INSIDE: Natya Dance Theatre Founder and Artistic Director Hema Rajagopalan on the World Premiere of “INAI–The Connection”
I felt that today’s socio-economic environment combined with our greed and need to further ourselves has caused us to literally build barricades in various ways.
These days, it seems much easier to find conflict than it is to find unity. News outlets bombard us with stories of political conflict and social unrest. Social media constantly show us what we are missing out on or the things we lack that could make us a better version of ourselves. Technology has quite literally built walls between us, made of pixels and glass, that have reduced our face to face interactions and affected our ability to communicate with one another. But in the face of all of this hardship, there is a place for us to come together. That place is the theater: home to the artistic pursuits and curiosities of performers who wish to share their thoughts, ideas and innovations with us in a safe space. Away from the screens and constant noise of the outside world, the intimacy of the theater allows audiences to share an experience and creates opportunity for connection, conversation and contemplation.
In Natya Dance Theatre’s upcoming premiere of INAI–The Connection, Artistic Director Hema Rajagopalan invites us into the theater at The Dance Center Columbia College Chicago for an evening of unity, collaboration and barrier-breaking. Since 1974, Natya Dance Theatre has brought audiences together through the art of classical Indian dance. Their critically-acclaimed work, rooted in Bharata Natyam (one of the great classical forms of Indian dance), has been recognized for its “enticing mixture of restraint and abundance” (New York Times). Rajagopalan continues the company’s tradition of cultural exchange by bringing together artists of various backgrounds and traditions in INAI–The Connection, which explores how we can find a deeper connection to ourselves the those that surround us.
DancerMusic Dance Editor Kristi Licera recently had the chance to speak with Natya Dance Theatre Artistic Director Hema Rajagopalan about how she unified the voices of the many artistic collaborators in INAI–The Connection, and how this unique mixture of artists will entice and encourage the audience to open their hearts and minds to the power of unity and community. Here’s what she told us:
I wanted to elicit these issues without actually commenting on them so that the audience could be inspired through the dance and through the interpretations of the lyrics written by profound scholars and sage poets.
Kristi Licera: As the complex socio-economic climate of the world continues to divide and separate us, it can become more and more challenging to find and embrace the things that connect us. The upcoming premiere of INAI—The Connection reinterprets Hindu mythology and theology that emphasizes the connection of all beings in the universe and the importance of overcoming barriers to find oneness. Can you tell us more about the research that you conducted with Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, and how that inspired you to take a new approach to the performance structure of INAI—The Connection?
Hema Rajagopalan: The upcoming premiere of INAI—The Connection explores universal values embedded in Hindu theology, interpreted through poetry written by some Saint poets of 16th to 18th centuries and includes some contemporary poems of 19th century.
Sujatha Vijayaraghavan–a scholar–and I began research a year ago when I introduced the subject of INAI. Her question to me was, “Is INAI about connecting and how to connect with beings? Why is there a need to connect?” I felt that today’s socio-economic environment combined with our greed and need to further ourselves has caused us to literally build barricades in various ways. Whether it is individual (where harmony between two individuals can be disturbed because the barricade of individual egos come into play), between two groups that have different backgrounds or different points of view or between racial or religious groups, these barriers all lead to clashes and disturbances. Most of the time these altercations point us toward the destruction of human values and peace.
Sujatha and I conducted research on these most divisive barriers and what lyrics would voice these concerns.
I wanted to elicit these issues without actually commenting on them so that the audience could be inspired through the dance and through the interpretations of the lyrics written by profound scholars and sage poets. I wanted INAI to be a guide to understanding that the world is one family and that by connecting with all beings and respecting all life, the world will be a better place — happy and prosperous. Every life affects the other; by being selfish and wanting resources only for ourselves, we could be harming others and eventually it will affect us as individuals as well. Take, for example, the toxicity of plastics. Selfishly wanting convenience often leads to the use of plastics, and the pollution it causes is toxic to us.
We have four vignettes with a prologue that explores the barriers between individuals, between racial groups, between religious groups and between lands and countries. Sujatha and I conducted research on these most divisive barriers and what lyrics would voice these concerns. We also have brought in the life story of Mahatma Gandhi, who raised questions as to why one is discriminated against and marginalized and why everyone is not treated equally.
[Astaad Deboo’s] contribution to our movement vocabulary definitely furthers mine, and together we have found a unique quality of visual language…
Kristi: INAI—The Connection includes many artists, including dance pioneer Astad Deboo, world renowned vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan accompanied by eminent musicians from India, jazz saxophonist George Brooks and puppeteer Pawan Wagmare, among others. Can you tell us more about your collaborators and their contributions to INAI—The Connection?
Hema: I am collaborating with dancer and choreographer Astad Deboo, who is a pioneer in Contemporary Indian dance. He has learned Classical Indian dance (Kathak and Kathakali) but performs a very unique, emotional style of dance. We have been working together for the past year and a half, meeting in India twice and in the US once (and will be working together again before the show here in Chicago). His contribution to our movement vocabulary definitely furthers mine, and together we have found a unique quality of visual language which I find very fitting to our project. Astad will be improvising in his style of contemporary dance while I improvise in my style, creating a juxtaposition of movement. There will also be spoken word to enhance the work. His ideas and the way he moves are very different, so he mirrors my movements in a very different way. I do the same with the movement he gives me, and I find this extremely enriching. It expands my art very deeply.
There are a few sections that are set, but a lot that they will improvise — just like Jazz music.
Sikkil Gurucharan ,a very eminent musician is a genius in Carnatic music and brings the quality of improvisations that is necessary for this project to blossom in an organic way. The lyrics will be interpreted by me with expressional dance using gestures, facial expressions and body movements wherein emotions have to first be internalized and then expressed, and that all depends on how the music is being vocalized or interpreted. Gurucharan is excellent musician. We have been working together for a year now, and every time we do a section of INAI it feels different. I am sure all of the performances will feel different each day!
There are many more collaborators involved in INAI. Pawan Waghmare, a puppeteer, will be improvising his movements based on ours. George Brooks, a Jazz Saxophonist from San Francisco, has a lot of experience working with Indian musicians (this will be my second time working with him on a project). He and Charan along with violinist Kalaiarasan (also from India) will create music to go with our dance as we improvise. There are a few sections that are set, but a lot that they will improvise — just like Jazz music. G. Vijayaraghavan, the ace percussionist from India, is a very eminent artist who has been collaborating with me and working with me for over 25 years now. He knows my style of rendition and is creating rhythmic sections that the other dancers and I will be interpreting through our percussive footwork. Finally, I can say costumes are an important factor of any production. Sandhya Raman is creating costumes specific to our project and I am excited to see how they will turn out!
Experience the world premiere of Natya Dance Theatre’s INAI–The Connection Thursday, November 7 through Saturday, November 10 at The Dance Center Columbia College Chicago (306 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60605). All performances begin at 7:30pm. Tickets are available at tickets.colum.edu.
To learn more about Natya Dance Theatre, visit www.natya.com.