Imagination unlimited

PERENNIAL Kanak Rele performing at the Ananya Festival.

PERENNIAL Kanak Rele performing at the Ananya Festival.   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR


Kanak Rele on her approach to choreography.

The force of dedication, the sheer length of a career, tend to hit you when a dancer mentions that her senior students are in their 40s and 50s. And yet eminent Mohiniattam exponent Kanak Rele, in the true tradition of artistes too immersed in their work to worry about getting old, brings a youthful sparkle to her conversation, her smooth face glowing and her eyes reflecting delight in all the forms of beauty the world has to offer. There is age here but no weariness; there is knowledge of the old but no rejection of the new.She may have started her career in an era of simplicity, when `marketing' was not considered part of a classical dancer's duties, when light designers were called electricians and the mike man had not transformed into a sound engineer. But she has made the transition with poise. Sometimes it would seem that showbiz has overtaken the essence of dance forms nurtured as chamber arts.The veteran is practical in her response, saying, "The time has come, with these massive stages." Take the stage for the Ananya festival of choreography, where she performed with her troupe the other day. Against the massive ramparts of the Purana Qila (Old Fort) in the heart of Delhi, where is the possibility of presenting the subtle facial expressions and detailed mudras for which Mohiniattam is famous? "I can't jump around like a frog to show my energy," she quips, emphasising, "The methodology will change, but you can't destroy the soul." The mukhaja abhinaya, conveying expression using the face and eyes, for which she is known, she reserves for limited spaces. To conquer the bigger ones, she takes elements of the Mohiniattam technique that look beautiful when performed by multiple dancers. "Like the wavy movements of the arm in Mohiniattam. With eight girls synchronising, it looks fabulous."


Ultimately, the aim of a performing artiste is to hold the audience. But Indian classical dance with its tortuous history of exploitation of women shies away from the concept of `entertainment'. Not Kanak Rele: "One day I told a close friend, `In a way we are all entertainers.' That person said, `No you are not an entertainer. You are an exponent, you are a performer! I respect you too much. You can't call yourself an entertainer!' So I said sorry," she laughs.While she feels the limits imposed by technique should be adhered to, since these give identity to each form, she recognises that the theory and philosophy expounded by Bharatamuni and other ancient writers on natya are open-ended. "Bharata gives a limited version of vyabhichari bhavas (transient expressions). So I made my own list," she says by way of example. This ability to refer to a range of texts, besides a penchant for debate and discussion made life difficult. "They called me cerebral dancer," she recalls, with some disdain at the thought of a dancer being expected to be brainless. Now, she notes, "The tide has turned my way." So much so, when her students perform her pieces, not only do the critics note their "most orthodox" approach to movement, but also the "fresh approach" to choreography, only to be informed that the pieces were choreographed decades ago.What is important to the founder of Mumbai's Nalanda Dance Research Centre is that lyrics for dance compositions should be "ennobling," since she has been concerned to maintain "the spiritual base" of Mohiniattam despite being aware that the dance form did not have a temple background like Bharatanatyam.

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