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Dance

Where have all the flower pots gone?

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They've disappeared because Aditi Mangaldas' refined Kathak aesthetic has no place for tackiness.

You could freeze any moment from an Aditi Mangaldas Kathak piece and hang it on the wall as fine art. The dancing is refined and sharp, the costumes are elegant, and the lighting nuanced. Superb art pieces are used as stage props. No flower pots, no cardboard cut-outs of temple arches and certainly no banners declaring the address of the sponsors.

There is no denying that in a dance form that, unlike other classical styles, has yet to evolve its own performance aesthetic, Mangaldas is always eminently watchable. So how picky is she? Very, she admits with a chuckle. For weeks she has been hard at work at her Sainik Farms studio "picking", tweaking and refining her two celebrated productions - Timeless and Uncharted Seas - for the Edinburgh International Arts Festival later this month.

Mangaldas invests considerable energy and resources towards ensuring that production standards are impeccable. The costumes for Timeless, which is a contemporary piece, have been fashioned by Japanese costumier Kimie Nakano, and the lighting is by Fabiana Piccioli. Sander Looner has done the lighting in Uncharted Seas. The music is by Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan. You rarely see this scale of ambitious backstage work going into dance productions in classical dance in India, and certainly not in Kathak.

"We have to relearn how to recreate the magic of presenting classical dances, " Mangaldas says. "Historically, they were performed first in temples and then in courts. Both these spaces were dramatic, beautiful. The temples had grandeur - the pillars, the arches, they lent so much ethereal drama to dance. Imagine, the lighting came from the moonlight or the mashals (flaming torches). The courts were a magnificent set - the white marble, the light, the candelabras, the glass. If we try to mimic those natural light effects it looks awful. "

The problem is in trying to recreate the majesty of courts and temples on stage - tacky styrofoam domes, cardboard arches, net drapes and diyas don't quite cut it. "And flower pots, don't forget the flower pots, " says an exasperated Mangaldas. "What is with the flower pots? Does the dance demand it? I remember Kumudiniji (Lakhia) my guru using flowers as props when we danced as five-year-olds. But for adult dancers?" One of her abiding memories is of dancing at Khajuraho against the great temples with a cardboard Khajuraho stuck behind her on stage.

As for costumes, the problem of performance aesthetics is particularly sharp in Kathak where there are no set rules. Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Manipuri, Kathakali - all these systems have clearly defined parameters for costumes and jewellery. "The good thing about an open-ended form is that it allows for amazing spontaneity but the problem is that anything goes - Hyderabadi, Avadhi, Lakhnavi, velvet, satin, tinsel, silk, " she says. "I even recall a dancer who wore a costume that looked like it was made of silver varak. "

She knows her finickiness isn't winning her too many friends among organisers and production teams. "So I ask for an empty stage. Give me the minimum and I will work with it, " she says. So how does she manage in mofussil towns where more is usually better? "I can adapt, adjust. Give me five lights and I will work with them, but give me a clear stage with no posters (some of which come with addresses and registration numbers), flowers or diyas. " The list she sends ahead of her performance to organisers is usually ignored. "When I am told, 'sab kucch mil jayega, aajaeye, ' I know I am in for trouble, " she jokes.

But beyond the meticulous planning, there is for Mangaldas the challenge of staging a contemporary dance piece for Western audiences who have a preference for the classical arts. Why not stick to classical Kathak? "Indian dances have got stuck with this image of being fantastic and spiritual. But I also find that the response to contemporary Indian dance is much more immediate, " she says, pointing to a similar effort by London Kathak dancer and choreographer Akram Khan. "Besides, my contemporary dance is not rooted in contemporary sources as is the case with Western dance, it is rooted in Kathak. "

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