Amrita Lahiri is head of dance programming, National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai since June 2010. She is a Kuchipudi dancer and teacher. Recent performances include those in Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata and Zurich. In the past, she has worked in arts administration for Kalakshetra, Chennai, the American Dance Festival, Durham, and Museum Rietberg, Zurich. In her solo Kuchipudi performances, Amrita presents the works of her eminent gurus- Jaikishore Mosalikanti, Swapnasundari, and Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam- as well as choreographies of her own. Her foundational training in Kuchipudi began in 1986 in Washington, D.C. with Anuradha Nehru, and she has also trained extensively in Bharatanatyam with Leela Samson in New Delhi. As the first edition of the contemporary dance festival at the NCPA will unfold, Amrita talks to us about the festival and of what it means to hold one.
The NCPA in the past has featured various dancers, including names from contemporary dance. But this is supposed to be the first edition of the contemporary dance festival that the NCPA is holding. Can you tell us how is this different from previous contemporary dance events at the NCPA? What is the idea behind it?
NCPA has hosted contemporary dance events before, but most often these have been performances from abroad- for example in the past year we had Ningyo from Switzerland, a piece that involved one dancer, electronic music, video projections, water on the dance floor....presented in collaboration with the Swiss Arts Council. Before this we had The Shobana Jeyasingh Company, from the UK, in collaboration with the British Council. But this contemporary dance festival focuses on performers based in India, and who are creating work in India. Classical dance forms in India are highly evolved, and well-known. Contemporary is relatively unknown- many audiences who are not accustomed to a lot of abstraction- they may not know how to interpret this kind of work. That is itself exciting- being receptive to something unusual, un-codified, and yet moving.
Why did you select the pieces that you did? What were you looking at?
As with all dance programs at the NCPA, we are looking for high-quality dance productions- not just excellent dance technique, but also depth of concept- well-thought out pieces that reflect what is happening in dance today. The dancers that will be featured at this festival are now well-known choreographers in India- Mandeep Raikhy, Anusha Lall, Navtej Singh Johar and Astad Deboo.
The highlights of the show includes the premiere of Astad Deboo's 'Interpreting Tagore'. Also, this production has been specially commissioned for the festival. Can you tell us a little about it?
"Interpreting Tagore" uses world music, movement and alternative theatre forms like puppets and masks as well as poetry recitation, to create the quintessential Astad Deboo experience at its multi-faceted best. Astad is a pioneer in contemporary dance in India. We are all looking forward to his latest work, another of his brave and path-breaking creative efforts. Many dancers are creating works on Tagore this year, because it is the 150th birth centenary of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. However, there are few who are interpreting Tagore through contemporary dance, and particularly using under-privileged children dancers! He has done amazing work before, with such artists as the Manipuri drummers, and this is sure to be another of his great works.
What is your view of contemporary dance in India?
This is too general to answer- it is like asking 'what do you think of the French language?'. It depends on what is being said in that language. Contemporary dance is a medium. However, it is very difficult to define what exactly it is. Aditi Mangaldas performed with her dance company in October at the Nakshatra Festival at the NCPA. It was extraordinary. Was it Kathak? Was it contemporary? A mix of both? Difficult to define....Is Bharatanatyam not contemporary?? Every dance form is constantly evolving and current....
The direction of Indian contemporary dance is still being defined, and it is important that a premiere arts institution like the NCPA present some of the best, and cutting edge works giving an opportunity to especially young choreographers to try new things, to freely say what they want to say.
In fact, we are starting a forum for dancers of all kinds to come together at the NCPA to dialogue, choreograph, question dance. This begins with a forum discussion on 17th November at 5:30 p.m. at the Sea View Room at the NCPA and is open to dancers of all forms.
Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru recently featured 'Danse Dialogues'- a festival of contemporary dance, an initiative by the French Embassy in India with tie-ups with the Alliance Francaise and other local organisations in these cities. Do you think Mumbai missed an opportunity?
NCPA is always open to collaborations, and we would have been happy to present this festival in Mumbai. I know they presented some very exciting works in Chennai and Bangalore, including one with Jerome Bel, and another of Dominique Boivin. There are few performances like these in Mumbai today and I hope the Alliance will bring them here the next time.
What kind of audience response are you expecting?
All art forms require a receptiveness- it's like playing Sudoku- if you give it a chance, follow the logic, try it out- you might enjoy it. But you won't know until you try, until you are receptive. There will always be a section of the audience that wants to be spoon-fed. The usual response from this section is 'I don't understand!'. We get this a lot with classical performances. But have you tried to understand? Have you tried to empathise- to let go of the rest of the world and completely engage with the performer? There is an art to being a good audience member, just like there is to being an artiste. Fortunately, we have a lot of receptive and highly sensitive rasikas at NCPA. I am sure they will enjoy the freshness and challenge of these contemporary productions on offer this month. Each one has a distinct choreographic style and idea.