Insulted, dishonoured, vengeful, a kneeling Draupadi looks on as Bhima and Duhshasana bound, pivot and fly across the stage. It’s a most martial performance — almost stylised, choreographed combat. You might even call it ‘manly,’ with the dancers’ legs often spread wide apart in stances that evoke the forms of Kathakali and, to a greater extent, Chhau, the eastern Indian martial dance with tribal moorings.
The show is The Game of Dice , a 2004 production by dancer Santosh Nair and his troupe, Sadhya. This most familiar of tales — adapted from a colourful Kathakali scene from the story-play Duryodhanavadham — frames an exploration of human inner conflict as Nair applies his own interpretation to the whole set of characters by slotting them into a current context.
In short, it’s an unconventional presentation of a classical episode, freer in spirit than a traditional form might allow. It’s also a window into Nair’s roots, in the Kathakali his father taught him at their Delhi home. Now a contemporary dancer of renown, the 46-year-old Nair does delve into mythological episodes occasionally, and has evolved a distinct body language over the past quarter century that certainly owes its share to Kathakali sensibilities, but that’s not all. More than anything, Nair banks heavily on another dance he learned as a young man on the lookout for experimental productions — Chhau. And it’s a major presence in his work.
Training after school hours
There’s a smile on Nair’s face as he recalls how he began learning Kathakali as a schoolboy from father Kalamandalam Padmanabhan, a native of Vellinezhi, a heritage village in Kerala’s Palakkad district. “As soon as we got out of our classrooms and reached home, father would tell us to get ready for training. We four siblings, sulking at having lost a chance to play in the grounds, would line up before him reluctantly.”
Padmanabhan, a disciple of Kathakali maestros of the pivotal Kalluvazhi style, migrated to New Delhi in the mid-60s.
Initially, he was a member of a collective called Natya Ballet Centre, who blended a range of Indian dances in their productions. Then, in 1969, he joined the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s Song and Drama Division as an artist to publicise government initiatives. Between all this, he took time off to teach his children dance.
Sensing Santosh’s talent, he took the boy to the International Centre for Kathakali where Sadanam Balakrishnan taught him. And in 1988, Nair debuted on stage as Krishna in the invocatory Purappad at the Ayyappa temple in Delhi’s R.K. Puram.
It was K.K. Mohandas, Santosh’s uncle, a Kathakali dancer inclined to experimental dance, who cultivated the taste in his nephew as well. “My uncle’s artistic activities opened before me new vistas of the art we loved. I began realising the thrill of dances beyond the classical genres,” says Nair.
Nair soon had his first tryst with a top contemporary dancer. That was Narendra Sharma, a Delhi-based disciple of iconic fusion choreographer Uday Shankar (1900-77). “I took weekend classes under him at the guru’s Bhoomika school. In 1990, I was inducted into Sharmaji’s dance group. That year, we had a tour of East Germany,” recalls Nair.
World of opportunities
Soon, the youngster rose to become a regular in Bhoomika’s productions, giving him ample opportunity to explore the world of contemporary dance. “The themes were novel. For instance, a show based on a hockey match!”
Then, in 1995, a fresh wave of aesthetics swept Nair: he was bowled over by the beauty of Odisha’s Chhau. The artist found the Mayurbhanj version of the dance particularly striking, so much so that he began training under veteran Jenmojay Sai Babu. “The two traditional dances I ended up learning are Kathakali and Chhau. Both thoroughly masculine like no other in India,” says Nair, who went on to found the Sadhya performing arts institution in Delhi in 1998.
Over the past two decades, Sadhya (meaning ‘achievable task’ in Sanskrit) has come out with close to a dozen productions. “Our ways of innovation draw their style and energy from the country’s traditional dances,” says Nair, who travels all over not just with performances but also to lead workshops and choreograph productions. “We have our artists trained in the institution before they become part of any of Sadhya’s work. We don’t hire anyone.”
Any production is a major challenge. “It takes no less than six months for one to gain a definite shape,” says Nair. “First comes the idea, on which we hold talks to sense its feasibility as production material. If positive, research starts in a big way. What follows is floor work, where a lot of improvisations take place. Added to these are music, lighting and costume. The shows usually last around two hours.”
Their works thus far have spanned a vast range of subjects. A Doll’s House , for instance, is a 2006 production that coincided with the death centenary of Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright. On the other hand, We Can Make the Difference is more activist in spirit, recalling how modern man is increasingly turning against nature and suggesting ways to avoid the risk of bigger catastrophes.
“We at Sadhya keep evolving. Every time I revisit a production, I find some scope to redo it,” says Nair. “It’s another matter that we usually move on by doing new works instead of refashioning old ones.”
The writer is a keen follower of Kerala’s traditional performing arts.