Innovating Within a Tradition: Leela Dance Collective’s Son of the Wind

Leela Dance Collective in “Son of the Wind” . Photo by Margo Moritz

Girls are lined in single-file rows. Wearing red and beige school uniforms, they yell as they punch the air, one arm forward, the other bent at the elbow with the fist at the waist, in a combination of martial art moves. They are taking part in a self-defense training organized by the New Delhi police following the surge of brutal attacks against girls and women in India. Maria Abi-Habib reports in the New York Times that the attack and death of 23-year-old Jyoti Pandey Singh in a bus in 2012 prompted a public debate about the pervasive and rarely addressed issue of sexual harassment and abuse in India. “It also gave many women the courage to come forward and demand justice in such assaults, rather than suffer in silence, too ashamed to speak up,” Singh writes. Initiatives such as self defense trainings and courses aimed at changing men’s attitude and behavior toward women are on the rise.

Several thousand miles away, in the Bay Area, a group of women are also practicing warrior movements, albeit not for the same self-defense purpose: the members of the Leela Dance Collective are rehearsing their roles in Son of the Wind, a new Kathak dance under the artistic direction of Seibi Lee, Rachna Nivas and Rina Mehta, which is presented at ODC Theater this weekend by the Chhandam School of Kathak. With a different goal than the trainings happening in India, the three senior disciples of the late Pandit Chitresh Das are nevertheless also at work challenging traditional representations of women in Indian culture and empowering female voices through Kathak dance.

One of the classical dances from Northern India, Kathak comes from the word “katha” which means story. The kathakas were storytellers that travelled from village to village in ancient India telling the stories of the great Hindu gods and goddesses. Historically the primary vehicle for storytelling was through dance, music, mime and acting. In modern times the dancer often uses verbal narration to cue audiences and carry them along. Improvisation and interplay between dancers and musicians are at the heart of this dance form, which is characterized by rapid footwork, pirouettes and complex rhythms.

Son of the Wind is the retelling of the Ramayana, one of India’s ancient Sanskrit epic, believed to have been compiled between 400 BCE and 200 CE. Consisting of nearly 24,000 verses, it recounts the struggle of the prince Rama to rescue his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. Its characters have become fundamental archetypes in the Indian cultural consciousness. But Son of the Wind innovates in both content and form. Where traditional retellings of the Ramayana are told from the perspective of the hero Rama, Son the Wind tells the story from the tribal prince Hanuman’s perspective. Beloved in India, Hanuman is the son of the wind god Vayu and most often portrayed in fun and gentle ways.

The tale of Hanuman has been largely unexplored by dancers, because dance dramas, particularly in the Kathak tradition, typically portray the love between men and women: in a production of the Ramayana, the focus would traditionally be on Rama and Sita. “One of the things that we are continuing to do — that our guruji also did — is to push the tradition of Kathak forward and expand the range of types of characters and types of roles that Kathak dancers play,” Metha explained in a recent phone interview. “Having a Kathak dancer be cast in the role of a tribal warrior such as Hanuman is very unusual.”

Lee, Mehta and Nivas are not new to the tale of Sita, Rama and Hanuman. Years ago, they all performed in Sita Haran which was Pandit Chitresh Das’ second exploration of the Ramayana. He had first created a production based on the first segment of the Ramayana, which takes place before Rama was born. “So with this work we are completing the full epic. This is the third segment of the story that we have carried forward and are advancing now that we are the torch bearers of the lineage after our guru’s passing,” Nivas commented.

Before performing Hanuman in Sita Haran, Lee researched her character and found out that there was a whole section of the Ramayana that is hardly ever told. “Hanuman’s role is instrumental in saving the abducted princess Sita from the clutches of the Rakshasa demon King Ravan. We are delving more deeply into this aspect and bringing to light these rarely told episodes from the epic Ramayan,” Lee commented. During their research, the three artists looked at different perspectives of the Ramayana and created a storyboard choosing different episodes to bring the story line together. They also worked closely with musicians from India who had come for a one-week intensive. Every day, in a back and forth between dancers and musicians, they would compose the music and define the composition.

Navigating the balance between tradition and innovation is a value that their teacher instilled in the three artists. “We are very much continuing the principle that classical art has and will always be a living being. It is because it has evolved and responded to its environment that it has been able to survive fifteen hundred years of war, marginalization and relocation to a different continent,” Nivas offered. “Having said that, the deep study that the three of us have undergone for many years of the form in its tradition is what has equipped us to take on a project like this and be able to stay true to the integrity of our training and of the tradition. Pushing the boundaries comes naturally to us because it is grounded in the integrity of the form.”

While shedding light on characters that did not have a voice until now, Lee, Mehta and Nivas are also challenging the form of Kathak. By choosing to emphasize Hanuman and battle scenes that are not traditionally performed, they have had to innovate movement-wise. “We have to prepare and engage in war using traditional composition so we are pushing choreographically in terms of the movement repertoire,” Mehta said. “Because improvisation is at the heart of this tradition, there is an inherent openness that allows us to continuously innovate within.”

Also, while the depiction of Hindu iconography remains visible in modern day Kathak, the tradition of telling epic tales through Kathak has been left behind by most contemporary practitioners of the art form in favor of shorter and more accessible explorations. Son of the Wind is a large-scale dance drama, which is something the three women are particularly proud of: “Our parents’ generation and everyone before grew up hearing these stories, but the newer generation is less aware of them. A lot of folks in this community are eager to have their children hear these stories.”

Another innovation comes with the casting. Traditionally, up until about 70 years ago, most of the dramatic storytelling was done by male dancers and actors. Women have entered the professional stage relatively recently. Lee, Mehta and Nivas are doing this retelling with an all female-cast, casting women in the role of warrior demons, warrior kings, and tribal warriors. “There has always been great female students, dancers and artists in the field of Kathak,” Metha explained. “But we are in a particular historical moment that allows us to be more visible and take more leadership in the tradition. Also, in the field of Indian dance and music, there is a generational change. Our teacher passed away in January 2015. All his contemporaries are passing away before our eyes and passing the torch to new generation of artists. That generational shift at a time when there is a space for female voices makes what we are doing possible and also very meaningful.”

The company that the three women started, rooted in the context of creative collectivity, is another concrete example of that change. As Nivas states, “for us as women, it is quite something to be working together, to be supporting each other, to be celebrating each other successes rather than bringing them down, and to really take on this value of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.”