What came first: the rhythm or the musicality? If Karthika Naïr were to chart her journey towards the arts, she would tell you of her early years in France. She was working in multidisciplinary arts when a job position for a production manager opened up at the Centre National de la Danse and changed her course of life. “Dance called out to me with an immediacy that was hard to ignore. I went on to train as a dance producer and it’s the thing that is most steeped in me. Dance is like oxygen. I wouldn’t say I am an expert at all in music, apart from the fact that my poetry tends to be really metered and that music is an integral part of the choreographers I work with. Actually, I think I am tone-deaf, I can’t carry a tune,” says the Paris-based poet, writer and dance producer, when we meet on a winter’s morning in Delhi, where she is on a brief visit to launch her new volume of poetry, Over and Under Ground: in Paris and Mumbai (Context, Rs 799), a collaborative work with poet Sampurna Chattarji and artists Roshni Vyam and Joëlle Jolivet.
It’s tempting to dismiss Naïr’s contention about musicality as modesty. After all, her acclaimed 2015 work, Until the Lions, a polyphonic rendition of the Mahabharata, is set to become an opera in a year’s time and Naïr, 46, has just finished writing the first draft of the libretto. “It’s a commission from Opéra National du Rhin (a set of opera houses in Strasbourg, Mulhouse and Colmar). The dancers will come from there. It’s being scored by Thierry Pecou, a French composer, and Shobana Jeyasingh, the British-Indian choreographer, is supposed to direct it. It’s the first time that I have been writing a libretto and it’s been quite a delight,” she says.
This, of course, will not be the first time that Naïr’s work will have an artistic makeover. In 2016, Until the Lions, which has gone into its fourth reprint, was adapted for a dance production by British-Bangladeshi choreographer Akram Khan, with whom Naïr collaborates as a writer. Even earlier, she had scripted the award-winning DESH (2011), which Khan performed solo to critical acclaim. Dance, says Naïr, has taught her the potential of synergy, opened her up to the transformative power of collaboration. In between her many hospital visits, owing to a genetic condition called epidermolysis bullosa, it has been dance which has taught her to be wholly alive to the potential of a moment. She’s worked with stalwarts such as Belgo-French choreographer Damien Jalet and Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. With Cherkaoui, she founded the dance company Eastman in 2010, where she continues to work as an adviser. “Most of my bread and butter come from my writing going on stage. So, this is something I do systematically, that is allow it to be transformed. That means also giving them (choreographers) the tools to transform it. So there’s a certain letting go, but there’s also a certain balance between the letting go and a holding fast to the core of what it is that you want to say,” she says.
The ekphrastic nature of the transformation also means that Naïr’s writing — poetry, prose, and for dance — is deeply visceral and reflexive of her immersion in form. “It’s horribly Frankensteinian but it’s really like building a body. So what I do with the words, with the story is to provide the ossature, so it’s a skeletal system, but you don’t see the bones. They will be covered by nerves, muscles, ligaments, and, finally, skin, and that’s all these other things — the music, the dance. You need to be very prepared not to see your words. In dance, generally, the best rule is to keep words only when nothing else can convey a particular emotion,” she says.
In Over and Under Ground: in Paris and Mumbai, too, Naïr’s meticulous absorption of movement and her joy in the working of rhythm seep into the anthology’s architecture. An intimate reflection on urban commute, the book is a collaboration between Mumbai-based poet Chattarji and Naïr, who met at the Kala Ghoda festival in Mumbai in 2016, and decided to work on a project together. Naïr had been jotting down notes from her daily commute on the Paris Metro over the years and when she proposed riffing on travelling on the arterial rail networks of the two metropolises that were home to them, Chattarji agreed readily. The result is a unique illustrated book, where the last line of a poem becomes the opening or final line of the subsequent one by the other poet.
Accompanying them on their excursions were Gond artist Roshni Vyam, who joined Naïr on her train rides in Paris and the French artist Joëlle Jolivet, who took in the bustle of Mumbai’s local trains with Chattarji. As with Until the Lions, where Naïr flits between poetic forms such as the Pashto landay, the Spanish glosa or the Provençal canzone, in Over and Under Ground…, the poets employ a collaborative form known as the renga. “The one thing we were aware of, not maybe immediately, but gradually was how it also relates to the rail network — the idea of shunting, joining and interlocking,” says Naïr. Halfway through the project, they decided to push their experiments with form further. “The first line of the poem that would be sent would need to become the last line of the subsequent poem. So you are working your way backwards. It’s almost like a reverse joining of bogies,” says Naïr.
In the 20 poems in the collection, the two poets deliberate on the bustle of everyday commute, but also on the commuters who make up the sea of people they come across on their rides — tourists and migrants, buskers, children and immigrants. A large part of her segment, says Naïr, shows the arc of her perspectives across time, from when she immigrated to France in 2001 to now, when the immigrant crisis has peaked in Europe — a reflection also on these insecure times. “What has happened in the last year or so is that the taxes haven’t disappeared, the laws have become more stringent and this is not just in France, but across Europe. For instance, refugee organisations now get 45 days to apply for exile, etc., whereas it used to be 90. In 2001, when there wasn’t an immigrant crisis and when I was applying with all the help of state institutions and my privileges, we used to get 90 days. My employers had applied over 120 days in advance and I was still a day away from being an illegal immigrant. I knew French, I was supported by state institutions, but for someone who has none of those support systems, it’s nightmarish just to think about it,” says Naïr, whose next outing will be as a dramaturge on a stage show based on a fable she’s working on. It will be directed as a movement piece by French actor Francoise Gillard from La Comédie-Française theatre.