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February 23, 2022

Originality… the courage to dance one’s own dance!

Your originality lies in your courage to be fearless, and in your courage to dance your own dance, writes leading Indian dancer and choreographer Aditi Mangaldas.

I have been living in Goa for the past three months. The last two, of which, brought in the monsoons, awakening each soul and each being. The rejuvenated and nourished earth celebrated the change in season as every little seed came to life trying to find its own place in the sun.

As I now walk down the local street, a small path in the forest or hill, a busy road, or a home grown garden path, I notice foliage all around me. Every little inch of earth, unclaimed by construction, is bursting with vegetation. Unimaginable shades of green and inconceivable shapes of leaves. A leaf is a leaf is a leaf! – and yet it intrigues me and fills me with wonder when I see that every leaf has a different texture, structure and green-hue. Each has a different way that it is connected to the stem and looks up to the sun! Each leaf holds its individuality standing out from the rest. Even the networks of veins, that nourish and pass through it, make it different from the one next to it.

To me this is what originality is about. Something, that we learn from Nature. Something that cannot be replicated or reproduced in its entirety. Every leaf has its own place and its own task set for it. Each has an individuality that cannot be copied or plagiarised or translated or interpreted in any other way. It possesses the quality of being novel and unique.

The same can be applied to creativity as well. Once subjected to conducive environmental factors, the idea, like the tiny seed, germinates and sprouts into an entire living organism that breathes. There is a very definitive but thin line between being inspired and between something that we just cut, copy and paste. To me creativity is that seed, that idea (for us dancers we can call it the movement of the body, mind and heart)into which one pours inspirations from around the world; from human-made things to nature-made creations; from all walks of life; from all forms of sciences and the arts.

Despite all these influences and inspirations, the idea has its own identity and originality. The configuration of that idea and the DNA of that idea is what remain original. Hence, dance that evolves from that seed with inspirations from around the world, is what I consider as original.

But the question then is about the SEED itself! As classical dancers, we are inheritors of an ancient tradition. A living tradition, that has flowed like a river and imbibed from time and Geography. Originality is often compromised when in the name of ‘preserving’ this tradition; we proceed to make the river into a pond. No originality can then emerge as everything is stagnant – unmoving- in contradiction to life itself.

Important to me in the classical dance scenario is that every idea, poetry, text, whatever maybe in one’s imagination- is TRANSFORMED into dance rather than translated. Transformation is such a powerful process – by its very nature, it produces that which is original.

During this artistic journey, I have often wondered at the deep sense of preservation that the bastions of the art form project, dismissing any form of alteration or variation. Attempting to preserve something that is transitioning is like cementing the promenade. It’s akin to damming the river of tradition and converting it into a pond with stagnant water.

Preservation is very often like a nail in the coffin of creativity. What are we preserving? How far in history are we going back? What is it that pre-existing forms say to us today? There is nothing that one can say is completely original, born out of nothing. While seeds carry with them the history and the geography from where they come – they will only come to life if the present, the ‘now’ is favourable.

When I look back at my own body of work and I ask myself if what I have created is new, I am faced with a daunting question. What really is the definition of ‘NEW’? What really is the definition of ‘ORIGINAL? In the words of the great philosopher, J. Krishnamurti ‘Creation is only possible after destruction’. When all thought and the past doesn’t influence the now, then what happens in that now, is what is new. So in this sense, when you don’t let time enter into the creative process, that is when you create something truly new and original.

In other words, when all the senses are aligned – at one moment at one place, completely attuned to each other without any external influences, something new and original is born. This is very esoteric and metaphorical. But it helps one understand that thin but definitive line between the plagiarised and the original. So all influences have to be internalised in the seed – then the seed transforms into a shoot, which is original.

For me as a classical Indian dancer, the dance that I live and embody has come down through the ages. The river of this knowledge has been constantly flowing through thousands of years fed by many great legends who have been influenced by time and the place that they grew up in. In spite of the period that my dance form Kathak* is passing through right now, the source of the river remains the same. So what then can we define as original?

The current reality of the pandemic has had an immense influence on what is now being created. The transformation of the idea of Kathak is inevitable. I have often felt that the river of these great traditional forms, constantly imbibes from the journey it undertakes. Thoughts, ideas, movements, imagination, and everything else we contribute continues to drift along and becomes a part of the narrative that goes into the future. The rest like sediments, sink and settle to the bottom becoming a signpost of where the river had once traversed.

I am often asked what inspires me. Or what has inspired a particular body of work. There are millions of things that inspire me, […]. But I repeatedly return back to the initial germ as an inspiration. It’s been said that no one great art can be ever translated into another great art. Hence I repeat,
‘transformation’ is what is most essential.

Aditi Mangaldas
Indian Dancer & Choreographer

Dance came to me when I was very young and I am so happy that it did because it’s a form of language in which I can communicate the best. Often I ask myself what is authentic. Is there anything like authentic dance? Our lives are governed by movement; the universe is governed by a rhythmic order. Life itself is governed by movement, the rhythm of the breath. So where does authenticity come in and how does work or dance that has its roots in ancient times undergo metamorphism and become an original thought or an original movement. I return to the analogy of the seed.

For me, my dance is not about grafting an apple branch on a papaya tree or picking out a rose and sticking it into a vase because I think it would make the arrangement look complete. It’s more to do with watering that initial seed, that Kathak movement with various inspirations, poetry, imagery, movement possibilities, and letting that proliferate and reach for the sun. That to me would be authentic.

I have been very fortunate to have had two of the greatest living Kathak legends as my Gurus. Learning from them has been a privilege. I am also very fortunate to have a family that is open, liberated and encourages debate and discussion. They encouraged us as children not to take anything for granted; to read our scriptures and ancient texts but not believe that it was all carved in stone. Yet I find that life has been my biggest teacher and inspiration.

Day-to-day things inspire me. I feel that new creative thoughts emerge only and only when there is complete vigour and rigour and immersing yourself in your art. It’s like being pregnant throughout your life. Pregnant with your art form. So every living moment you’re feeding and nourishing that little seed that is growing within you. What you finally give birth to after the long gestation period has a unique identity, not inferior or superior to anything before or after, but just simply unique.

I am often asked what inspires me. Or what has inspired a particular body of work. There are millions of things that inspire me, people; thought processes, poetry, nature, relationships, texts, imagery … the list is endless. But I repeatedly return back to the initial germ as an inspiration. It’s been said that no one great art can be ever translated into another great art. Hence I repeat, ‘transformation’ is what is most essential.

It’s strange how creativity takes germ and thoughts originate in one’s mind. You can’t sit down one day in a studio and say, okay today I will create something that is original. That’s not possible. The miracle happens only when there is complete connectivity between the mind, heart, and body. There is a coming together and the union of the energy of the seed with that of the drop of water. In Sanskrit, we call this harmonious prolific state Sadhana**, dedicated immersed practice.

Practice, that becomes a way of life. Where one is immersed with full vigour, energy and rigour in the process of dance and in my case, the process of Kathak dance. Only then in that scenario, something will trigger an original thought. Strangely there are no limits to what triggers an original thought. Often it happens in the most unexpected of places when you are in the midst of mundane activity, but you are in such a harmonious state of body, mind, and heart that your imagination suddenly takes wing.

“What you finally give birth to after the long gestation period has a unique identity, not inferior or superior to anything before or after, but just simply unique.” Dance Umbrella 2016, Interrupted, Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, Barbican

I have always felt the need to ‘fill… fill… fill’ up with every possible inspiration while one is in rehearsal mode. BUT, never go on to the stage ‘full’. On stage one empties out completely (doesn’t happen every time)  – and then at that moment what happens (if it does) IS ORIGINAL- untouched by anything!

How did I carve a niche for myself? I really don’t know what sets me apart from my peers, if at all it does. I always tell myself to dance with passion and abandon, to dance without any shortcuts, and to let the soil of my existence be fertile. Let it be nourished and bountiful. I also tell myself not to be afraid and dejected if some seeds do not germinate at all. Circumstances change and you may hit a wall … may have years of drought and many seeds may perish. Let disappointments pass. Learn from the failures. Accept the highs and the lows as part of the journey.

Your originality lies in your courage to be fearless, and in your courage to dance your own dance.

Acknowledgement:  With editorial inputs from Sangeeta Rana | Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company  –  The Drishtikon Dance Foundation

*Kathak: One of the forms of Indian classical dance. Its origin is attributed to the travelling bards in ancient northern India.
**Sadhana: A Sanskrit word that denotes a practitioners dedicated commitment to his/ her practice.

Aditi Mangaldas is a leading dancer and choreographer in the classical Indian dance form of Kathak, who is recognised for her artistry, technique, and eloquence. Besides dancing and choreographing classical productions, she has used her knowledge of Kathak to evolve a contemporary dance vocabulary. Aditi has won critical acclaim across the world and was nominated in the category of outstanding performance (classical) by the National Critics Circle Awards 2017 in the UK. She was awarded both the State and National Sangeet Natak Academy Award India, in 2007 and 2013 respectively, both of which she declined to accept due to compelling reasons. Aditi heads the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company – The Drishtikon Dance Foundation. www.aditimangaldasdance.com

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