Aditi Mangaldas is unwinding at Sylt, a German island in the North Sea, known for its long sandy beaches, unsullied air and quaint villages. Every June, she leaves the scorching Delhi heat and a hectic performance schedule far behind to be there. “I do a lot of reading, yoga and ideating. You travel not just to fathom geographical distances but also to journey into the self. I have always been an explorer in life and art,” says the Kathak exponent-turned-experimental choreographer.
She is driving through the picturesque maritime city of Kiel to attend her stepson’s convocation when she talks extensively about creating her own space. Aditi explains how she fought a dogmatic system and a restrictive repertoire to assume an independent stance. “It is better to be a bad original than a great copy,” she quips. The next moment, her excitement filters through the phone, “You know what; I can see some Indian flags here. It looks like some kind of a mela (fair),” she says.
Such simple emotions are what make Aditi’s dance a language of liberation. Through it she conveys her innermost desires and feelings. “Most of my choreography is autobiographical, which develops into a broader human experience. I want it to be felt and not merely understood,” says the 58-year-old exponent, whose lean, agile physique lends itself beautifully to classical and progressive expressions.
After many years of performing solo, this artiste, ever on a quest, began to invest her energy in group works. It opened up a new set of challenges and she kept pushing boundaries. “Ï have always wanted my dance to be communicative, involving art and not just a set of movements passed down the ages. I have been enjoying the process. My growing bond with audiences across the globe convinced me that the choices I made were right.” Not just the audiences, even the students at her Delhi-based Drishtikon Dance Company are an integral part of her artistic oeuvre.
In a new work — ‘10 x 10’ — that was unveiled last month, the senior artiste took on the role of a mentor and let her students take charge. Ten of them were given a number each, from 1 to 10, and asked to visualise what it meant to them. Gauri Diwakar related 1 to breath, Rashmi Uppal explored the concept of 2 through the Hindi word ‘kal,’ which means both yesterday and tomorrow, while Minhaz Khan spoke of sixth sense to depict number 6. Anjana Kumari presented 8 as ‘Nirantar – The Infinite’; when viewed horizontally the number denotes infinite
“There is so much of mathematics in our classical arts. Our rhythm is based on count. In Kathak, flawless footwork is about perfect calculation. I wanted these 10 youngsters to explore the aesthetic connotation of numbers. I was thrilled to see them go beyond the technique to bring in unconventional elements into the choreography. Even the stage, light and sound were managed by them,” says Aditi.
When not on stage, she likes to spend most of her time at Drishtikon, where the brainstorming for her productions happens. “It is a space to hone both skill and thought. We also invite artistes to perform at the Drishtikon home studio baithaks. For a wider perspective, the young should be exposed to all art forms. I learnt from my guru Kumiben (Kumudini Lakhia) not to chain students in the name of discipline. Set them free to find themselves; allow them to think independently. It’s a misconception that dance is only about the body. See how intelligent dancers such as Akram Khan have made a difference to their art. His latest and last solo work ‘Xenos’ is mind-boggling. I watched it in London recently.”
An exceptional performer and choreographer, Aditi’s dance stands out for the contrast it conjures up — charged stillness and whirling energy. She has created an amazing range of contemporary work that draws from Kathak’s vocabulary.
“The spirit of the dance form prevails in whatever I do. After all, Kathak has shaped the dancer I am. A reason why I declined the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in the ‘Creative and Experimental Dance category’.”
Aditi was five when she began to train under the trailblazing Kumudini in Ahmedabad. She hails from a family with a liberal outlook. Debates, questions, agreements and disagreements were part of her growing up days. “My parents backed me in whatever I did. That gave me the courage to believe in myself. I was fortunate to find an equally open-minded guru.”
Aunt Pupul Jayakar, renowned cultural activist and textile revivalist, was a big influence too. She advised Aditi to come to Delhi. “I did so and lived at her Safdarjung Road residence. I joined the Kathak Kendra to learn from the inimitable Pt. Birju Maharaj. I thought I knew enough about Kathak but Maharajji led me into a magical world, where art awakened every cell in my body. He used to say, ‘Love your dance unconditionally and see how it reciprocates’. My ex-husband Iqbal Kumar, who still is a good friend, knew and so does Armin Sprotte (son of artist Siegward Sprotte), my life partner now, that they can never have me without my art,” she laughs.
“Life has been the best teacher,” continues Aditi. “I have drawn many stories from it. The way I narrate them through my art may have changed with time, but the basic purpose of connecting souls remains.”
NOW IS This choreographic work, a blend of fance, music and painting, was a tribute to the celebrated German artiste Siegward Sprotte, who in the 1980s dedicated a series of paintings to me titled Aditi Dancing and For Aditi .
DUPATTA DYNAMICS A few years ago, Aditi was admonished by the so-called upholders of tradition for not wearing a dupatta. Four gurus from Kathak Kendra wrote to her saying it takes away from the dignity of the dance form. “I found it extremely regressive. It’s the spine and not a piece of fabric that lends grace to the dance. Such false sense of morality has not done any good to our culture. It’s time we let the artistes and the art forms breathe some fresh air,” says Aditi.