Plumbing depths of dance
Nonika Singh

Call her the diva of Indian classical dance or its modern face, well-known Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas' is a delightful presence. Profound and ethereal on stage in person, she reveals a mind as deep as the layers of ocean. Aditi, who was in Chandigarh for the Arts and Heritage Festival, says, "As an artist, my biggest concern is to transform life's experiences into dance."

Indeed, as she delves into sublime themes such as man's search for the infinite, communicating and getting across to audiences too becomes important. Only she adds, "I don't like to put a full-stop to things but interject a comma from where audiences can take on and draw their own meanings."

Often, she is pleasantly surprised when members of the audience come backstage and share interpretations that were never intended. And that, according to her, is the beauty of art and of Kathak. Indeed, Kathak is true to Katha kahe so kathak kehlaaye and is essentially a dance of storytelling. But that is not to say that Kathak can't be abstract. She quips, "Kathak has immense possibilities for abstraction." Yes, in the traditional repertoire too. For instance, her latest piece, Immersed, on Lord Krishna looks at the divine as a normal human being and as a breath of life. On the need for tradition to reinvent itself, says the globetrotting dancer, "By its own force, tradition can never remain stagnant for change is the only constant in life."

Her guru Birju Maharaj is both a fountainhead of tradition as well as a trendsetter in many ways. Kumudini Lakhia, her first guru, is considered a pioneer in giving a contemporary direction to Kathak. Aditi considers herself immensely fortunate to have trained under both gurus. While Pandit Birju Maharaj taught her to internalise dance, from Kumudini she learnt how to relate her body to the space. Aditi not only cares to explore the physical space around her but also likes to work on costumes. For her traditional choreographies, she designs the costumes herself and for contemporary dance pieces, she often ropes in the services of international costume designers.

She observes: "In the good old days, temples provided the perfect ambience for dance. Then as dance moved to courts, the regal resplendence became a perfect setting. But today, as we dance on a bare stage there is no point in recreating the atmosphere of yore through artificial props. For you can't imitate sunlight and the allure of moon."

Inspiration for dance choreographies come to her from life itself, "the biggest teacher." Indeed, when she began her dancing odyssey, women's issues consumed her. Today, while she has gravitated towards metaphysical and profound concepts like Footprints on Water and Timeless, which is about different time zones, her perspective has changed dramatically.

Her dance company Drishtikon Dance Foundation is not just an institution but a vision, "to look at tradition with a modern mind, to explore the past to create a new, imaginative future." Open to taking students of other gurus in her dance choreographies, the only rider is, "They must be part of Drishtikon, whose philosophy is unique." From day one, Aditi yearned to be an original, "even if a bad one," rather than a copy "even if great." She can easily boast of an idiom which is very much her creation.

Whether she dips into the treasure-trove of tradition or draws from the root of Kathak to create a new vocabulary and imagery, this consummate dancer who loves snorkelling too, invariably plumbs deep. Any wonder each time, her mission of making viewers carry home something beyond technical virtuosity is accomplished with effortless ease. In her adroit hands, tradition becomes an art of joy. Forever, yet ever evolving.

Rising above I, me, myself

On the horizon of Indian classical dance Aditi Mangaldas burst like a flame whose luminosity has fire and brimstone. Years ago, she had the courage to say no to the Gujarat Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. For she doesn't agree with the divisive politics of Narendra Modi and believes, "No art can exist in an atmosphere of fear." All set to perform at the Edinburgh Festival, on success that came her way rather early, she agrees, "There is always a danger of adulation going into my head." But thanks to a liberal and grounded family, J Krishnamurti's teachings and an ability to critique herself, she manages to rise above 'I, me, myself.'