Classical dance that transcends conventional norms, and becomes relevant to audiences of our times. That’s how Sowgandhika Krishnan & Ensemble blend together the classical with the contemporary in their dance drama productions.

The ISKCON* temple was festooned and decorated with flowers on the occasion of ‘Janmashtami’. There was a steady stream of devotees visiting the temple through the day. Among several events for the day, was a performance by artist Sowgandhika Krishnan and Ensemble. We took our seats together with the rest of the audience in the temple hall to watch the dance ensemble make their Zurich debut of ‘Trinity’.

‘Trinity’, a dance drama, is based on the Hindu deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and their roles as Creator, Preserver and Destroyer. These qualities are presented by artists Sowgandhika Krishnan, Tripti Abhijata, and Suparna Acharya by enacting real life incidents of ordinary people. The artists managed to seamlessly blend together elements of mythology while conveying a social message through the media of Bharatanatyam and theatre and, at the same time, ensuring that a multicultural and multilingual audience stays engaged. And engaged they were – as the performance drew to a close, everyone applauded together resoundingly in appreciation.

Photo of Trinity

Dance joins hands with theatre

Sowgandhika Krishnan is trained in theatre and in the Indian classical dance forms ‘Bharatanatyam’ and ‘Odissi’. She is also trained in Indian Folk Dance, Indian classical music and the ‘Veena’. She and her team of  dancers, musicians and voice artists present some of India’s best known epics using the medium of dance theatre. The dance ensemble weaves together elements from traditional Indian theatre such as Sanskrit theatre, ‘kutiyattam’ theatre and contemporary theatre, as well as dance forms, such as ‘kathakali’ dance drama. All dialogues are in English, making it easier for multicultural audiences to understand.

The costuming too is a mix – Rama and Ravan’s warrior vests have a slightly Indonesian look, Ravan’s crown is inspired by Balinese crowns. Sita’s crown is inspired by the headgear used by Bengali brides. Krishna’s headgear is a turban and not a crown. Some jewellery and costume pieces are also inspired by the ‘Kathakali’ form of dance.

Sowgandhika believes that it is difficult to sustain audience interest when the dancer does not take the trouble to explain the specifics of their performance. “I felt if we combined classical dance with a good story and added dialogues to it, it would be easy to understand and have a better reach.”

Taking a step in this direction, the ensemble debuted with their first production, Kamba Ramayanam, in 2013. The production took three  weeks of writing and one month of rehearsals. The artists, Sowgandhika, Tripti and Dipti decided to opt for a full-fledged play with the three dancer-actors playing multiple roles, instead of a traditional Bharatanatyam performance.  

Picture of Kamba Ramayanam Teaser

Sowgandhika reminisces, “When I put up the first show of the very first production – Kamba Ramayanam, I was charting new territory. We didn’t have elaborate costumes or photographs or flyers like we do today. I didn’t expect more than 20 people to turn up. We had a good 120 to 130 in the audience. Thereafter, till date, we have always had repeat audiences.”

Dance dramas that render traditional stories in a contemporary style

At its core, the dance dramas present stories that are essentially Indian at heart, but adapted in a way that can be relatable. For example, Sowgandhika says, “Krishna in Sarathi (a production based on the Bhagavad Gita) would behave and speak more like a friend talking to you over a cup of tea rather than speak in a more restricted and Godly manner. There is a specific gait which classical dancers use, but we keep it more relaxed”.

In the production, ‘Trinity’, the artists presented real-life instances where the qualities of the mythological Trinity are emulated. For example, the artists presented the story of a pit-based rainwater harvesting system in India. These stories present a challenge, as there are no specific ‘mudras’ associated with them.

Photo of Kambaramayanam Team

From the dancers to the voice artists, a complex array of characters is portrayed in every production. Aniruddha Ghosh gives an example of his role as a voice artist portraying Krishna in the production, ‘Sarathi’, “The character is godly, yet the portrayal has to be that of a friend/guide”, he says, “The emotions include the full spectrum of human feelings”.

Minute attention to detail seems to be paramount, a quality that resonates with every member of the ensemble. “Sowgandhika’s research, eye for detail, her interpretations and her creative way of telling stories through dance and drama, that appeal to even the Western audience is what impresses me the most,” says Ushe Rao who began working with the ensemble around two years ago, handling lights for productions.

Gaining the love of the audience:

Members of the ensemble recount instances of how audiences were moved by the performances.

Dipti Abhilasha, who is trained in Bharatnatayam, Odissi and theatre, and has acted in a couple of movies and short films says, “Switzerland has a small audience for Indian classical dance.  But when well-researched, quality productions are delivered, then the interest is cultivated even within an audience who are not familiar with Indian culture”

Tripti Abhijata recollects instances where older audience members came forward to Sowgandhika and joined their hands saying that they saw an element of God in her. She feels that connecting with the audience at that level is immensely rewarding. She further says, “We believe that the confluence of art, mythology, philosophy and reality that we bring in our shows should expose people to connect with their roots and ask themselves the fundamental questions like what is right, why is it right”.

Saurav Ray, a voice artist with the team, has had expatriate Indians come up and tell him that although they’re familiar with the stories from mythology, they’ve rarely ever seen such productions in all of their years.

Satish Anantharamaiah, voice artist, says, “There was an incident when we played Ramayana in Bern. After the performance, we had this young member of the audience imitating Ravana meditating.”

Photo of the Trinity Team

Looking forward

Sowgandhika Krishnan and Ensemble are currently working on two productions – “One  is a mythological story, but will be presented from our perspective. We also have a present-day element in it,” says Sowgandhika, “The other one is a comedy based on an article I read a couple of years back about people who were declared dead, but were revived through resuscitation attempts by doctors. These people had interesting experiences during the 45 minutes when they were clinically dead.”

Classical dance that transcends conventional norms, and becomes relevant to a range of audience members – from the very young to the elderly – that is the true power of storytelling told through the medium of dance. To know more about upcoming events, you can visit the Facebook page of Sowgandhika Krishnan here.

Photo credits – Balakumar Kaushik, Veeresh Ashinal and Sowgandhika Krishnan and Ensemble

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