It was a nudging phone call from a doctor friend in Melbourne that prompted Palakkad-based Mohiniyattam dancer Methil Devika to create a dance piece with coronavirus as the central theme. She wasn’t very convinced about the idea of merging her very lyrical classical form so steeped in history, with a medical, social and economic calamity that has plagued the world. So she decided to understand the psyche of COVID 19 — the virus itself. The result is ‘Break the Chain‘, a dance piece with a social message.
The performance has her taking the form of coronavirus to tell its story via dance. To represent it musically, Devika took an 18th-century Muthuswamy Dikshitar composition that she had once recorded for a separate production on the Bengal famine. She then danced to the piece in her home studio. Dressed in red and white, as coronavirus, she becomes the demon with wide eyes, with a smirk on her face. With straight and staccato movements and hand gestures, she attempts to create spikes and a crown on the head (the name corona is derived from the idea of a crown in the virus’s microscopic representation). She then becomes the one infected and shows, with her adaavus and abhinaya, how the virus spreads from person to person. She showcases the distress, throat pain, and breathlessness that people afflicted with it feel and how it crosses lands and oceans. Devika concludes with the need to contain the virus and how people can prevent it by washing hands and following social distancing.
View this post on Instagram
poetry and voiceover by Kuldeep Mishra @kuldeepmishra04, received in a WhatsApp forward via @latak.lallantop , did an impromptu choreography to find escape in dance during this time 🌸 . . . . . #Kathak #dancersofinstagram #covid_19 #corona #coronamemes #gocoronago #indiapictures #indiafightscorona #shotononeplus #tiktok #tiktokindia #poetry #poetrycommunity #poetsofinstagram #delhigram
“I wasn’t sure how it would work. But it has,” says Devika in a telephone conversation from Palakkad. She adds that the response has come from all over the world, and the social message in it has been well-received. “Mankind has always been confronted by three kinds of miseries — nature, other caused by the people, and another caused by the self. So if the virus is something that has been caused by nature, one can’t ignore the fact that we have been great contributors to it. What is now important is our response to it. Through this performance, I personify the coronavirus… and how we must collectively respond,” says Devika, before she presents her performance in the video.
After her piece attracted attention online, Kerala Health Minister KK Shailaja, also sent a message. “In this four-minute sequence, she has conveyed a very good message, making her work significant,” she said.
The fact that Devika is trained in Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi and western dance allows her to experiment with alternate spaces of dance where tradition meets the modern and progressive, and where reality and current contexts are a part of the narrative. “I like to break that line. It isn’t about downgrading the art form. It is about upgrading the masses,” says Devika. “If a Mohiniyattam dancer looks at my dance, they will say that this is not Mohiniyattam. But even that’s changing,” she adds.
Around the time Devika was imitating coronavirus, 26-year-old Delhi-based Kathak dancer, Mrinalini, was attempting a dance of hope to the lines Aaj March ka mahina hai aur ek faisla aapko karna hai, in the corridor of the Dwarka building that she lives in. She came across poetry by writer and journalist Kuldeep Mishra and decided to express his voice through a dance form that has its origins in storytelling. To Mishra’s poignant piece, Mrinalini matched expressions and movements and her impromptu piece became a tour de force for hope in extremely difficult times. It was very quick to go viral on social media. “It wasn’t planned at all. My mother, a Kathak dancer herself, received this poem as an audio file on WhatsApp, and she said that since the words are so beautiful why don’t I attempt an abhinaya piece on it. I was home and free. It was Ram Navmi, so I was in a sari already. It took only about an hour,” says Mrinalini, who is a student of Kathak exponent Shovana Narayan.
The video was shot by her mother on a cellphone. “I had put it on Instagram for my friends and hadn’t planned on making it big or anything. As a classical performer, you find your audience only in traditional auditorium spaces, so this is new for me. Plus, I am not a digital person. I don’t put out my videos. After I put this up, my phone exploded with notifications,” says Mrinalini, who adds that Hindi and Bengali literature has always been very prominent in her household. One of the people who got in touch with her was Mishra, who said that his poetry came alive through her dance.
The pieces by Devika and Mrinalini have found a lot of attention online and have now been followed by many dancers. Questions are also being raised about the economic viability of the performing arts at this point, including dance, and its effect on related professionals such as costume designers, make-up artistes, lighting technicians and accompanying musicians, among others. Changing times are calling for a changing tune. And now, several Indian classical dance exponents are attempting to use the current times as their theme, while creating choreographic movements.
Photographer and sarod student Innee Singh has collaborated with his friend and writer Shraddha Singh to create Hum hain saath, which features dancers Vidha Lal (Kathak), Arushi Mudgal (Odissi), Divya Ravi (Bharatanatyam), Divya Goswami (Kathak), Dakshina Vaidyanathan (Bharatanatyam) and Vrinda Chaddha (Odissi). The poetry in Ravinder Pant’s voice, Denge hum ek dusre ka saath, aur hokar rahenge azaad, has Singh’s sarod riff in raag Desh as the background and all the six dancers presenting abhinaya alongside the poetry. “I have been at home for a while due to the lockdown and was keen on creating something. Shraddha had written this lovely poem, and I wanted it to be represented through dance. I contacted and requested a few dancers whom I knew and we created this quite swiftly,” says Singh, who put up the video on social media.
Many senior dancers loved the video but were disappointed as to why more senior dancers were not included. Bharatanatyam dancer Usha RK, director of Jawaharlal Nehru Cultural Centre in Moscow, saw the video and decided to create versions of it with different dancers. “I never thought that something that we created with six dancers will be recreated with so many other dancers. In the case of classical dance, the expressions, the abhinaya, speak to people,” says Singh. One of these includes a piece with Prachee Shah Pandya (Kathak), Swapnokalpa Dasgupta (Odissi) and Sandeep Soparrkar (contemporary), among others, performing in their homes or studios. There is another piece with the same poem, with only male classical dancers, including Sathyanarayana Raju (Bharatanatyam), Murali Mohan Kalvakalva (Kathak), Surya Rao (Kuchipudi) and Pavitra Krishna Bhat (Bharatanatyam).
When New York-based ballet dancer and performer Ashlee Montague stepped out onto Times Square to dance late last month, in a gas mask, her grace and fluidity weren’t lost on the world. It was a reminder of the fact that in the high stakes battle that the entire world is fighting, the arts are fighting alongside; in an attempt to give hope, to tell the world to ‘have faith’, to even prevail.