Each piece presented by internationally acclaimed Bharatantya artiste Dominique Delorme at the recent Nirantara Narmada Festival in Bengaluru was crisp and different from the other in its content and approach. He first elaborated some of the karanas before moving onto showcasing angaharas through a sholkattu. His piece on the navarasas was a collage of various scenes from the Ramayana and his extensive work on akasha charis could be seen in this.
The thillana in mahati raga and adi tala was centred on climate change and pleased nature lovers. Choreographed by Padma Subramanyam from whom Dominique learnt the 108 karanas, the thillana’s strength was in sincere imitation of various life forms on earth. For instance, including minute details such as tossing of the head by a horse versus just having it gallop in the choreography made it subtle and delightful.
His last two pieces, one on the harp (instrument) and the other on spirituality in Sufi and Hindu traditions, had a contemporary touch to them, taking the audience to different cultural realms.
A common thread that ran through all his presentations was the ‘Karanas’. In an interview for The Hindu, Dominique who also happens to be the first to perform all the 108 karanas on a proscenium at a single stretch, talks about the significance of karanas, their universal nature and the challenges of being a Bharatantyam artiste in the West.
Karanas have become a characteristic feature of your dance. What prompted you to learn them?
I must say I was extremely fortunate to learn from Paddu Akka and it happened quite spontaneously. I was in Chennai learning from Muthuswamy Pillai and happened to watch her performance one evening at the Music Academy in the late 80s. I was instantly fascinated with her style of dance. I invited her as the chief guest for my arangetram and she asked me to work for one of her documentary projects. My engagement with her began then.
However, a decade later I again had the opportunity to come back (on a Villa Medicis fellowship) to learn the karanas in depth. It happened because Paddu Akka persuaded me to. She nudged me saying, “Dominique, if you want to learn the karanas, do so at the earliest because you are soon going to be 40!’, he says, laughing. After I learnt the karanas, my dancing wasn’t the same. It shouldn’t be. Otherwise, what is the significance of the karanas? Till then, I perceived dance as moving from one position to the next. But the karanas taught me what a true dance is — it happens between these two positions and it is more about ‘how’ you go from one point to the next in a three dimensional space.
How do the karanas of Natyasastra hold good for Western classical dance forms?
Learning the karanas is like getting to the roots of dance grammar. They are the shastras (theories) of body movement which are applicable to any kind of dance form. When I got back to Europe, the second time in the early 2000s, I was thrilled to recognise many karanas in Western dance forms and named each movement in them according to the Natyasastra!
Do male dancers bring a different kind of energy onto the stage?
Yes, although the divine dancer is Nataraja, it is unfortunate that we have very few male Bharatanatyam dancers today. Male dancers, my guru Muthuswamy Pillai felt, could bring to dance something unique. While choreographing a piece for me that involved a lot of mandi adavus, he once said, “Dominique, I cannot do the same with my other disciples.”
That is when I realised the magnitude of my first guru Malavika’s words when she had said Muthuswamyswamy Pillai, also her guru, was waiting for a male student for more than two decades!
This does not mean female dancers are not agile or energetic. It is just that working on the male body for athletic movement is easier than training the female body.
What are the challenges of showcasing Bharatanatyam outside India?
I began designing shows specific to Western audiences way back in 1993 as I realised the usual margam doesn’t appeal to them. Nandanar, a production based on the life of an eighth century saint, was conceived understanding the imagination of the Western audience. The agricultural hardship, poverty, unequal treatment and other facets of this story connected well with them. I also placed emphasis on theatrical elements and did not neglect verbal explanations wherever required as they provided clues for the audience who came from a very different culture.
Later, I collaborated with Western dancers and musicians to create pieces like the one on the harp. The next step was to connect to a global audience through choreographies that combined various cultures. The last piece I presented here connected the Sufi concept of enlightenment with the Hindu philosophy of seven incarnations and moksha. I think all these made it work.
However, on the institutional front, there has been unequal treatment for Indian classical dance forms. They do not receive the same support that Western and contemporary forms do. It is because many countries in the West still view Indian dance as a folk form!
How then did you sustain the interest and tradition of Bharatanatyam away from its land of origin and practice it for three long decades?
Practice and dedication, what else? My gurus live in me and my dance even if they are not physically present. This is how they prompt me to tread the path of sadhana. For a man who was as mad as leaving medical school just to visit India and be in touch with its rich heritage, having learnt one of its dance form is a huge blessing and why wouldn’t I rejoice in it every single day?