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DANCE

Exploring a world of narrative

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM

Daksha Sheth's "Postcards From God" showed the rough edges of the first shows. But it is clearly a work in progress.



BREAKING EXPECTATIONS: Scenes from "Postcards..."

"... until, one day, you meet/the stranger sidling down your street,/realise you know the face/simplified to bone,/look into its outcast eyes/and recognise it as your own."

A DESPAIRING god utters these words in the poem "Minority" in Imtiaz Dharker's book of poems, Postcards from God. This is a god who realises that the world he has created has grown more complex and fraught than he had anticipated. It is a world of habitual mistrust and violence, a world unhealed by that simple act of recognition that can turn strangers into community, a minority into the mainstream.

Five years ago, dancer-choreographer Daksha Sheth and her artist-musician husband Devissaro stumbled upon Postcards from God, and were riveted. They decided immediately that it would be the basis of their next production. Little did they realise that it would prove to be one of the most demanding projects they'd ever undertaken.

With their eclectic movement background in Kathak, Chhau, Kalaripayattu, yoga, aerial work, Mallakhamb and gymnastics, the Daksha Sheth Dance Company has prided itself on its challenging assignments. "Our job is to break people's expectations," grins Devissaro. "We've always extended ourselves with each work, though we've often run the risk of falling flat on our faces." However, even the unflappable Devissaro concedes that this is one of the most creatively strenuous productions they've ever attempted. "We usually work on each of our projects for a long time, but this one has had the longest gestation period: five years!"

Challenges

It wasn't the intrinsic challenge presented by the poetry itself that proved daunting. The Company has tackled the genre before, having turned poet Sujata Bhatt's Search for My Tongue into a haunting collage of images, where the poet's quest for an authentic personal language was mirrored in Sheth's recollection of her own search for an idiolect of movement.

But Postcards... opened up another possibility, one that the Company has never explored before: the world of narrative. "Our company has actually defined itself in opposition to narrative since its inception," admits Devissaro. "But that's what makes it a challenge." Narrative meant taking that first courageous step outside the domain of creative abstraction, and negotiating the alien terrain of character, dialogue and realism. Basically, it meant theatre, and theatre meant collaboration.

And so various artistes entered the scene, some by design and some by happy accident — from the highly talented U.K.-based jazz pianist Dhevdhas Nair to versatile stage actor Tannishtha Chatterjee, from young Delhi-based singer Tara Baswani to the young filmmaker Rohan Khambati. Gradually, the pieces of the mosaic began to fall into place.

And yet, aligning intercity schedules and interdisciplinary skills was by no means an easy task. Devissaro, who ended up directing this turbulent democracy of talents, says, "Thankfully, I started out with no rigid notions, just a very nebulous idea of what I wanted and very definite ideas of what I didn't want. So the journey became a genuinely collaborative one."


For Sheth, the foray into theatre questioned her choreography in unexpected ways. It not only meant seeking ways to bridge the chasm between dance and theatre, but also to resolve the divide between high and low art, the refined and the demotic. "The big question was how to transform everyday movements into the language of dance. I wanted the movement language of the street, but needed it to be highly skilled as well. It was a tough proposition," she remarks. The textual journey followed a similar pattern: Devissaro realised that the sophisticated cadence of Dharker's poetry needed to be counterpointed by the rougher register of tapori Hindi.

The work that premiered in Mumbai this April (promoted by Tata Consultancy Services and the NCPA, and funded at the developmental stage by the IFA) drew an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from audiences. Embattled like every performing arts group in the country by endemic constraints of finance, infrastructure and diverging artist itineraries, the first shows revealed the rough edges invariable in premieres. But unlike so many ambitious productions, this was quite clearly a work in progress, rather than regress.

Obviously, it is not easy for dancers and singers to act, or actors to dance, or video to harmonise with performance, or poetry to turn into song (without losing some of its vital tonal qualities). It also requires a great deal of work to evoke the language of the streets — linguistically and physically — without seeming mannered or ironic. And it is impossible to present violence onstage without rigorous choreography — something the director seemed to by shying away from in the interests of realism.

Interesting tension

But the exuberance and vitality of the show was unmistakable. There was the unfailing kinetic vigour and precision of the Company's dancers, the remarkable agility of the lead pair, and above all, evidence of a growing impulse in the Company's work: a willingness to get its hands soiled, to value the sprawling messy process over the immaculate minor product. One did miss the presence of lead dancer, Daksha Sheth, whose finely honed, expressive body remained largely under-utilised in this production. The interesting tension that the work implicates — one that is still to be fully explored by the choreographer — is between the terrestrial and the aerial, the gritty and the lyrical, the realistic and the stylised. No doubt, the production will find a strategy to maintain this fine balance in later shows.

"One sneeze, one cough,/one doubt./All it would take/is one breath,/no more," says god in Dharker's book, marvelling at the fragility of his creation and the miracle of its endurance. "Postcards from God" affirms, above all, the fragile ecosystems of creative quest that link and nourish practitioners of diverse disciplines — ecosystems that in a culturally beleaguered context subsist frequently on no more than "the bright thin walls of faith".

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