Empty yet brimming: Gauri Diwakar and Bhuvanesh Komkali’s Dancing Emptiness

Earlier this year, Hindustani vocal artist Bhuvanesh Komkali and Kathak dancer Gauri Diwakar were presented by Seher in Dancing Emptiness, part of the specially curated series Sandhi by Sanjeev Bhargav. This was presented at the Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts, and was choreographed by Aditi Mangaldas. The first impression that the pamphlet and Gauri’s pictures on it gave was that of wonder, and appreciation of the beautiful, flowing white costumes used.

Bhuvanesh Komkali is an accomplished classical vocalist and composer, the grandson of the legendary Kumar Gandharva. He has been awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi's prestigious Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar (2012) and continues his training under Smt. Vasundhara Komkali and Shri Madhup Mudgal. Gauri is a recognized Kathak exponent who started learning from Ms Sumita Chowdhary, and continued her training under renowned gurus Pandit Birju Maharaj, Shri Jai Kishan Maharaj and the redoubtable Aditi. Gauri is an A-grade artist with Doordarshan, an empanelled artist with Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and has received many awards, including SNA’s Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar (2008), Jaydev Pratibha Puraskar (2015) and Sringar Mani award (2002).

Emptiness, as we know from our scriptures, means shunya or nothingness. That is the state of mind that all spiritual paths lead to – a state of total surrender, of nothingness. When you realize that everything is impermanent, you head towards accepting nothingness, or the state of a yogi.

But I think ‘dancing emptiness’ is not an easy task because it is such an abstract concept. It comes down to the dancer’s and choreographer’s subjective perspective, and conveying it convincingly to the audience is challenging. Aditi said that she used the metaphor of the golden thread to depict the emptiness in the production.

Gauri sailed through this emptiness in three parts, using poetry. For the first part of the production, she wore a gold and white costume. A length of golden thread was tied to one corner of the stage. Gauri started by frowning, pulling and knotting this thread. And then, with a clink of the manjira, Gauri broke out into an upaj or a presentation of pure footwork. The first piece of poetry chosen was ‘Bhakti ko marag jheena hai jano’. She repeatedly gathered the thread, pulled it and knotted it, with breaks of nritta in thaat, aamad, paran aamad, todas and tukdas. As the poetry said, ‘nahin achaah, nahin chahna, charanan lau leena re’.

Gauri kept dropping and collecting the thread as if she was doing the same with her desires. The lights cast a shadow on the screen behind her, creating a silhouette of her.

For the lines ‘raag mein shrut aise base jaise jal mein meena re’, she used the metaphor of a sitar in her movements. At that point, the sitarist in the orchestra accompanied the lyrics and it really enriched the music and depiction. The expressions on her face in the last line, ‘sai sevat mein dai sir, kuch vilay na keena re’ – went from fear, anger and humility to bowing and total surrender.

In between, she used thaat, paran aamad, footwork, upaj and uthaan, and tihais for the technical portions.

And in the end, she suddenly picked up the thread and broke it, implying that life is very fragile. The path to the ultimate stage of emptiness is very fragile and has to be treaded carefully. Gauri has perfected her technique, which is the hallmark of her performance, and her nritya too shows her brilliance. It was only in the last part that the entire mukhda of the poetry was sung: ‘Bhakti ko marag jheena hai jaano’.

For the second piece, Gauri wore a golden costume. The composition chosen here was ‘Chal hansa waa desh re jahaan piya basat chitchor’. This was again an appropriately chosen verse. The melody was very lyrical and the choreography was very aesthetic and visually beautiful.

Gauri did a very delicate gat for this piece – in which she swayed her hand behind her, then fluttered both her hands as if opening her wings, with the head held high like the beak – appropriately called the hans ki gat. She moved very gracefully all around the stage, spreading her wings to fly among the golden beams of light.

And then, these lights cast a shadow of her flying movement on the wall. The words of the composition were ‘kabahun na hoye andhera’. She used parmelu and chakkardar tukde to show the flight of the hans. As the lyrics described it, she depicted lotuses blossoming in the sun, using parans to show kotik suraj and the blooms.

Finally, after a round of chakkars, she slowly steadied, showing her inner journey. And then came the moment when the sun shines bright for the hansa. Gauri stood still with only the feet tapping and the murmurs of ‘chal hansa’. The fragile knotted golden thread of life transforms into the golden beam of enlightenment - a rendition which could transport you into another world of ecstasy.

Before the third piece, there was an interlude of alaap by Bhuvaneshji, which was again done in a very moving manner. The costume for Gauri for the last piece was very serene: off-white with a bit of gold. Here, Gauri started by knotting a huge piece of white cloth, which was like a drape, on her shoulder. The Kabir bani chosen was ‘Ghunghat ke pat khol re’. The rendition by Bhuvaneshji was again very beautiful.

The cloth was gradually laid out across the stage and Gauri, in a very gentle way, jumped across from one side of it to the other. The golden thread had now become a symbol of abandon or surrender. But it is never complete, since you keep moving from one state of mind to the other. Just as when you stand at the tat or shore of a river, you keep swaying from the waters to the sands and then back to the waters, you keep transitioning between the worldly and the godly till you surrender, empty of thought.

Finally, Gauri gathered the cloth, tied it to her waist and in her chakkars, wound the cloth around herself, like the living are surrounded by the web of the mayajaal. And then gradually, she unwound, unwrapped herself from this cloth, till she jumped out of it. Again, a moment where the audience got into that state of mind where you surrender all your thoughts.

Gauri has great stamina, technique and the energy to carry an ambitious solo like this. But what comes across is her ability to depict, or indeed, manifest, an abstract thought or journey through richly textured, deliberate, intelligent dancing. She totally lived up to Aditi’s choreography. I am not very familiar with the nuances of classical music so I have not commented on it extensively, but Bhuvanesh Komkali’s composition and vocals brought the performance alive.

Later, I spoke to all three – Aditi, Bhuvanesh and Gauri – about this presentation.

Gauri Diwakar
‘With an abstract theme, you have to weave a story. From golden thread to golden light and then to the path, which was the cloth, you have to thread it into literature, music and dance. The word emptiness is negative: something that is empty is difficult to explore in dance and music. For me, however, it was very full. When I talked to Aditi didi, she gave her own inputs. For me, everything was connected but transient, kshanik. Aditi didi wanted me to be sure that I would be able to put my soul into it and convey it to the audience. After deciding the theme next was the search for the text. It also had to be text that could be sung. We searched for the right compositions and then researched them. The first one was ‘Bhakti ko marag jheena’. The path is fragile, it said, and the metaphor I chose was that of a string in an instrument. If it is loose, it will not play, and if it is taut, it will break. There has to be just the right tension. Raag has the inherent content of shrutian, like fish in the water. And lastly, if you immerse yourself totally in your sadhna, you attain bhakti. For that, I thought that Bhuvanesh was the right person, since he belongs to a family that has sung nirgun and Kabir. Plus, he is about my own age, and so I could relate better to him. And I really appreciate how he composed it. In the second part, we had the composition ‘Chal hansa va desh jahan piya basat chitchor’.

For that, it is important that I relate a small incident. There was a death in the family next door and their maid sobbed and said, ‘Hansa ud gaya.’ That illiterate maid knew that the soul is the hansa or swan that has to take its final journey, and I could emotionally now connect to this piece. But for dance, it is necessary that the sanchari and sthayi bhavas are shown. Atma cannot be shown in dance. And so didi choreographed this very elegant hans ki gat bhav. Hansa moving towards piya chitchor or atma ascending towards parmatma. In the third piece, the lyrics say, ‘Ghunghat ke pat khol tohe piya milenge’ – get rid of your worldly shackles and your piya or your parmatma will be there to meet you. You don’t need any veils if you want to see Him. Aditi didi had told them not to use any percussion in the beginning, only voice and tanpura. It was only in the end, when the anhad dhol comes, that percussion is used. Didi had given Bhuvanesh her interpretation of ghunghat, piya milenge and her perspective as a choreographer, which led him to change his rendition. His voice is so soulful. Normally, it is difficult to work with a new singer in a collaboration. And there are many challenges – like Bhuvanesh likes to begin practice from a week before the performance.
The choreography was entirely Aditi didi’s. Of course, as a soloist I am given certain liberties. I don’t interfere with her choreography, but she gives me the freedom to speak through my dance, to find my own voice.

(About her input in the music) I am not very knowledgeable about music and ragas, but I know, when I hear a composition, whether it is going to work for me or not. Aditi didi and I heard what they composed and then we picked the ragas we found most suitable. ‘Chal hansa’ had to be kept light, like a bubble or a feather, and we all agreed on using raga Yaman for this. For ‘Ghunghat ke pat khol’, Bhuvanesh sang it in several ragas and then when it was sung in Sohini, I immediately thought it would work best. That much discernment I have.

(About the technical portions) ‘Chal hansa’ had one old tukda, the rest were new compositions. Aditi didi is very particular about what has to be done with what and where. She is particular about placing and stage coverage and connecting to the text. She thinks simultaneously about lights, music, dance. And by the time the choreography is ready, she has visualized every minor detail, including the costume. She is everywhere. It is totally mind-blowing. I am totally wordless. She is also very precise about how much and where even before the show. Tabla and pakhawaj will not be allowed any extra karvat. The music should not be loud. Kathak dancers are already infamous for being loud. And even I am starting to mellow (under her influence). Upari bhav we teach our students every day. But at my age and experience, something better is expected of me.’

Bhuvanesh Komkali
(On his experience collaborating with a dancer) Sanjeevji (Bhargava) said that this collaboration brought two thought processes together. What I am singing, the dancer is drawing, and I am trying to draw through my vocals the outline of what the dancer is dancing. I would like to appreciate Aditi Mangaldas for the way she envisioned it and brought it out. I have tried to keep the vision of the choreographer and the dancer in the fore.

The theme is very abstract. Nritya ho ya sangeet, hamare baba ek baat bolte the - aakar hum banate jaate hain aur woh mit-ta jata hai, hum phir bhi aakar banate jaate hain aur woh mit-ta jata hai. Mit-te mit-te mit-te ek adrishya aakar apne aap khada ho jata hai... lekin wahan kuch nahin hota (My baba used to say that we (artists) make a shape that disappears, and yet we make it again and it disappears again, and this goes on till at one point there is an invisible structure that persists... but there is nothing there). This is our sangeet and this is our art. Wahan jo khada hai, woh vaastav mein khada hai lekin humko nazar nahin aata. Uske na hone mein jo anand hai woh uske hone mein ho hi nahin sakta (There really is something in those ephemeral shapes we make, but we cannot see it. And yet, the pleasure of its absence is greater than the joy of its manifestation). Art is visible and invisible. In art is the enjoyment of being drishya and adrishya.

I used raag Bheempalasi first, then raag Kalyan and lastly, raag Sohini. In the first piece, I chose Bheempalas for its vistar, the second showed the flight of the hansa through Kalyan, and finally Sohini, had the upper note to show ecstasy.

Aditi Mangaldas
We had a whole lot of poetry to choose from, out of which we selected these three bandishes, and from these we chose a few lines each. I believe that the poetry that you choose has to be transformed into the language of dance. Just as the singer transforms the word into musicality, as dancers and choreographers, we have to transfer the word into the medium of dance. It can be a literal translation or according to the theme of the bandish. Why I used the thread is because Kabir, since he was a weaver, talks a lot about the warp and weft. So I thought that we could show the golden thread to show fragility. The actual words say ‘bhakti ko marag jheena re’ but I requested Bhuvanesh ji to used the word ‘bhakti’ only at the end. The raag used is Bheempalasi and the motive was to convey the fragility of life. And then the lyrics say ‘chaah nahin achaha nahin’, that I am totally immersed in the sadhana of life. Or you could also say life is immersed in me and me in life, like sur in raag. That is how we took the metaphor of a golden thread. I came across a quote by J. Krishnamurti which is, ‘Meditation is the freedom from thought and a movement to the ecstasy of truth.’ Emptiness is a step towards that ecstasy, when all your senses are attuned towards that state, when shunyata is the entire universe. We thought we would show the metaphor of a golden thread for the fragility of life and the immersion in that fragile life. When she does the padhant, the golden thread falls from her hands. Then in one sequence, she is surrounded by the golden thread, which shows the desires and non-desires, which is the mayajal. However, the thread breaks in the end, which is inevitable. Life is fragile, that is inevitable, but how you live it is more important.

In ‘Chal Hansa’, the golden thread becomes the golden light. The hansa very playfully tells itself to move towards piya chitchor. To me, the hansa is that state of thoughtlessness, the emptiness, the soul, the intangible. And I am looking at my self, which does the sadhana, to come with me a little longer on this journey. Telling my meditative self to come to that place where there are a thousand suns, a thousand poornimas, where it is constant light or enlightenment. But I tried to make it a friendly and playful request: oh my soul, please move a little bit more, since hansa here is a metaphor for the enlightened self, which Gauri took as a chaal and then playfully clapped her hands, as if to tell the hansa to be with her a little longer. It is like the ringing of a temple bell. I think that the rituals must resonate with you, only then will they hold that relevance. This call to the hansa is like that call to yourself: be enlightened, be awake. When you enter the mandir and ring that bell, it is like a wake-up call to say ‘leave it all behind and come into this space’.

And again, I am reminded of the thought that meditation is freedom from thought and a movement towards the ecstasy of truth. Similarly, the being says ‘chal hansa jahan piya basa chitchor’, the place where I will totally surrender and abandon, were my senses become enlightened. But then it became so heavy and I thought we would add a burst of playfulness and energy with the action of a clap. We used beams of light to show that it is a journey. So the first piece says that this journey is fragile and the second says, I want to undertake this journey so my soul, please come with me and take me to the place I seek. And when I reach that place, the call says, ‘ghunghat ke pat khol re’ or take off the veil of your desires, your attachments and then undertake this journey to enlightenment through emptiness. That is why we used that huge golden cloth in the last piece; it is there to show the mayajal or your worldly attachments, which is wrapped all around you. And then in the climax, she unwraps it and jumps out of it.

I too liked the use of a huge flowing cloth as the metaphor of this journey because it reminded me of a river that has a journey through the valleys and mountains. Through all its ups and down, it can never be predictable or constant. When the cloth was spread across the stage and Gauri was jumping across it and over it before wrapping it around her, it was as if all your life, you keep moving in a to and fro manner, sometimes a few steps here and at times a few steps there, forwards and backwards. Even the purest and most enlightened souls would have their own ups and downs before they could shed this cocoon of maya and step out into that state of nothing but enlightenment. For this process, sometimes, one lifetime may not be enough. And the journey carries on for many births before the hansa can meet his chitchor.

Aditi added that this was the third time that Gauri had performed it and it still seems to be a work in progress. It is like a child that starts breathing when it comes on the stage for the first time, and it has a lifetime of growing and developing as our friend the hansa journeys further.

A choreographer who thinks in such abstract and vast terms, going through such minute analyses, a dancer who, with her experience and talent, has perfected her nritta and nritya, a vocalist and musician who has not only done justice to his heritage but also taken it to new heights with his melodious voice – the trio have put up a performance that can become an experience for those already enlightened and a first step for those seeking it. Empty yet brimming.

Additional credits: Costumes - Aditi Mangaldas, music composition - Bhuvanesh Komkali, tabla - Yogesh Gangani, pakhawaj - Ashish Gangani, harmonium - Abhishek Shinkar, sarangi - Kamal Ahmad, light design and execution - Govind Singh Yadav, sound - Yogesh Dhawan

Pics: Anoop Arora