Rukmini Chatterjee on creating a fusion work of Black Metal music and Indian classical dance

It could have been seen as another one of those ‘East-West’ fusion attempts. Indeed as for technique it was impressive, and even if the two Kathak dancers, Anuj Mishra and Smriti Mishra, had not been dancing to high octane Black Metal music that shook Kamani auditorium, they would have brought the house down with their crackling tatkar, heart-stopping chakkars and freezes of pinpoint accuracy. Similarly, Vreid, the Black Metal group from Norway, consisting of Hvàll (bass guitar), Steingrim (drums), Strom (guitar) and Sture (voice and guitar) would have had the audience swooning and screaming anyway. But what was clear in “Questionings”, a project conceived and spearheaded by Paris-based Bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Chatterjee — who also danced — was that, more than technique, it was a bringing together of satvik and tamasik energies. This was especially apparent when Rukmini’s Bharatanatyam was juxtaposed with Vreid’s rhythmic tsunami. Her off white cotton sari with gold border, amidst Vreid’s all black outfits, accentuated the contrast, and when Bharatanatyam’s geometric postures were placed against the vertical poses of the guitarists, they invoked the inverted triangle yantra projected on the screen at the back. After the show, which marked the international premiere of “Questionings”, the group was off to Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and then to cities of Norway and France.

On phone from Mumbai, Rukmini, trained in Bharatanatyam under the eminent Mrinalini Sarabhai, spoke about her artistic quest. Her cv lists a number of cross-cultural encounters in the past. But these collaborations were not born merely from the fact that she has been based in Paris for the past 22 years.

“The dance has always been for me a dialogue,” says Rukmini and points out, “In a way a Bharatanatyam dancer is always communicating with her audience.” From that point of view, her collaborative work with other genres is only a natural progression. Besides, says Rukmini, as a Bengali brought up in Gujarat and now living in Europe she has always been a “foreigner” wherever she goes, and this experience has translated itself into her art. “I’ve always had to build bridges with my world,” she says.

On her choice of Black Metal music — defined by Wikipedia as “an extreme subgenre of heavy metal music” — with its shrieking vocals, highly distored voice and guitar, Rukmini says she wanted to create a performance about the Kali Yuga. “It (Black Metal) is an art form which is very much of today.” The “screaming and screeching way” is because they feel this is the only way to get their message across to people today. “So it’s very much an art form of the Kali Yuga.”

But if her message was that the human race is slowly destroying itself by its excesses and that nature is being abused, just as foretold in the ancient Hindu scriptures (she has also used translations of verses in the production), it could not be ascertained from the overflowing Kamani audience whether they were receiving it or just cheering and screaming along with the vocalist and guitar riffs. While on the one hand Rukmini, like any serious artiste, says the passing on of a literal message has to be secondary to the artistic integrity of the performance, she also notes, “For me it was the first time with 80-year-old women and 18-year-old kids in the same audience.”

That the show was a success before this range is a positive factor for her. “The people in the front row were the ones I could communicate with because I could see them,” she agrees, and these were the older set — the diplomats and veteran artistes, etc. So what if the youngsters piled on the floor were screaming and whooping, so what if the meaningful lyrics to which she danced were lost in the distortion? “It doesn’t bother me if the message doesn’t go through,” she says. And one must agree with her that “something did go through,” though she is not sure if it was the message or the sheer energy of the performances.

In an effort to help people understand, she had provided lyrics on every seat. However, she points out that all over the world when watching, say, Bharatanatyam the audience does not necessarily understand every word, but this does not prevent their enjoying it.

If dancing Bharatanatyam to Black Metal lyrics seems on the surface a contrast, they are in fact “extremely deep and very spiritual,” says Rukmini. “The form is extremely black but they are talking of the white essence.”

Still, exhausting as it was to bear the decible level in the auditorium, it can’t have been easy to dance to it. “Yes, I agree. That’s why we can’t just keep practising it.” For seven days preceding the New Delhi premiere when the artistes finally came face to face to put the performance together (after exchanging music across continents and Rukmini travelling individually to the different groups over the past months), they practiced 10 hours a day. “But having done it, I must say it was challenging.”

However, it is not as if now that the show is on the road they can relax and repeat it at intervals. “For me the work begins now,” says Rukmini. She is continuously working on the project to bring it “closer to what I really want to say.”

Interestingly, though she records the performances, she doesn’t do her reworking on the basis of these videos. “It’s terrifying for me to watch,” she admits. Therefore, she would rather make the changes on the basis of her feelings on stage.