Daksha Sheth and Devissaro talk about dance, music and their ensemble, Asima

Heading for a tete-a-tete with Daksha Sheth and Devissaro, you discover that the photographer assigned to the shoot is a fan of the husband-wife duo. Their electrifying show at IIT Chennai’s 2010 Saarang festival made an indelible impression on him, he recalls.

“Oh, we have wonderful memories of IIT,” smiles Daksha. “Such enthusiastic, helpful students, always ready to get exactly what we needed for the stage arrangements.”

A welcome change from instances when they had to make do with less than basic facilities, once even walking the entire distance from the auditorium to the railway station, laden with baggage and props balanced on their heads. But the couple’s never-say-die attitude and contagious optimism have seen them through far greater challenges.

Daksha’s has been an amazingly eventful artistic journey. Intensive training in Kathak from stalwarts Pt. Birju Maharaj and Kumudhini Lakhia, boldly stepping beyond classical boundaries for a prolonged engagement with martial art forms such as Mayurbhanj Chhau and Kalaripayattu and the rope techniques of Mallakhamb, evolving a stunning new dance language, rendering nritya seva and studying Sanskrit and Vedic chants at the Radha Raman Ghera, Vrindavan, and wowing Indian and international audiences with her spectacular productions at the most prestigious performing arts centres worldwide.

Refreshingly down-to-earth, accessible and energised by hard-won triumphs, Daksha describes each production as an exciting new learning curve. “I am fascinated by movement. While I love all dance forms, I explore lesser known traditions and contemporise to create a new grammar. “Classical dances are like flowers. I go to the root of movement, to come up with another branch. My explorations are rooted in the Indian sensibility. But as you delve deeper, you realise that movement has a universality that transcends genre. Why should a dancer be afraid to explore?” she asks half puzzled, half indignant. “Afraid of what? Of whom? I was the first dancer to introduce aerial (1996) and body drumming in my productions and today these techniques are widely used.”

Versatile fabric

On to ‘Sari’ production. “It all began in 2005 when Rita Kapur Chisti published her 16th book on saris, her life’s work, and urged us to structure a presentation around this versatile length of fabric that is the quintessential expression of the Indian woman’s visual identity,” explains Daksha.

“As research is a very important part of our projects, ‘Sari’ was two years in the making. The more we learnt, the more we marvelled at the intricate processes and weavers’ skills that result in the finished garment. Cotton growing and picking, carding, spinning, dyeing, weaving – each stage is fascinating. Did you know that there are 108 ways of draping the sari?”

“India is all about colour,” continues Devissaro. “And that colour comes from the saris around us. It’s a staggeringly complex journey from pod to loom to final drape. It takes just one generation to lose the thread. If India, with its richness and diversity of culture were to lose that thread, it would be tragic. I tremendously value tradition and age-old skills. The handloom industry has been defining India for millenniums and the sari is a hand woven marvel.”

Devissaro’s music has a distinct feel that perfectly complements Daksha’s vision. “I am very fortunate that my husband handles the music and art direction for all our productions,” affirms Daksha. The dynamics of voice and instruments in his ensemble Asima bear the imprint of Devissaro’s eclectic training. “Born in Australia, I initially learnt classical piano and later studied Dhrupad vocal, bhansuri and pakhawaj under the Dagar family. Asima was born because of the need for a choral ensemble, the singers drawn from the M.B. Srinivasan Youth Choir, Trivandrum. Since they work at regular jobs, it is not always possible to perform live, which is why we record our compositions”.

His scores range from avant-garde soundscapes to collaborations with rock musicians based on the demands of the scenes to be choreographed.

The repertory is famed for its minimalistic sets that generate maximum effect. What is their design ethic? “We have a DIY approach to sets, props and stage design, mostly necessitated by budget constraints,” explains Devissaro. “Every piece, right down to the smallest screw, we transport and fix ourselves. So the props are simple and minimal, made from easily accessible materials.

“In ‘Sari,’ with all the ropes and aerial techniques, safety is a priority. For this show, the dancers helped with the rigging and installations. The sturdy ropes in the foreground were actually lengths of cotton yarn knotted for tensile strength.” The minimalism extends to other aspects as well. “No makeup for the dancers. I like the natural sheen of their bodies,” says Daksha. “Their costumes are usually unstitched fabric draped for comfort and flexibility. In ‘Sari’ the dancers are clothed in unbleached cotton handlooms.”

The topic moves to their children and the parents’ pride in daughter Isha Sharvani’s and son Tao’s achievements, is evident.

Growing up in an environment where 8 to 10 -hour practice sessions are the norm, they are in the process of exploring and honing their individual strengths.

While Isha’s prodigious dancing skills are making waves in Bollywood, Tao’s natural flair for percussion has made him adept at playing a variety of drums and composing percussion pieces.

How do they go about their creative brainstorming? “When you live and work in the same house and your children are also part of the decision-making process, heated discussions and lively arguments are inevitable,” admits Devissaro ruefully. “But we get there in the end, with a solution we all agree on.”

Home is where this family’s heart is. Situated on a picturesque stretch lulled by coconut palms on the banks of the Vellayani in Kerala, Natyashram is a serene retreat where they unwind, research and work on their productions.

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