Dance is a universal language, and stories are universal expressions of the human imagination. Since Indian classical dance forms contain a strong storytelling technique it has long been accepted that they can be used to interpret stories from cultures around the world, using music, lyrics and themes of infinite variety. However, dance and the stories told through dance can also sometimes be extremely culture specific. Thus, selecting which medium goes best with which narrative, and what elements within each to emphasise, is a choreographer’s challenge.
Kathak exponent Asavari Pawar, an experienced performer and teacher, has long been at ease adapting the elements of both story and dance form to suit her creative inspirations. Her latest work is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s somewhat unsettling tale, “The Red Shoes”, to be premièred this Friday evening in New Delhi.
The original is a stern warning against the evils of vanity and disobedience. A penniless little orphan adopted by a strict, rich old woman of poor eyesight comes to own a pair of red shoes and is so enamoured of them that she wears them to church and constantly thinks about them instead of praying and serving. She is also lured by the charms of the village ball, and so, due to a curse, the shoes take on a life of their own, compelling her to dance without stopping, until she sacrifices her very feet. Yet the shoes, with the severed feet in them, continue to dance and haunt her, till intense penitence redeems her in the eyes of the angel of God.
For an Indian reader used to the synonymous concepts of worship and the arts, particularly music and dance, “The Red Shoes” seems to represent a distinctly opposing world view where dance and aharya — costuming and ornamentation, an intrinsic aspect of Indian culture and classical dance — are seen as mere vanity and grimly tossed into the same shunned basket as sin, self-indulgence and a lack of morals. Karen’s dancing shoes literally and metaphorically keep her out of the protection of the church.
Asavari though, has taken a different approach. “The story has been Indianised and changed,” she avers. The Kathak adaptation is titled “The Golden Paayal”, whose protagonist Nupur is “very rude and proud and can't tolerate any other being having any attention or dancing well or wearing better clothes, or in this case paayals (anklets).” Nupur’s fault is that she “disrespects every relationship, every serious situation or social norm,” says Asavari.
“We open with a market scene where she is playful but greatly desires golden paayals worn by a rich lady. Then the proposal to her father and grandmother for her hand in marriage. The wedding night is beautifully depicted by the main couple and three more illusionary ones. She is too proud to give in easily, sits proudly. Years pass, she ignores her husband while enjoying [herself] with friends wearing the golden paayal gifted to her by her husband on the wedding night. She is vain and disturbs prayers and breaks social norms, so is cursed by the pandit…her feet will never stop dancing!”
Focus on anklets
Several years ago, Asavari, who spent her formative years in Trinidad, Guyana and England before settling in India, presented another offbeat story with a woman protagonist. Called “The Coat”, it depicted a bride from an Indian village leaving her homeland for the first time to live with her husband in the cold climes of Europe. Anklets were highlighted here in a different way. In one scene, one recalls the young woman emotionally bidding her ankle bells goodbye as she prepared to leave everything familiar behind.
“Yes, I relate to beautiful stories that are realistic in some ways. ‘The Coat’ was made when a lot of women left their native homes to join struggling husbands abroad,” says Asavari, adding, “This won me The Major Award named after then Prime Minister John Major in the U.K. This production has been performed almost 50 times, and still people love it.”
Asavari is a disciple and daughter of Guru Pratap Pawar, the well known Kathak exponent and Padma Shri recipient who was recently honoured with an MBE from the government of the U.K. After her marriage she continued her training under the late Pandit Vijay Shankar, renowned performer and teacher.
Recalling a childhood filled with dance, Asavari says, “Training was non-stop, non-timed. Expectations were high, but I always danced for happiness (anand), and still do.”
She says she wouldn’t exchange this vocation of no rest and no easy routines for anything. “The struggles and hard work are worth it. It is a passion more than a profession.”
Meeting the challenge
It was hardly a week ago that her institute Kalaashish presented “Krishna: Facets and Pranks” to mark Janmashtami. It can’t be easy to stage back-to-back premieres, but Asavari was game for the challenge. While the first featured a live orchestra, this evening’s show has a recorded soundtrack. “It was hard but one flowed into the other
and lo and behold, it's all ready for the gracious audience!”
Dancers Dalip Kumar Sharma, Saurabh Rai, Sharadini Kale and Viren Bhati “are multitasking in various roles — such fun!” says the choreographer. Others in the sizeable cast include Sadanand Biswas, Abhishek Khichi, Madhusmita Handique, Shruti Kotnala and Bharti Rawat among others, besides Asavari herself, essaying the protagonist’s role. Music for “The Golden Paayal” has been composed by Pandit Jaikishan Maharaj.
“The Golden Paayal” will be staged on 6th September at LTG auditorium, Mandi House, 6.30 p.m.