Ranjana Gauhar in conversation with Shrinkhla Sahai
The story of Nala and Damayanti was presented in an absorbing and novel format by Delhi-based dancer-choreographer Ranjana Gauhar in her latest production, which premiered in Delhi. Blending animation with the Odissi and Chhau dance forms, the production presents the age-old tale as a dance-drama for the younger audience. The Odissi exponent collaborated with her animator-film-maker son, Sidharth Daniels, to create a visual treat that integrates with the classical dance vocabulary to capture a unique mode of story-telling. The dancers interact with the visuals in a computer-generated ambience, accompanied by the script in English, and instrumental music to match each scene and mood. The role of Damayanti was elegantly portrayed by Ranjana Gauhar’s disciple, Vrinda Chadha, while Rakesh Sai Babu as Nala, skilfully moulded his Chhau repertoire to depict the righteous king.
What inspired you to work on this combination of visual art and performance?
There are certain limitations in live presentation, especially when the story is so complex, and realistic description is difficult. I was discussing this with my son (Sidharth Daniels) who is an animator and that is how the idea originated. I also realised that this might turn out to be an important medium to connect with youth. Today, young people are so techno-savvy, classical dance becomes more exciting for them when there is a medium that they connect with. I wanted to explore this way of contemporising the story and the form. The classical arts are called ‘classical’ because they are constantly reinventing themselves. The project we undertook was extremely expensive and difficult, but it is important to explore new ways of telling stories.
How did you find working with your son?
It was such a lovely experience! During the production I gained more insight into his thought process. I realised that you never truly understand your children till you see their work.
Why did you choose this theme for the production?
This timeless fable has hardly been performed in classical dance. Though in Kathakali it is not an uncommon theme, in other forms it is quite a rare story. I find it a very beautiful love story where two people come together in a true union of the souls, and are separated by the force of circumstances, to be reunited later because of their undying love and devotion. The story was told by an old sage to Yudhishthira when he lost the game of dice. Like Yudhishthira, King Nala was also an honest and kind ruler, but was overwhelmed by momentary temptation and lost his kingdom. This is quite relevant in today’s world where we are bombarded by so many distractions and temptations and we have to make choices. I hope the story will touch a chord with the audience, awaken the inner consciousness of the common man, and make all of us more aware about the choices we make in life.
How was the process of choreographing with two forms?
Mayurbhanj Chhau and Odissi both originate from Odisha and have a common essence. Even though Chhau is primarily a martial art form, it has a lot of lasyanga. The body language of the dance form is very powerful and I felt it would be able to depict the movements of animals, and the masculine aspect in certain scenes very well.
What are the important aspects of choreography in a piece like this?
Choreography is very instinctive and you cannot plan this. I work by responding to the mood and situation of a particular scene. For instance, in the rehearsal I just sense it when the scene is not coming out right. I take my answers from within, I don’t find solutions outside.
Choreography is primarily a Western concept. Do you think it truly melds into the Indian classical genre?
Actually Indian classical dancers work with much heavy choreography right from the beginning, in terms of space, time, design. It is handed down from generation to generation. You inherit it in many ways. It is a Western word, but for an Indian classical dancer, choreography is a natural thing.
You are also trained in other dance forms like Chhau, Kathak and Manipuri. How does that affect your work?
I learnt all those forms when I was very young, when I was still searching for the art I could make my own. I went through this process of searching, trying, moving on, and when I came to Odissi I knew it was my purpose, my passion and devotion. I also dabbled in theatre for a few years and the training has been a great asset to me. Maybe it is my theatre training that draws me to story-telling. I try to bring in aspects of theatre in dance and I find it very exciting to take up different characters and delve deeper into the shades of the plot. This inspires me to do something different.
Did the music and animation come later after the choreography or was it a parallel process?
The music has been composed by acharya Bankim Sethi. The music and animation were initiated with the first draft of the script. I had already visualised most of the piece, and the medium and methodology came in much later. A lot of the process was trial and error. The set, design, costume, visuals and movement, all had to blend harmoniously. We hope we have been able to provide an enthralling experience to the audience.