“Ashwini refused to look beyond the classical – it was very refreshing”. Anusha Subramanyam, mentor to Ashwini Kalsekar on this project, aptly captured the premise of the evening at the Watermans Theatre in west London’s art centre. In an endeavour to create new classical repertoire, Ashwini Kalsekar, the classical dancer originally hailing from Nashik, Maharashtra, India, has been developing a new Kathak work over the past six months, and shared the outcomes of this research entitled ‘Mahadeva’.
A documentary film, screened onstage prior to the sharing, gave her and her artistic team a chance to elaborate on the motivation behind this project. Ashwini explained that she wanted to find ‘the truth behind the mythology’; to dig deeper into the stories she had been told as a child and as a dancer, to find her personal connection to them. It was indeed refreshing to know that such an unpretentious curiosity, grounded in the classical form, could be supported by the Arts Council.
Dressed in the same black and gold costume, Archita Kumar, Saloni Saraf and Vidya Patel joined Ashwini to perform a selection of pieces that revolved around the central deity of Shiva. Despite different training backgrounds, the dancers had been brought together to learn Ashwini’s particular movement patterns, and presented much of the work in unison. It was clear that the focus was to be on the actual movement vocabulary, rather than the individual dancers. Despite these efforts to forefront the movement material, one couldn’t help but pay attention to the subtle idiosyncrasies of the dancers on stage, which kept the choreography alive.
Ashwini had also paid careful attention to the spatial design of the ensemble. Each piece contained satisfying trajectories across the stage, with the dancers creating and breaking patterns in their spatial relation to one another. A memorable moment was in the Natya Geet Soham Har Damaroo Baje, which after being danced across a large part of the stage, saw the dancers suddenly join forces in the centre, creating an intensified source of sound from bells and footwork.
A highlight of the evening was a presentation of the mantra Trayambakam Yajamahe, which upturned the usual musical arrangement; the live vocalist was singing centrestage and standing close to Ashwini, who delved into the meaning of the mantra through abhinaya. Both expressing bhakti, they stood close enough to seem like the same devotee.
Archita, Saloni and Vidya took the side-stage positioning of accompanists, providing a rhythmic underpinning to the vocals with a constant score of footwork. This un-layering then re-layering of the kathak form had left one dreaming of more presentations of classical dance in this acapella style. It went down so well with the audience that an encore was loudly requested and delightfully delivered.
This project seemed to be primarily about Ashwini’s development as a classical choreographer, but exuded a sense of artistic community nonetheless. Jaivant Patel and Anusha Subramanyam worked closely with Ashwini as consultant producer and mentor respectively, and other practitioners such as Sujata Banerjee, Urja Thakore and Shivani Sethia were called out to for their support and assistance.
Though Ashwini made a point during the Q&A to praise the UK-based dance education in making the dancers fast learners with high versatility, the dancers in turn emphasised that this project had been a rare opportunity outside of their usual training to increase their grasp of Kathak. There was a palpable sense of joy and optimism in the Watermans Theatre, which was nearly fully sold out.