Freeing the mind and the body: Report on workshop by Santosh Nair on World Dance Day 2019

Santosh Nair
I have attended and reported a few dance workshops in the past too. What I find very interesting about these workshops is that students trained in dance by different gurus come together under a single dancer guru for a short while and hone their skills. Dance workshops have always held my fascination and so I have made an attempt at attending and reporting them.

Performer and guru Santosh Nair has been trained in Kathakali by his father, Shri Kalamandalam Padmanabhan, and then by Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan. He learnt modern dance under Shri Narendra Sharma of Bhoomika Creative Dance Centre, and then Mayurbhanj Chhau from Guru Janmey Joy Sai Babu. He has combined his traditional and contemporary training to create his own unique style and has a dance company called Sadhya, where he trains other dancers and creates interesting productions.

I have attended a few of his choreographic works and productions and have been deeply impressed by his work and style. That is why I was very keen to attend his workshop for dancers from all disciplines that was part of the World Dance Day programme organized by Natya Vriksha this year. Though I reached almost half an hour late, I will try and put across as much as I can.

Santosh ji first gave a set of exercises to the dancers. Synchronization requires hand, body, feet and mind, he said. ‘Dynamism in movement means that you know and understand the movement. The centre of the body is important here. First, we did body awareness exercises, which are different from what is required for classical dance. Next, we have been trying to make a different sequence from geometrical patterns which are not there in classical, but they are certainly about natural movements. Now we will do the floor sequence and techniques with kicks and jumps,’ he explained.

The next set of movements was about pushing, grabbing, sitting, jumping, and then kicks and leg rotations. What was special about these movements was that they were forceful, but the transition from one to the next was still not abrupt; it was smooth, as if one led into the other. Different kicks like kallari kicks, ballet kicks and the rotation of the leg were practised.

An interesting exercise during the workshop was dancers pairing up and doing certain exercises that would further facilitate the flow of movement in contemporary. They had to move like mirror images, one imitating the other. Next was to move together in opposite directions. There was the exercise of filling up the negative space – when one dancer moves and creates stances, certain empty spaces are left which the partner then fills through movements which are independent of the first dancer. A very innovative idea indeed. The next exercise actually provided a picture of how contemporary dance has a vocabulary of flowing movement. Here, one dancer moved and gave a gentle nudge to the partner to trigger the next movement, almost like initiating and flowing with the movement.

Then there was the exercise for counterbalance – find your own centre, stretch, hold and pull. These exercises actually opened up a plethora of movements. This was briefly the practical part or exercise part of the workshop.

The workshop ended with a Q&A, excerpts from which are reproduced here. I would like to put up most of the question and answer session, since this would enlighten dance enthusiasts about what goes on behind the pedagogy and the making of a production. “Chhau is an akashchari form. It came from the forest, inspired by nature, and incorporates martial arts. Dancing is more like meditation since every part of the body has to be under control, every movement involves breathing control, and a certain kind of consciousness.”

Q: Contemporary Indian dance came from the west. Does it now have a vocabulary of its own, or is it inspired by Indian classical dance movements?
A: The journey for contemporary experimental work comes from the west. Uday Shankar started the movement in India. He was initially not a dancer. He went to London to study art in the London College of Art where he met the ballerina Anna Pavlova. He worked with her on some productions and then they did some collaborative work. Then he came back to India and started his own centre in Almora. Uday Shankar said that we should not ape or copy the west. He went to Paris to learn sculpture, art, painting and he observed and travelled with Anna Pavlova. He said that you should find your own culture. And here he invited other gurus to teach – Sankaran Namboodri, Kandappa Pillai, Ustad Alauddin Khan… Zohra Sehgal also taught at his institute. So Uday Shankar’s contemporary dance was inspired by Indian dance. And many big choreographers were associated with the Uday Shankar Institute: Zohra Sehgal, Narendra Sharma, Guru Dutt.
Though the inspiration came from the west, India has produced great work and it is the collaboration with the west which enhances your creativity. We have to create new vocabulary and a new language. Uday Shankar made the first dance movie, ‘Kalpana’. In his view, if we get inspired by our classical forms, then it is original, but if we copy from the west, then it is not original work. You have to keep experimenting and improvising for creativity. Martha Graham changed ballet from straight lines to contractions, showing emotions like pain, making it more curvaceous. She was also inspired by Indian dance like the tribal folk dances and the martial arts. The Indian contribution to the world cannot be underrated. But we ourselves do not believe in our creativity. We do not give that freedom to our artists. There, they have studios, funding, paid performances and educated audience. In India, we do not have that kind of support. My company does not copy any work, they create their own work. Today’s workshop has been about understanding body movement and mind.

Q: Do you follow the melody or the beats?
A: The movement follows the beats whereas the emotions follow the melody.

Q: Do you use readymade music or do you create your own music?
A: For a production, we create our own music. First the script is finalized, then we invite our music composer, who makes the music. He sees the initial choreography and then takes inputs and creates the score. For example, in Mystical Forest, an original score, choreography, notation etc. is made first, and then the music composer gives the metal beats and the tempo.

Q: Do you vary the tempo in contemporary dance?
A: Yes, we vary the tempo. Sometimes, we start with a bang, which is fast, and then move on towards slow. Or we start slow and move on towards fast as required. But usually, we go from slow to fast-paced dancing.

Q: Can you extend your Kathakali to contemporary? Please show us at least one step.
A: You need to throw away all that you have learnt in Kathakali or any other classical system (he gave a short demo of Kathakali movements). In churup (in Kathakali), we use all flowing movements. Contemporary can have all curves, dimensions and poses depending on the theme. Churup means exploring your body, analysing your hands, eyes and weight shift. This technique I have copied in contemporary.

Geeta Chandran: When you come to pedagogy, you trained in two classical dance forms, and then you went on to contemporary. When you teach a body not initiated into contemporary, how do you go about training the disciple in various art forms? Do you train them first in Chhau and Kathakali or do you train them first in contemporary, taking a few elements of Chhau and Kathakali?
A: It is a process. Your training in Kathakali and Chhau reflects in your contemporary movements. But the inspiration for contemporary is from western philosophy – how they use the face and expressions, their techniques for flowing movements. We take the benefit of churup, like if I have an empty canvas, I’m creating my own design. Not carrying the burden of any mythological figure, like Rama, but creating abstract lines and movements. When I teach my students, they take their Chhau movements as a base strength and create different, new movements which takes years of training and sadhana. Without focus, it is difficult. It has taken me 30 years of training. I take inspiration from gurus from all fields of dance and that has helped me.

Q: How much do you practise every day?
A: The company time is 10.30 am to 4 pm. There is intense training from 10.30 am to 2 pm, and afternoon is light workout, we have a fitness trainer also. The younger people are conscious about fitness, stamina, food, workout. It is continuous and you don’t stop. But it is not all physical, it is also mental work: the benefits, the future, improvisation, analysis etc.

Geeta Chandran: To break a structure, you have to make a structure. His body registers his training in two styles of classical dance. Those years you can’t take away. So whatever you start with, you have to have a base. We do not yet have a pedagogy for Indian contemporary dance. Why should we have one form when we can have multiple vocabularies? So we have more of a structured thing. That is why I asked him about pedagogy because I feel with his training in two styles, somebody should understand his body and come up with pedagogy. In India, nobody does that. In the west, it is the done thing that somebody understands his work and comes up with a pedagogy. He is a creative person, he is doing what he can. Nobody is doing a thesis that will be carried on. A lot of things are happening in contemporary since it is not codified. Anything that is not classical is contemporary. That is the strength of contemporary, that it is not structured and codified. If it becomes codified, then it becomes another classical. All performers are also not pedagogues. It is complicated but somebody needs to study his work and create a pedagogy around it.

Neha: We have done this study in our company - we had questions raised. We have come up with structured patterns for every classroom. Anybody working for Sadhya is required to function in a certain manner. We have set patterns that we teach and then somewhere we teach them to break it. We do not create puppets. Where we have the creative process, we don’t come with that baggage ke humne subah woh kiya tha. We learn, then unlearn and innovate. We are not like an army. We change with the show and the performance. Mystical Forests cannot be like Game Of Dice. We change because the body has to function the best. That is the versatility – if we have four different shows in a week, we adapt and manage.

Sharanya: About group choreographies – you have a theme in mind and a choreography that you have developed. Do you have a participatory process where students suggest in choreography? Or do you have a set choreography where you already know who is to do what? And second, once a choreography is done, is it frozen when you do a certain production, or does it change in another venue?
A: Constructing the production, for instance, with Game of Dice – we scripted the scenes. We involve our artists before we go on to constructing the scenes and blocking the scenes, so they are a part of the script stage. It is only when we are on the same page that we go on to the next stage. So the process is first the scripting, second is the division of the scenes, involvement of the artists, and then next is the experimental work where we question and cross-question and debate about all stages.
Mystical Forest we performed on different stages – like in Canada it was a huge stage, but small cities like in Rajasthan, where we have a smaller stage, the structure of the production remains the same. But the artists are prepared to perform on any platform under any circumstances. We have performed certain productions with 12 artists and the same one at times with just four.

Q: The choreography itself – does it change?
A: No, it is frozen, especially for a production. The line-up is the same.

Geeta Chandran: What happens when one artist replaces another? For example, you have an older production and the bodies have to be changed. Because you have choreographed on one body, and suppose somebody is not free, and you have to replace that body, you realise then that you have to change the choreography since it does not sit well on the new person in the same way. So how do you handle this situation? It happens with us too sometimes.
A: We created Game of Dice in 2004. From then to now, the cast is totally different. there’s a lot of group change, but in the training that we give, our dancers can do any kind of roles or characters. We teach them to do many characters.
Neha: And one more thing – because this changeover happened with us and we have to pass on these methods, we did not take the choreography from sir first-hand. It was passed on to us jaise atma ghusti hai. One advice that he gives that really helps us is, unhone apne hisaab se kiya tha, aap apna aap dhundho ismein. You can be thrown off since he is empowering you with free space.
Santosh: She is playing Draupadi now, earlier Bhavani was there. You can see the difference.

Geeta: This is also interesting since many of you present here are essentially solo dancers. The teacher has customised every adavu to suit your body in a solo. But when we come in a group, ‘you have to do this or that, don’t do it like it’s a solo’… but it is a tough job to wear two hats. There is always a conflict for a group, between a group and a solo dance. So there are many things that they did which help in creating a synergy uniformity. And what I found very interesting is that physical fitness is one thing, but they are always very conscious of the shifting balance. We are preoccupied with the rhythm, grace, spine, so we do not focus on the shifting balance. This is a very big takeaway for me where I would now focus on the shifting balance. We do try now in our adavus to deconstruct, to see when the body is shifting and tilting. They are able to hold their balance because of the shifting balance and the freeness with which the bodies move. We can use it in classical to a degree, but we are mentally closed, and here, you have to free yourself. All classical dancers should watch contemporary dance – we have this boxing in and then the breaking (of the rigidity) that I am a classical dancer, that kind of chip.

Santosh: Even the contemporary dancers would benefit from a workshop like this. Interestingly enough, when I asked them, both agreed to sharing and working with each other.

It might be argued that a workshop for a few hours does not convey much, but I think that a few hours of constantly being with a guru and imbibing his knowledge, even though it is for a short while, does open up a gateway of possibilities.