Aditi Mangaldas tells ANJANA RAJAN about the move that gave her life new directions

She came to Delhi from her native Gujarat to see how the Capital suited her. That was 1982. The planned six months stretched into 27 years, imperceptibly, seamlessly, somewhat like the way she has managed to stretch the boundaries of Kathak, for herself and for audiences. But it's only natural, since Aditi Mangaldas did come to Delhi with the urge to “expand deeper into Kathak”. Then a student of Kumudini Lakhia, she was already an accomplished performing artiste.

As a niece of Pupul Jayakar — champion of India's heritage of art and culture and closely associated with Indian handicrafts, handlooms and festivals of India abroad — Aditi had been exposed to the arts since childhood. Her aunt urged her to come to Delhi “and see what there is.”

Having imbibed the best of Guru Kumudini's teaching, Aditi decided to enrol with maestro Birju Maharaj at the Kathak Kendra. “The first day in Maharaj ji's class, I remember thinking, ‘I'm Kumudini ji's student!' I had already been to many countries, and I thought — ‘I'm good'!” says Aditi with a laugh.

Maharaj ji asked her to do an amad (a movement pattern used at the beginning of a Kathak performance). “I did it. Then he asked me, do you know the story behind it?”

As expected, Aditi was lost for an answer. “It was one of those magical moments,” she says. And the tentative approach became “a lifelong commitment — there was no going back.” After a while she was travelling with Birju Maharaj's troupe too, with one of his most successful performing teams that dazzled audiences in India and abroad.

Today she has her own troupe, the Drishtikon Dance Foundation, known for its slickly packaged productions that range from traditional Kathak to abstract concepts to interpretations of mythology — like her latest, a collaboration with Norway-based choreographer/director Sudesh Adhana and puppeteer Dadi Pudumjee.

Tentatively called ‘Dre', a Pashtu word for three, it premieres at Kamani auditorium on January 27. The theme, says Aditi, takes off from the Mahabharat, and explores “the interplay between the vanquished, those left behind (like Gandhari) and the actual manipulator.” No winners here, Aditi agrees.

City bird

Not that her take on life is pessimistic. Take her shift from Ahmedabad to Delhi. No moping for small town security: “I'm a city person, so I always wanted to not be in Ahmedabad.” Aditi, as colourful a narrator as she is a versatile choreographer, says, “I had a very privileged arrival in Delhi. I was staying with my aunt in Safdarjung Road. And in Delhi those days, Safdarjung Road to Kathak Kendra was far!”

Calling Delhi “a very vibrant city,” she points out the main problem is the commuting distances. “And that's a great dampener,” she adds, as travelling to see performances and exhibitions, etc., can be a chore. “I only hope by the Commonwealth Games they will solve the traffic issues,” she says practically.

Comparing her experiences around India, she muses, “Bombay is a friendlier city,” adding it may also be because of the apartment building culture that came later to Delhi. It is “not a city that absorbs you instantly, like Bombay,” she observes. “But slowly it opens its doors.”

Recalling William Dalrymple's “City of Djinns”, a book she says she loved, Aditi calls up an image to describe how Delhi takes in newcomers. “It's like a drop of water on a sponge. It sits on the surface for a while and then gets absorbed — somewhere the surface tension dissolved.”

All said and done, though, in a city of irate commuters perpetually in a hurry, it isn't always that one comes across such a vivacious personality with an appetite for the aesthetic in word, deed or object. One who can still cry at the memory of a beautiful dance image created by Mohiniattam dancer Bharati Shivaji seen years ago, and recognise the sociological disparities of Delhi even as she creates new metaphors for it.

Her penchant for seeing, storing, interpreting life's experiences is due to her upbringing as well as her training under two acclaimed masters of Kathak representing contrasting approaches.

Diverse influences

If Guru Kumudini is “concerned with the larger ambience,” it is “your inner centre and its relationship to your body” that is important for Birju Maharaj. Aditi feels lucky to be able to “see dance from two different textures.”

On the home front too, the influences were varied. “I grew up in a very liberated atmosphere where there was always debate and questioning and no rituals.” There was no forced decision making whether in career choices or otherwise, she says.

“Delhi lives on different levels,” she adds. “There's such a lot of discrimination against women. It's a strange amalgam of cultures and a strange, exciting multi-textural city. I hope it'll become a more international city. It's still very Indian in terms of arts.”