Dancing dialogues across cultures

In unison: Dancers performing “Pralaya” Special Arrangement

In unison: Dancers performing “Pralaya” Special Arrangement  


Blending Bharatanatyam and Balinese dance as a tightly-knit singular entity, “Pralaya” presented an engaging alchemy of various ideas through multimedia, masks, music and visual layers

The familiar strains of the Bharatanatyam soundscape meld seamlessly into the thundering beats of Balinese percussion, an energetic jati smoothly lands into a tableau of masked figures as the dancers take the audience through a contemporary retelling of the Mahabharata, through traditional Indian and Balinese forms. Performed at Kamani Auditorium in Delhi last week, “Pralaya” is an artistic collaboration between Canada-based Lata Pada, known for her contemporary Bharatanatyam works, and the Balinese dancer-choreographer, I Wayan Dibia, an expert in Topeng mask dance and other traditional forms from Bali. Unlike most cross-cultural collaborations, the production has the rare quality of blending the dance genres as a tightly-knit singular entity, interweaving myriad ideas through multimedia, masks, music, and visual layers.

Lata Pada

Lata Pada  

Narrating the timeless tale of conflict for power, in a world cornered into chaos, the production also comments on our contemporary socio-political realities that resonate across cultures. The theme was conceptualised by dancer-choreographer Lata Pada and is laden with metaphors for our present experiences. “Pralaya means the destruction and dissolution of the universe,” she observes, “It is a contemplation of humanity’s propensity to push the world to the brink of destruction in a cyclical way, followed by overwhelming calm, and simmering with the potential of being shattered again."

Interpreting the epic

Reflecting on the return to the epic tale of the dice game between the Pandavas and Kauravas from the Mahabharata, Pada says, “The ancient epics connect with people across the world with their enduring wisdom and truth of human behaviour and values. This is what drew Dr. I Wayan Dibia and myself together. We essentially wanted to create a work that was a commentary on today’s turbulent world, where humankind has lost its capacity to nurture its natural resources. We wanted to use our art to imagine the possibility of peace and harmony for future generations.”

The Indian epics also form the basis for numerous Balinese traditional dance-drama forms like the puppet plays Wayang Kulit Parwa, Wayang Kulit Ramayana and Parwa, along with the traditional dances like Barong dance and Legong Keraton dance. Dibia has spent years researching and writing about these forms and integrating them into contemporary choreography, “The basic storyline of both Balinese Mahabharata and Ramayana are the same as those from India. However, in Balinese tradition, both the epics are performed with some local additional characters to bring out the specific cultural flavour.”

He points out that the key characters in the production – Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna from the Pandavas and Duryodhana, Dushasana, Shakuni from the Kauravas symbolise the balancing forces within human nature. “The presence of these characters reveals the profound concept of rwa bhineda (two opposite powers) in Balinese cultural tradition.” Drawing from the rich puppet tradition of Balinese dance dramas, Dibia chose to depict the two sides through shadow puppets.

Masks were used primarily for the two characters that stand outside the main narrative – Ganesha and Vyasa. Explaining the underlying aesthetics, Dibia says, “The two masks used in ‘Pralaya’ are traditional masks. The mask for the Sage Vyasa, an old man with a long beard is taken from Balinese masked dance theatre – Topeng, the elephant mask for Ganesha is traditional masks used in many classical dance dramas. In traditional Balinese performing arts, the old man represents the good and wise man, who guides and advises young people. Ganesha is highly regarded and respected as a divine being with protective power.”

Performed by a cast of ten dancers to recorded music, the production features master musicians from India and Bali, in a score composed by Praveen D Rao. The visual design by Jacques Collin and lighting design by Deepa Dharmadhikari present a sophisticated interplay of space and movement. The costume design by Sandhya Raman revolves around similar threads and fabric from both cultures, using Ikat as the base and branching out into a variety of motifs.

Collaborative vision

The collaborative work has developed over years of sustained artistic exchanges. The quality of a well-paced production, anchored in a deep understanding of each other's oeuvre and cultures extends into the technique and ease with which the dancers move between forms on stage. Abhinaya is used strategically, alternating puppet acts and masks with facial expressions. While both choreographers remain rooted to their home turfs within the traditional dance vocabularies, they also re-imagine the performance through the collective aesthetic. Though the narrative of the dice game incident remains simple and unchanged, one is left with multiple surprises of overlapping techniques and engaging alchemy of elements from various forms.

As the Artistic Director of Sampradaya Dance Creations, a Canada-based dance-theatre company established three decades back, Pada has worked extensively on South Asian dance forms. An art research fellowship in 2012 took her across Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand and other South-east Asian countries. “I have lived in Indonesia for ten years, where I developed a very deeply personal and artistic connection to this beautiful country. It was during my research visit to Bali that I met with eminent Balinese scholar-choreographer Dr. I Wayan Dibia. It was a spontaneous coming together of a unified vision of an authentic collaborative work that would respect and celebrate our cultural traditions.”

Pa Dibia

Pa Dibia  

Pada and Dibia met again two years later to explore the intricacies of each others’ forms and develop a common ground for the Balinese and Bharatanatyam dance traditions. In July 2016, the work took its final shape as five Balinese dancers and five Bharatanatyam dancers met in Bali for three weeks with Rao joining them in the second week for the music composition.

Explaining the process, Pada points out that for the uninitiated, there may appear to be many similarities between the two forms, yet for the dancers who delved into the details, it was a new world of vocabulary. “The use of the neck and eyes and make-up of the eyes and ornamentation in costume seem common to both forms. But for trained artists in both styles, it was an orientation to a completely new movement syntax in terms of the basic positions, the stylisation and use of the fingers, the use of space and other aspects. Understanding the complexities of each other’s music systems and rhythms were important factors in designing movements. For the first five days, the dancers were taught the basics of each other’s styles essentially to find a choreographic methodology for an integrated movement that would synthesise techniques from each style. The dancers worked enthusiastically in a spirit of generosity, learning and sharing without inhibition. Gradually, there emerged a unique and distinctive language, forging the stylisation, dynamics, and aesthetics of each dance form. The process was exciting and new discoveries were made.”

Balancing act

For both choreographers, the driving creative force has been to find their own idiom of expression through a contemporary exploration of their classical forms. Sharing his artistic journey, Dibia recalls that he has received brickbats as well as support through the way. “I have been doing contemporary works in Bali since the early 1970s. It has given me some challenging and at the same time exciting experiences. I wanted to do innovative works without crossing the line of my traditional culture; making new dances without destroying the principles of aesthetic concepts of classical dance. It took time but later my works started being accepted by the local people. Now, my new works are adopted into Balinese traditional art forms.”

Remembering the early days of struggle to establish himself as a choreographer who wanted to go beyond the accepted norm, he feels that the audience today is more open to such experiments. “Making contemporary art today, I feel, is less challenging. I find the modern Balinese public is more open, they have a much better appreciation of contemporary art forms compared to 30 years ago. This turn of appreciation of the modern Balinese audience has changed my creativity in that I have to be more careful and selective in presenting new works to the local public that they would connect with.”

Pada had a similar trajectory with her vision to create compelling contemporary work from the classical discipline of Bharatanatyam. “Sampradaya Dance Creations has created unique inter-cultural and multi-disciplinary dance works that challenge misconceptions of South Asian dance being unchangeable and rigid.”

“Pralaya” stands testimony to an organic artistic brew between both choreographers and cultures that shifts the idea of the ‘contemporary’ into a continuum with traditional forms. The collaborative creation by the two seasoned artists brims with possibilities for expanding cultural dialogues within Asia and culling contemporary vocabularies from traditional aesthetics.

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 4:59:09 AM |

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