There is a moment in rehearsal when dancer-choreographer Swati Mohan begins to resemble a self-help guru. “Fall, fall, don’t be afraid of falling,” she cries out as dancers in black oscillate on their feet and surrender to gravity. “Use the energy of falling to rise. You are in space, look up,” calls Mohan, and the performers lift themselves, inches before collapsing on the floor, to hold a new position.
Mohan, the founder of Delhi-based Danza Performing Arts, and teacher at Gati and the National School of Drama (NSD), is well-known for dance pieces that interpret the effects of socio-political and cultural pressures on the mind and soul. Her latest production, Jaagte Raho: The Clown in Us, to be staged at Epicentre, Gurgaon, on June 11 and 12, attempts to “find a way to lead an aesthetic life”. “Aesthetics is defined as a state when the senses are awake, alive and alert to receive stimuli from outside and respond accordingly,” she adds.
The piece emerged from several experiences that occurred almost simultaneously. Debate over beef and dress codes and the JNU arrests were challenging the character of urban India, she watched Richard Linklater’s animated film called Waking Life (“I would suggest that everybody watch it,” she says) — about a man in a dream who talks to people about the meaning of life, and she heard her neighbourhood watchman beat his wooden truncheon and shout “jaagte raho”.
Jaagte Raho deconstructs the existential scars through eight segments. “The piece opens with ‘Senses’ and makes room for ‘Finding Your Identity’ when one asks the elemental question ‘who am I?’” says Mohan. The third stage is “Fitting In”, when people mould themselves in an effort to belong.
“Sticky Love” comes next, about letting go, “which is the hardest lesson that any human being can learn”. A solution can be found in the next step, “Shenpa”, a deep Buddhist concept about the “hook” or one’s habitual reactions to things that happen around us. The evolutionary graph finally reaches “Humour”, which paves the path for the ultimate act, the “Leap of Faith”, and the final destination called “Higher Ground”.
Throughout the narrative, the chowkidar is a dominant presence, reminding people to stay awake even in their sleep. The other figure is that of the clown, who encapsulates Mohan’s idea of a superior being.
“My work is engaged with spiritual practices and understanding the depth of life. Art helps me to do that. It is a place where you cannot run way, you are completely naked,” she says.
One of her earlier productions, A Sorted Confusion, investigated the “conflict of quiet and chaos” while The Seven Selves is inspired by a Khalil Gibran poem. With Jaagte Raho, she engages with Shenpa. “It is a tough concept. Even in rehearsal, it is not easy. Our whole life is about Shenpa, of recognising it and attempting to release it. It is an attempt to find the pattern in ourselves, break it and find a new self,” says Mohan.
The piece involves 65 dances, of which around 10 are clowns, including Tapasya Dasgupta, an NSD graduate who also plays the violin. “Humour” is performed entirely by clowns, one of who impersonates a dustbin that has Swachh Bharat written on it. In “Fitting In”, a dancer strikes a classical pose around which the other try to “fit in” in the most pedestrian way. Another reference is to mannequins and the idea of perfection.
A powerful scene features six performers with unconventional identities — one is overweight, another has a birthmark running down one side of her body, third is a transgender, there is a homosexual person as well as a man who likes to wear stilettos. “They look different and are completely okay with it. Why is intolerance so high that we cannot accept choices people make?” asks Mohan.
Her style shuns dramatic movements and is drawn from impulses from the dancer’s inner selves. This makes Jaagte Raho one of the most complex pieces she has created. “Sometimes, it is difficult to find lightness in the body because it isn’t there in the mind,” says Mohan. Fortunately, there is always the clown that weaves through the performers as a beacon of hope and an assertion of goodness.