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Bharatnatyam meets the Bard

Freya Savla, a student at the BD Somani International School in Mumbai, tells us about creating a classical Indian dance inspired by Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra which will be performed here on the 17th and 20th June at Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Indian classical dance

If I said, ‘Shakespeare’, a series of images would immediately appear in your head: his long plays, the impossible language, famous characters you’ve perhaps heard of, and most definitely: ‘Why do we still study Shakespeare, it’s so old!’ And if I then said ‘Indian Classical Dance,’ you’d have a host of different images: probably the elaborate costumes you’ve seen somewhere, the explosion of colour, the dancers themselves, performing a series of complicated steps you’ve never understood, and you’d make a face and wonder what relation those words could possibly have. The one thing I never thought I’d hear associated with the word Shakespeare were the words ‘Indian Classical Dance’: which proves, once again, Shakespeare’s resilient ability to be found simply everywhere, his defiant refusal to be forgotten.

When I was told we would be performing one of his plays in the form of a classical dance, my first reaction was complete surprise and disbelief. The same as yours, probably. And yet, reflecting back on it, it has been one of the most transformative, if not strangest experiences I’ve ever had.

The most difficult part was definitely the beginning, because it demanded a complete shift of perspective: from viewing Antony and Cleopatra as a play, to Antony and Cleopatra as a classical dance. One of Shakespeare’s most distinct elements is his use of meter in his plays. We’re all well acquainted with the famous ‘Iambic Pentameter.’ The task before us was to convey this story without dialogue at all: to somehow find the essence of the play, the soul, and express it through a series of steps.

The process began with editing the script to reach the basic outline for our dance, and deciding the songs we would use. It consisted of reducing the script, not to the most signifiant or the turning points of the play, but to the most dramatic, most expressive scenes. We were constantly asking ourselves, ‘Can we dance this particular scene?’ An Indian classical dance is an amalgamation of a story and the emotion with which a story is conveyed. The most simple acts are heightened, exaggerated with a series of details: eye movements, head movements, the mudras (hand gestures), our footwork, to imbibe every action with some significance.

When we began choreographing our steps, I think the greatest challenge for me, as an actor, as a dancer, as a person, was finding Cleopatra. Who was she? Was she the character Shakespeare wrote, or the character that I was dancing? The entire process reflected a conflict in me, culturally, as well as personally. Bharatnatyam, on of the Indian classical dances, is something I’ve grown up doing. It has strong roots in Indian culture and tradition, that has shaped the pride I have for my country and its heritage. Looking at Shakespeare in Bharatnatyam was a way of broadening my perspective to the influence that British culture has had on India, and indirectly on all of us, as individuals. We’ve grown up in a country where these conflicting cultures are a part of who we are, whether we choose to accept it or not. It’s reflected in our language, our clothes, our tastes in music and books. Rather than undermine the importance of Indian culture, this process, of playing Cleopatra through Bharatnatyam, has given me a newfound respect and pride of simply being Indian, and appreciating the contrasting elements that define an Indian identity.

The entire journey was, undeniably, extremely challenging. We had to choreograph steps that followed the story and were simultaneously in line with the conventions of classical dance. Our expressions had to be exaggerated to the extent that they elevated our non vocal actions, and added to the vibrancy and beauty of the dance. Our dance consists of a fusion of Kathak, Bharatnatyam and Odissi, which together portray the story of Antony and Cleopatra, with the tangible emotion that is characteristic of a classical dance. 

Visitors to Shakespeare's Birthplace on 17th and 20th of June 2017 can see the students perform their dance in the Marble Hall, at 12.30pm on the 17th and 1pm on the 20th. This is part of our Crossing Borders programme for 2017.