Aprajita festival: dance for ‘resilience’

Kripa Iyer and Neelambaree Prasad’s virtual festival, Aprajita, is connecting dancers across the globe and redefining what it means to be a community

Around this time last year, the entertainment world was just starting to learn to adapt to lockdowns and going digital. Fans caught Norah Jones and Aventura’s livestreams, while lounging in their beds; large-scale music festivals, including NH7 and Sunburn, went wholly online; and as the pandemic dissolved the concept of ticket kiosks, people got busy building their digital avatars for concerts such as the Zero Music Festival. The competition soon grew fierce: it wasn’t enough to cast events online, the events had to be short, impactful, and engaging.

It was a learning curve, admit London-based Odissi dancers Kripa Iyer and Neelambaree Prasad, organisers of the international dance festival, Aprajita. The three-day event, which opens tomorrow (April 30) — hosted by Nehru Centre, the cultural wing of the High Commission of India in the UK — has nine dancers from around the globe coming together to perform on the theme ‘resilience’.

Contemporary dancer Belinda Roy | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Taking notes in 2020

Iyer and Prasad share a long history — from being childhood friends and dance class buddies in Mumbai to now neighbours in London. In 2018, they co-founded Madhuriya Art House, a dance company that works towards embedding Indian classical dance within London’s cultural scene. The company was on the verge of organising a workshop with Indian classical dancers and ballet dancers in early 2020, when the pandemic threw a spanner in their plans. “It was absolutely heartbreaking,” says Iyer on a Zoom call from London.

Following that disappointment, and the looming nightmare of a pandemic, the two stayed home, watching and sometimes participating in virtual dance festivals, while always taking notes. “Where is the gap? What would be nice for the audiences? What doesn’t work?,” Prasad recalls them asking each other. “It’s hard to engage with the audiences when it’s an online event, and we have sat through discussions that ran on for two hours,” says Iyer.

Mindful of these points, they designed Aprajita where each segment doesn’t exceed 50 minutes and the line-up has variety — punctuating dance sequences with talks on dance science and history, and scheduling performances that are both Indian classical and fusion. They had also observed that most festivals either featured established dancers or the upcoming artistes. They dissolved these categories by incorporating a healthy mix of the two, with headliners including Kutiyattam dancer Kapila Venu and Bharatanatyam artiste Pushkala Gopal MBE (in a fireside chat with professor Ann David, on the Evolution of Classical Indian Dance in the UK).

Bharatanatyam dancer Neha Bhatnagar and saxophonist Phil Scarff | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Rhythms cross borders

The most challenging part was to set the mood, says Prasad. “As artistes, you feed off each others’ energy. That’s not happening because you are not together,” adds Iyer. So they had to find other ways to bring in the festival spirit. Artistes who hadn’t worked with each other before were paired together in the hope that they would “inspire and motivate each other”, says Iyer.

For example, the event features a Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance collaboration between UK-based artistes Pallavi Anand and Belinda Roy, and yet another between Phil Scarff, who plays Hindustani classical music on saxophone, and Bharatanatyam dancer Neha Bhatnagar. If not for the online format, Iyer says, “We wouldn’t have naturally thought about an artiste in the US collaborating with an artiste in Australia.”

The online format has also helped them feature dancers from India. While they always had the plan of flying Indian dancers to perform in London, it never materialised, until now. Aprajita will include performances by Guru Debi Basu and Sanyuktam Arts, Mumbai; Rakesh Sai Babu and Trikayaa dance company, New Delhi; and Kapila Venu, Kerala.

All the dances are recorded by the artistes in “their studios/homes/outdoor locations” and edited by an expert based in Chennai, the duo writes in an email. “The virtual medium is a great equaliser and enabler. In fact, the definition of ‘community’ is no longer just geographical,” says Prasad.

The way forward

“The advantage of being a dancer who is now trying to curate is that you have seen the other side,” says Iyer, adding that when she first did a record, she was terrified — finding the whole experience of dancing in front of a camera quite strange. Though both Iyer and Prasad can’t wait to perform in front of a live audience again, they believe that virtual events are here to stay. Going forward, they believe that any big live event will also have an online angle, the target audience won’t be restricted by their location, and there will be greater possibilities of collaborations across oceans. Aprajita is their way of initiating both artistes and audiences into this new face of culture.

Aprajita, organised by Madhuriya Art House, will be held virtually between April 30 and May 2, 7.30 pm to 9 pm IST, on Facebook Live @nehrucentrelondon

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