation of my own abilities. But when I attempt an elegant twirl and manage to nearly knock over an elderly (but remarkably spritely) lady in the next row, I start to suspect that perhaps Bollywood dancing doesn’t come naturally to me.

At this point I’m called away to man the Bollywood Bitesized stand, a great loss for the rest of the dance crew no doubt who cope stoically with my removal.

Shobna did an impressive job, there must have been over a hundred ‘dancers’ there, encapsulating the full diversity of London with all ages, ethnicities and nationalities present. She managed to get our motley crew into shape in an impressively short period of time. We were army ants, dutifully following our queen’s commands.

Later, as I availed myself (again) of the excellent food on offer in the taste of India food market, I watched the dance being filmed for the movie. It looked spectacular, and managed to condense everything that is Bollywood, The Southbank and London, into one five-minute explosion of pure razzle-dazzle.

I can’t wait to watch the film.

(The Alchemy Bollywood Blockbuster premiere will be at The Clore Ballroom, Royal Festival Hall, at 4:30pm on Sunday 22 April)

Books About Love with a South Asian Flavour

I can’t wait for The Many Faces of Love event which kicks off tonight at The Southbank, where three brilliant authors, Rosie Swash, Moni Mohsin and Farahad Zama will be discussing two of my favourite things: books and love. To get in the mood, I’ve been browsing through my bookshelves to pick out my favourite three books by contemporary writers (one is South Asian, one is British Asian, one is American Asian) about love set in a modern time. These are well-thumbed books that I’ve re-read and re-read, but a word of warning first. While the first genuinely makes me smile, the other two have reduced me to tears – these are not entirely conventional love stories (they are not *just* about love; there are family sagas, histories and stories of self-identity and so on and so on), and they do not all have happy endings. But that’s the way love goes!

Salt and Saffron by Kamila Shamsie
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this book, about the chaotic, aristocratic and rambling Dard-e-Dil family whose family name literally means heartache translated. Set between London and high-society Karachi, our story-teller is witty Aliya, in her early twenties, who returns to her family in Pakistan after studying at college in America. Through Aliya, we learn about the high-class Dard-e-Dils, who are a crazy bunch for all their noble aristocracy, and the illicit love story she traces between her cousin and her… family cook. This is love, lively love, across the Pakistani social employee-servant divide. But not only does Aliya uncover her cousin’s love story, she also discovers her own and is forced to confront her own inherent Karachiite social snobbery for falling for a boy whose parents happen to come from the “poor” part of town.  

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
This is in actual fact a series of short stories, and while not all of them are about love, many of them are, all of them exquisitely and beautifully told. But it’s the last story, Hema & Kaushik, that I’m talking about in particular here; this is the story that gets me everytime. Hema and Kaushik meet as school children, their parents are friends, but the kids barely speak to each other despite, as you’ll find out, living in the same house. Even though Hema the schoolgirl has a crush on Kaushik, the boy who is far too cool, far too aloof and far too moody to actually talk to, their connection is incidental. Each grows up, forgetting the other for there is no real reason to remember, until tiny coincidences bring them back together when they are both grown-up. I’m not going to spoil the ending, which so intricately and cleverly concludes the entire short story collection, but this is one of those stories when you wonder “What if?” and whether everything might just have been different were it not for one, little thing.

Half Life by Roopa Farooki
What I love about Roopa Farooki’s writing is that while her characters happen to be of South Asian heritage, it’s never their sole, defining feature; her characters can simply just so happen to be Asian without the author needing to make constant cultural references to the fact that they are. So this is quite simply a story about two people, Aruna and Jazz, who once were in love and never quite properly fell out of it, despite going their separate ways. It’s about the pain of first love, letting love go and taking it home again. Half Life comes with its own twists and turns, as Aruna and Jazz both desperately cling to each other in the midst of their own personal family dramas, and in the throes of that drama comes a realisation when they each think themselves to be so strong, but then uncover their own fragility. This is ultimately the story of knowing who you are before you can trust yourself to another, which is what both Aruna and Jazz must go through to move on in their lives.

– by Huma Qureshi