Raghav Handa on TWO and the Musician-Dancer Relationship










Recently we sat down with contemporary dancer, choreographer and creator of TWO, Raghav Handa, ahead of the work’s premiere as part of FORM Dance Project’s Dance Bites at Riverside Theatres (18-20 February).

TWO is a show that utilises the principles of classical Indian Kathak. What is your relationship to the artform?

I actually started dancing through Kathak. My mum had bought my sister a ten class pass to dance at a local hall and after a couple of lessons my sister was having none of it. But my mum didn’t want to waste her money so she looked to me and said “okay, you dance instead.” And I loved it!

I remember there were a lot of girls (I was the only boy in the class), and they were all doing the Kathak spins and I had never seen anything more beautiful. I was just enamoured by the spins. I really wanted to dance so I went along for a little bit but my training was cut short because I was growing up and boys aren’t really allowed to dance, so I was taken out of the classes. So I did some years of training but never became a classical dancer, and would never claim to be a classical dancer. I came to my contemporary practice later in life.

How did you conceive of the idea for TWO?

There’s never been a start date for working on TWO necessarily. The piece mostly emerged out of me and my collaborator and virtuosic tabla player Maharshi Raval working together over a period of time. I never thought I would make this piece but over the last couple of years especially I’ve been thinking about the relationship I have with Maharshi and how we can work within the partnership we have in different ways.

So what role does Kathak play in TWO?

In the preparation for the work I’ve been looking at the rules and regulations that exist within the artforms of music, dance and theatricality, in the context of the classical Indian Kathak. When I think about that artform as a tradition, over the years it hasn’t changed dramatically in terms of how it’s conveyed and shared with audiences. There is a definite segregation of spaces as far as the musician and dancer are concerned in a way that is different to Western performance practices. The set-up for the musician is always done in advance and the musician just comes in to play. After the dancer enters and there are certain expectation from the audience about what the dancer will be. Typically they look beautiful and wear make up and a beautiful outfit. When the dancer enters they are warm and have a way of explaining what they are bout to do. From there on, in the traditional way, the performance starts and the dancer would then to-and-fro with the musician, upping the speed and challenging each other a little bit, going through quite complex passages.

There is a complexity in the physicality of Kathak and the virtuosity of the music, and I’ve thought a lot about those things and how they sit within myself and Maharshi’s relationship and our interactions every time we work together.

And as I am an artist in 2021 I’m always asking myself what is something new that I can create. I’m not necessarily looking to democratise or change the way Kathak is looked at through TWO but rather to reimagine or create a form inspired by it for me personally.

Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with Maharshi?

I don’t really use this comparison very often but we are a bit like Laurel and Hardy. Our relationship is not really different to any other relationship that I have and, in saying that, it says a lot. As Maharshi is a musician there are certain rules that exist between him and I in a classical performance context that may not be visible to a lot of people. For example I can’t get changed in front of him, and there are certain things I can’t say in front of him. It would be unthinkable for me to touch his instrument, and for him to enter my space as a dancer.

That  being said, we cannot let go of the fact that I am a contemporary dancer and a choreographer, and at the end of the day I am a pretty out-there person who makes work in a western context where going against the rules of an artform is not a particularly unusual thing. So challenging the rules of classical dance might be quite an easy thing to approach for me, but for Maharshi it may not be given his training and performance practice comes from a very different discipline and perspective. In this way TWO is a very personal work about the two of us, and Kathak is a set of principles we use to explore and understand our personalities and relationship.

What do you want audiences to take from TWO?

I’ll start by saying I have a deep love for Kathak. When you watch it or dance it (and I say that in the knowledge that I have limited physicality when it comes to Kathak), you just really feel like you are being one with something that you cannot describe. And for that reason I don’t want to suggest it is lacking in any way. It would be wrong to suggest that any of the classical forms of Indian dance are completely fixed in time. In India there is already a recognition of contemporary ways of performing classical forms. And really, what is contemporary and what is traditional?

Rather, I think it’s important when they view the work to remember that it’s fundamentally about two people. In TWO I’m creating a physicality and a language as I go along, and that’s my overall aim as an Australian choreographer. Kathak provides us with a set of principles that we can interact with in the pursuit of creating something and exploring our relationship, as dancer and musician.

The audience has to be open enough to view this work as a work of two people from different backgrounds, both culturally in that we’re from different states and don’t speak a common language (our only common language is English), and in our performance backgrounds. If you view the work as a work that is looking at a relationship dynamic; I hope you’ll see that it’s a piece that asks what is it like to make space for others; what is it like to share; what is it like to give up your power and to collaborate. That’s what the main aim for the work is, and it is delivered through Kathak.

I don’t want to say we are updating or modernising Kathak, because who am I to say that when there is a thousand years of history behind it and it’s sacred to some people. To discuss and perform Kathak comes with responsibility and I cannot shy away from that responsibility. But as a contemporary dancer I have to explore new things. I’m not necessarily trying to bastardise or chop up the form of Kathak at all; but rather take the principles and use them to make an entirely new form. To bring these principles into my practice and create a form that is unique to me is something that is I hold very close to my heart.

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TWO plays from 18-20 February at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta.
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