Updated: November 27, 2014 1:04:30 pm
Daksha Sheth’s earliest memory of the sari is from her schooling days in Ahmedabad. As part of a textile class, Sheth recalls how she was taught to separate cotton pods, how to card and comb cotton, spin the yarn and finally dye the finished sari. These childhood memories of running the soft handmade fabric through her fingers came flooding back when author Rta Kapur Chishti approached the dancer to adapt her latest book, Saris: Tradition and Beyond, into a dance production.
“Initially I was skeptical. The Indian sari was too elaborate a concept to work on. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the 30 years Rta had spent researching for her books,” Sheth says, “But I realised being a woman and a dancer, I was already involved with the sari. Plus, the abstraction of the sari is almost lyrical. It held the promise of dance.”
Over five years, Sheth and Chishti created a story for Sari, which traces the journey of the handmade cotton sari — from the germination of the seed to the various processes the fiber undergoes before it is ready to be draped — through contemporary dance. The production by the Daksha Sheth Dance Company will premiere on November 30 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Nariman Point. The production is an unusual choice for NCPA’s contemporary dance season, says Swapnokalpa Dasgupta, Head of Dance at NCPA.
“Usually a dancer talks about the choreography, but Daksha and Rta were concerned about drawing attention to plight of the weavers in India. It was a cry for help for their livelihood. Having said that, they have done a stunning job of integrating the movement and grace of the sari into a contemporary dance setting,” says Dasgupta.
The work for the 90-minute production began in 2005. “We set off in search of the oldest weaves and their makers: Chanderis from Madhya Pradesh, Paithanis from Maharashtra, Batiks from West Bengal and the Bandhanis from Rajasthan. We stayed with the weavers, studied their techniques and learnt the differences in their processes,” says Sheth. These interactions helped them hem the production together. For instance, they learnt that weavers do not use any instruments for measurements — the distance between the stretched hand and the body fills this gap. “That is why a sari by two different weavers will never be the same,” she explains, saying the relationship between a weaver and the body then became relevant to the production.
With a brief for the show ready, Sheth pulled together a team of 10 dancers. The choreography is a combination of the dance forms she’s trained in: kathak, Mayurbhanj chhau and kalaripayattu. “In stillness or in motion, when draped, the sari never stays in place — it swishes and sways. We have tried to imitate this dramatic movement through dance. Also, being an unstitched garment, there is beauty in its simplicity that we wanted to bring to the stage,” she says.
The music for the production, composed by Sheth’s husband Devissaro, comes from the homes of the weavers too. “We documented weavers working on their looms on video. The characteristic shuttle sound of the looms has been captured and the dancers move to its rhythmic beats. Kabir’s poetry has also been interwoven into the music in the form of a cappella. Also, a video plays in the background and the dancers moves match the weaving process shown on it,” he says.
The weavers’ stories also find a place in the production. “The weavers would often tell me stories of how they were forced to burn their looms as firewood because people prefer buying machine-made sari which costs less than the traditional handwoven variety. With every loom burnt, a part of our heritage is disappearing. One sari is a coming together of hundreds of years of practice and technique,” she says, “So after this show, even if one person goes back and purchases a hand-made sari, we’ve done our job.”
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