Karthika Nair speaks about the relationship between dance and poetry and her latest children’s book, The Honey Hunter

For Karthika Nair, it’s “pure alchemy” when she brings writing to dance. Karthika, author of Bearings, a collection of poetry, was the principal scriptwriter of Akram Khan’s award-winning dance production, Desh. “I do think dance and poetry have a close relationship with each other. A lot of my poetry is facilitated by dance. Movement is a wonderful catalyst for my poetry.”

Now, a section of Desh has been turned into a book for children, The Honey Hunter, written by Karthika and illustrated by Joelle Jolivet. The writer was in town for a series of workshops around the book.

The Honey Hunter takes the reader to the heart of the Sundarbans, where Shonu — whose parents are honey-gatherers — slips away into the mangrove forest one day, in search of honey. There he encounters a terrifying demon-tiger, and Bonbibi, the goddess of the forests.

“Anita Roy of Zubaan books wanted me to write a story for children. We spent a year looking for the perfect illustrator. When I saw Joelle’s work, it resonated with the imaginary universe I wanted,” says Karthika of what led her to write The Honey Hunter.

Writing for dance involves a completely different approach, says Karthika. “Whatever I wrote for Desh was only a skeleton, all of it wasn’t necessarily translated into words. In dance, words should become other than words. You only use words when there is nothing else to convey meaning.” Desh, Karthika says, is about Akram’s association with Bangladesh. “It re-traces his relationship with the land through his relationship with his father.”

For research, Karthika spent 10 days in Bangladesh. “We absorbed everything around us. We met activists, artists, civil advocacy groups and NGOs. We tried to see the country through different prisms. We noticed democracy is in a fragile balance. There was a very strong awareness and an engagement going on with the country. Noor Hossain’s killing by the police while he was protesting against President Hussain Muhammad Ershad, is one of the leitmotifs in the performance. Bangladeshis are proud of their past, which has sustained their identity, and this has been woven into the performance. The first story I wrote was of Noor’s. There are no words; it’s done entirely with chants. Akram took many stories whether invented, borrowed or inherited. He made these stories his own. By making it extremely personal, he makes it universal.”

Speaking next of Bearings, Karthika says it is divided into three sections: Virga, Terra Infirma and Damaged Goods. “Virga is the transient phenomenon before rain or snow hits the ground. Damaged Goods has a lot to do with the human body and Terra Infirma is about place as a time. The one thing that connects the three is the body.”

Karthika’s next project is the re-working of The Mahabharata, through 18 different voices. “We’re focusing on one of the 18 voices in Akram Khan’s production,” she concludes.

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