Akram Khan’s recent performance in the Capital was the coming together of impressive movement and a brilliant musical team
Drawing a blank from The Park’s New Festival organisers and Prakriti Foundation, it was Shobha Deepak Singh appearing as fairy godmother and producing a pass that enabled my watching the redoubtable Akram Khan in action at the Kamani in New Delhi, bursting at the seams with people. Artistically, as a dancer and choreographer, and also commercially, he’s one of the most successful artistes of the present generation. Of Bangladeshi origin and settled in Britain, Akram is a Kathak disciple of Pratap Pawar, his contemporary dance expertise, after months of initial training, evolving after working on the X Group project with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in Brussels. But ultimately, however inspiring, the teacher can only bring out the shine in the diamond, and it is in effecting the transformation of the self, where the dancer becomes the dance, that Akram Khan amazes. His brilliance, while retaining simultaneous commitment to classical dance on the one hand and to Modern dance on the other, transcends and erases cultural barriers through productions that communicate with power to an international audience.
In the Kathak-based first half of the programme that Akram presented, there was little in the movement vocabulary that Kathak practitioners are strangers to. But the alchemy for the riveting performance lay in putting together the presentation, with a brilliant musical team for accompaniment. Significantly, what one was treated to was high art, reaching out to and touching the heart of the audience rather than ‘kamaal’ or show of skill or virtuosity. With his intensely involved, commanding presence, every move was endowed with an electric magnetism. A plain Shiva vandana, “Shankar Shiva Gangadhara”, or a tatkar acquired new vibes in “Poloroid Feet” choreographed by Gauri Sharma Tripathi; and Tarana visualised by Pratap Pawar, with an improvisatory part of foot-stomping rhythm, assumed myriad tones in a dialogue between the tabla and the ghungroo-clad feet.
The organisation and balancing of the musical accompaniment was nothing short of a revelation: The resonance of two voices in unison reciting the verses; Faheem Mazhar the vocalist trained in Lahore, the brilliant Lucy Railton on cello and Kartik Raghunathan the violinist seated on one side of the stage; with Austrian Bernard Schimpelsberger (drums and percussion) and Sanju Sahai of the Banares gharana on the tabla on the opposite side. The perfect understanding in the mellow accompaniment evoked the intimacy of sitting in a room and listening to a person singing or playing the drum.
The soothing volume and clarity, with the decibel level constant no matter which part of the auditorium one sat in, was so unlike the ear-shattering accompaniment one frequently complains of. It was a totally united art journey with none of the musicians aiming at any kind of one-upmanship. And how integrated with the Indian music were the cello and drums! The tabla-drum jugalbandhi was delightful. And if sound had behind it an experienced architect in engineer Marcus Hyde, the lighting by Fabiana Piccioli was no less a marvel. The tandava and lasya of Shiva-Parvati saw the dancer moving between the two rectangular light spots on the stage, till he left both to place himself in the narrow strip between the two brightly lit places, while visualising the male-feminine contrasts complementing each other in togetherness in one entity of Ardhanariswar. The short musical interlude before Tarana, the costume of the dancer — which despite strenuous physical exercise seemed miraculously untouched by any of the damp sweat-stained spots — were all pointers to the kind of attention to detail marking the presentation.
The concluding narrative, “Gnosis in Modern Dance”, was inspired by the story of Gandhari in the Mahabharata. The portrayal of a woman who makes the grim choice of living life blindfolded in order to share the sightless journey of a blind husband was so piercingly intense that it left the viewer totally drained. In a duet along with Taiwanese guest artist Fang Yi-Sheu as Gandhari, the complex relationship of mother and first son Duryodhana creates movement on movement evoking every emotional shade. Darkness and light go beyond what the eyes see. Living in a dark world, Gandhari is fully aware that the son she loves and adores is blinded to all justice and right conduct, driven by jealousy and greed. The drums at the start herald the ominous aura of war. Duryodhana wants the mother’s blessings for victory. The dancer as Gandhari wielding her stick has a quality of intense stillness contrasted by a physicality in which every nuanced movement speaks volumes. The two dancers coming together in a variety of movements and separating amidst Gandhari’s stick flailing the air and swiping the floor, moved with phenomenal precision, the entire exchange speaking of mind-boggling rehearsing for hours — the couple rolling, sliding, diving, expressing every possible emotion through the interaction. The end, with the shuddering frames in grief, is one of the most poignant scenes. The tragic aura has a passing glimpse of the cellist’s lone voice rending the air with keeling-like music. Both Akram and Fang-Yi Sheu gave a performance leaving behind memories not to be erased for a long time!
Artistic director Ranvir Shah’s passion pulled off this great evening. But what a pity that Prakriti Foundation with The Park and the British High Commission could manage only 40 people for the talk by Akram on a very important theme! This dancer’s total absence of an ego and the respect he has for his gurus and the audience endears him to all, and every dance lover wants to listen to him. Publicity for the talk, or that one had to register for it, was lacking.