March 6, 2011

 

British-born choreographer Akram Khan is celebrated internationally for the vitality he brings to cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary expression. His dance language is rooted in his classical Kathak and modern dance training, which continually evolves to communicate ideas that are intelligent, courageous and new. Khan performs his own solos and collaborative works with other artists, and presents ensemble works through Akram Khan Company.

cB: I was excited to find out that you are working on a piece scheduled for the 40th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Independence. Growing up in the UK, how do you relate to Bangladesh’s Liberation Movement – what were some of the stories of the movement that you grew up listening to? How has your Bangladeshi identity evolved over the years and how have you woven this identity into your new piece, if at all?

AK: The ‘Bangladesh’s Liberation Movement’ happened during a period when I was still very young, so I was not aware of the struggle and the sense of patriotism that was deeply rooted in our house, in London. However, my mother did organize performances within the Bangladeshi community events, in which I performed regularly. Actually, I spent most of my childhood dancing short choreographies that portrayed the Harvest dance, the fisherman’s lives, I even danced pieces that reflected patriotic songs, that focused on memories of the language movement that had taken place on 21st February, 1952. 

At the time, I did not understand much about the reason, I just enjoyed being on stage, and moving to music. It is only until recently, that I have started to focus on the events and historical moments, that took place during the transition of the independence of Bangladesh, and thereafter. 

In terms of my identity, well, it is constantly shifting still today. However, I do not feel a deep sense of responsibility to help preserve Bangladeshi culture, or any other culture for that matter, because I wouldn’t know what defined a particular ‘culture’ anymore. I mean, most cultures have been contaminated in some way or another, and I am a ‘byproduct’ of that contaminated culture. So, I would not dare to preserve something that I was never directly part of, even if it is where my roots lie. Don’t get me wrong, my roots are an important part of my history, but my history is not what defines me, it is the present that defines my journey! My history only reminds me of what came before me, even if it is a large part of me. And only now, with the creation of the new piece called ‘DESH’, I am slowly learning about my parents’ culture. But I am only taking a few characters and events that are related to Bangladesh, because in all honesty, there is so much history in such a short time, and such incredible stories, that I will not be able to refer to all. 

And so for the time being, I am focusing, to a small degree, on the Nur Hossain story, and then on one particular fisherman’s story (well, it is a fictional story), and several other characters that are from Bangladesh but now live in the U.K. 

[image: Gnosis; photo credit: Laurent Ziegler]

cB: Your parents are very supportive of your work and it was your mother who enrolled you in dance classes as a child. We all know that the Bangladeshi community is not particularly fond of unconventional career choices. More often than not it is a constant uphill battle for the artist or, any creative person, to try to make our community understand and accept our work.  On the flipside, these are the struggles that make us grow as a person and as an artist. Have you experienced these frustrations and, if so, to what extent have they affected and shaped your perspective as an artist? Do you feel that in some ways they may have even made you a better dancer/choreographer?

AK: I would agree that, by the community not accepting my dance and music as a serious career choice, it pushed me to then fight for what I believed in. Sometimes, when somebody fights for something, there evolves an inner belief in what they are fighting for, that then propels them to be better than what they might have been without that conviction. So, it worked out to my advantage, but I am also at a point now that the only person I have to prove something to, is myself. 

But reflecting back, I must say that there are some people that are ‘dreamers’, and then there are others that are ‘believers’. And I feel that without the believers believing in the dreams of the dreamers, there would be no dream that would come into fruition. So here, I have to thank my parents for being absolute believers, not only in me but also in the arts, particularly my mother. She believed that art transcends and also erodes all borders – borders within religion, within cultures, within education, and more importantly, within oneself. 

However, if I did not have my parents’ blessings, I would not have made it this far. They were and are still crucial to my growth. 

cB: What advice would you give to a young Bangladeshi who wants to pursue an unconventional life?

AK: No comment! 

I suppose my ‘no comment’, is a comment towards the way I feel about the uncertainties of choosing the path towards the unconventional life.  I am not sure what advice I can give, simply because we are all so different, hence, we respond to different challenges differently. It all depends on what those challenges are, and how that person reacts to those challenges. The question is.. ‘How badly do you want it?’ For me, I did not simply want to dance; I ‘had’ to dance! Without it, I would disappear into a statistical number. 

If anything, dance became my identity.

[image: Sacred Monsters; photo credit: Tristram Kenton]

cB: You are known for exploring cross-cultural themes in your choreography – from being influenced by Japanese philosophy and aesthetics to working with the National Ballet of China. Have you considered incorporating Jatra or other traditional dance forms from Bangladesh? It is sad to see the demise of Jatra, which in its current form is so grossly corrupted. Any suggestions on how to start a Jatra performing troupe and take it on an international tour?

AK: I have no idea about how to take ‘Jatra’ further than where it is, since it is not something I embodied as a child, and unfortunately, I know so little about it. To be frank, I become interested in a particular art form, when I recognize something within it, that reflects some part of me, and so a relationship takes place between my body and the art form, and I then move forwards towards learning and researching it. However, I hope I have an opportunity in the future to find that relationship between Jatra and myself.

cB: I was reading about your collaboration with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on ‘Zero Degrees’. In one of Sidi’s interviews, he mentioned that you both drew from your experiences of being raised in Muslim families. Meanwhile your piece ‘Vertical Road’ addresses faith and life after death. What is your audience’s reaction when you bring a spiritual theme to your choreography? In your opinion, how do Muslim artists in the West deal with spirituality and Allah in their work? Is there a major tension or, do they draw positive inspiration from their beliefs?

AK: Most often, we are received well by Muslim audiences, but I would have been able to elaborate in more detail if you asked me after June 2011, since ‘Vertical Road’ will be touring to places like Lebanon, Cairo, and Ramallah in April/May this year. 

I am very excited to learn about how they will respond, and to what they will respond to and why. I feel strongly about spirituality, and so in my humble opinion, what I admire about the notion of ‘spirituality’ is that it is a formless concept, that shifts its definition, depending on who is interpreting and experiencing it. So in ‘Vertical Road’, I wanted to stay true to that… hence, the narrative remains formless…  

Also, I was not so keen with this project to turn it into something too readable for the audience, because in the end, I feel you cannot ‘see’ spirituality, I would like to think that you can only ‘feel’ it. So the same goes with this piece! Its what the audience feel from the images and movements that they witness, rather than the dots that they try to connect to, in order to make it more comprehensible for them to read. Dance is predominantly about feeling something, from what they see, and not reading something from what they see! And so spirituality seemed like an obvious subject. 

[image: Vertical Road; photo credit: Richard Haughton]

cB: Are there any plans to bring the piece with the Bangla text to New York? I would love to see it and am also curious to know what text you are using.

AK: There are some plans that are being discussed that ‘DESH’ will be presented in New Jersey in 2012, which is so close to New York. But its still provisional, and depending on certain dates being available. However, I am extremely excited to embark on this project, even if I don’t know the end destination yet! I suppose the piece feels a little like returning to some place that I may dare to call ‘home’. But in saying that, what is home? 

I always say ‘home’ is a place where you find yourself, even if you find yourself in a foreign land, but then again, sometimes I feel ‘home’ is a place where you have to escape in order to find yourself. So go figure!  I don’t have a definite answer, except the fact that I don’t have a definite answer!

Thank you Akram for taking the time to talk to creativeBangladesh! 

For more information on the Akram Khan Company, please visit their website here.

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CREDITS:
1st photo of Akram Khan is by Laurent Ziegler. All other credits accompany individual images.

Event Gallery (july)

August 1, 2010

New York

LUBNA MARIUM and her troupe
“In Search of Creative Unity Through Dance”
July 18, 2010
Presented by Adhunika Foundation
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
405 West 55th Street (at 9th Avenue), New York, NY 10019

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New York

BIPA – Bangladesh Institute of Performing Arts
Open Air Concert / Live Dance and Musical Performances
July 16, July 23 and August 6, 2010
Athens Square Park
30th Avenue at 30th Street, Astoria, NY

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CREDITS:
photography & editing: Labiba Ali for creativeBangladesh
music: ‘Esho Shyamolo Shundoro (Raag Desh)’ by Srikant Acharya and Rajib Chakrabarty.

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October 4, 2009

 

Muna is a dear friend, whom I met two years ago at a mutual friend’s concert. I am amazed at her repertoire of talents – not only does she have a degree in dance, she proficiently plays the piano, paints, and is a certified Chartered Accountant! I don’t know how she manages to work gruelling hours for Corporate America (PwC to be precise) and organize wonderful fundraising events for Adhunika, a Bangladeshi women’s organization that she is part of. She is a role model for many of us and a celebration of Bangladeshi womanhood. I am very honored to have Muna share her journey with us today. I hope you will be inspired as much as I have been!   Labiba  / creativeBangladesh

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‘NAACHER BHUBONE’ : In the world of Dance – Muna Shams

Although I hail from Bangladesh by ethnicity, I was born, bred and fed in the United Arab Emirates. As I try to bring back memories for this feature, the most distinct facet of my growing years was – we led a content, comfortable, and care-free life. Well, quite different from the four cell phones I juggle with these days! 

Ma worked hard to discipline us. Dad was a physician with the Ministry of Health (and of course, bailed us out from Ma’s censure)! They shared a vision to not only educate us, but also engage my younger sister and me in varied extracurricular activities. We were encouraged to paint, write poetry, take up chess and the recorder in school, sing, dance, participate in elocution contests, play the piano and much more. And the quintessential bit was – they were equally enthusiastic and committed in the process. Ma, having studied music, would come running from the kitchen if I incorrectly played a Rabindra Sangeet on the piano. Dad, with his editorial streak, would spend nights drafting elaborate Bengali essays on various topics for me to study; Ma and I would, of course, later rewrite them in simpler, less grueling prose, much to his disappointment and my delight! (Bangla was a second language in school, our study of which, they pursued with a passion!)  

 First solo performance – Classical dance.

Tagore dance.

Track: Anandadhara Bohichhe Bhubone, set to Raag Malkauns
Artists: Srikant Acharya & Rajib Chakraborty
Lyrics: Rabindranath Tagore
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As both parents were considerably involved in the Bangladeshi cultural scene, I grew to develop a strong affection towards music. Commenced learning Bharatnatyam, Tagore and Bengali Folk dances at an early age, giving my first solo performance at the age of six. One evening, Ma and I attended a show at the Indian Ladies Association in Sharjah. It was there that I decided on the genre of classical dance I was to concentrate on. Six to eight elegant dancers, in magenta silk lehengas performed the most graceful piece I had ever witnessed! The ‘bol’ or the diction of the singers was crisp yet melodious. A dance form – so expressive, yet rhythmic and feisty at the same time! We reached out to the teacher, Dr. Kshama Munshi (interestingly, I recall now, I had been taking Hindi lessons from her at that point in time) and I immediately enrolled to be trained in Kathak. I was blessed with a solid base in this north Indian classical dance form, from a disciple of the renowned Pandit Birju Maharaj, for the next five years.

Kathak – Classical dance.

Track: Danse du Bonheur
Album: The Best of Shakti, with Zakir Hussain and others
Composer: John McLaughlin and Lakshminarayana Shankar 
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Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha meaning story, and katthaka in Sanskrit means ‘he who tells a story’. A Kathak performance follows a progression in tempo from slow to fast, ending with a dramatic climax. A short dance composition is known as a tukra, a longer one as a toda. A popular tukra type is the chakradhar, showcasing signature spins or visually exciting swift pirouettes, which are my personal favorites! Other compositions include the Vandana – opening/an invocation to the gods; Thaat – first composition ending in a statuesque standing pose; Aamad – from the Persian word meaning ‘entry’, the first introduction of spoken rhythmic pattern or bol to the performance; Salaami – a salutation to the audience in the Muslim style; Kavitta toda – a poem set on a time-cycle; Gat – from the word for ‘gait, walk’ showing abstract visually beautiful gaits or scenes from daily life and Tatkar, amongst others – a footwork composition consisting of a long set of bols, ending dramatically on tihai (beats repeated thrice and ending on the first beat of the time-cycle). Aside from the above, the traditional expressive or abhinaya pieces are the bhajan, ghazal or thumri.

A few years down the line, I beheld another performance which presented me with an opportunity to refine and enhance the Kathak dance form that I was currently studying and also to educate myself with Tagore’s works. I thus, came under the guidance of Smt. Ketaki Hazra, or Hazra Aunty, as I lovingly address her. My first role was as Arjun, the male lead in Tagore’s dance drama, Chitrangada. Expressive dancing had not been my forte and I had never performed with live singers/musicians until then. Humbled with the honour of being cast, took the role to heart, chopped off my locks and curled them to a bob! When the tandav nritya or strenuous, vigorous dancing, symbolizing the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction would tire me out, the elders ensured that generous portions of milk and almonds re-energized us! The troupe rehearsed day and night with ample ardor. Dubai has yet to witness a dance drama as memorable as the one Hazra Aunty held in 1994! 

As Arjun in Tagore’s rendition of ‘Chitrangada’.

Track: Shokhi Bhabona Kahare Bole
Artist: V Balsara
Genre: Rabindra-Sangeet 
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Over the years, we performed extensively on Rabindra Nritya Natyas, or dance dramas narrated via prose, song and dance. What intrigued me as I matured into my teens and adult hood, was observing the striking portrayal of women and/or their bold emancipation in Tagore’s works. In Chitrangada – being the only child of the King of Manipur and heir to the throne, Chitringada dresses like a man and is the protector of the land. When she meets Arjun, she falls for him but believes he will never love her the way she is. She requests for a blessing from Madan, the sage (or ‘Love God’ as I like referring to him!) and transforms herself into a beautiful ladylike woman, whom Arjun falls in love with. Later Arjun is impressed by the story of a woman warrior who seems to be his equal when it comes to fighting and longs to meet her. Chitrangada eventually reveals her true self to Arjun. No longer in love with her just for her beauty, Arjun marries Chitrangada. In Shyama – a court dancer by the same name falls in love with a foreign merchant who is falsely imprisoned and faces execution, unless Shyama accepts an admirer’s offer to take the merchant’s place. She ultimately does and in due course loses the foreign merchant’s love and respect. In Chandalika – a girl is ostracized by the society and does not understand the consequences of her birth into a family which is regarded as ‘untouchable‘. Even her shadow is considered inauspicious. A Buddhist monk meets her and asks to pour him some water to drink. She refuses claiming that as a low-caste person she is not supposed to do so. But he insists and takes water from her hands. The event has a lasting impact on her.

The late Bela Arnab, Dean of the Kathak Department at the Rabindrabharati University, Kolkata, India and Keshab Mukerjee, Professor, Percussion at the same University began to visit Dubai to grace our annual live performances. Some unforgettable performances we worked on together were renditions of Wajid Ali Shah and his Court of Dancers, the Ramayana and Tagore’s Bhanushinger Padabali.

As Ravan in an extract from ‘Ramayana’ composed in Kathak.

An opportunity to perform alongside Hariharan, the Indian playback singer, more popularly, one of the Colonial Cousins pioneering Indian fusion music, generated lots of excitement at home! He was releasing his latest album, Kaash, in Dubai and his ghazals, or Urdu poetry, was to be composed to Kathak dance. That was the first time I met Adnan Sami, Pakistani singer, musician, composer, who was also performing at the same show. Recall being absolutely smitten back stage by the talented, down to earth singers!

My last performance in Dubai, prior to moving to New York, was part of the UN World Dance Day celebrations held for the first time in the Emirates in May 2005. Tripti Bhupen, Dubai based Indian classical danseuse and a group of international dancers came together with a program called ‘The Dance of Life’ and ‘Divine Ecstasy’. The program included five styles of Indian dance namely Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathak and Mohini Attam with a glimpse of Manipuri, featuring seven dancers. I did what I felt I could do best – I represented Kathak.

MUNA SHAMS, 2009

Rajasthani folk dance. 

Muna Shams is a professional Chartered Accountant from United Kingdom and a Business Graduate from the University of Wollongong, Australia. She has trained in Piano from the Royal School of Music, London and earned her Bachelor of Music degree in ‘Kathak’ from the Surbharati Sangeet Parishad, All India Board of Art & Music, Kolkata, India in 2001. Muna has been residing in New York since October 2005. 

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CREDITS:
image: all photographs are from MUNA SHAMS’ family album. 
graphic design & layout: Labiba Ali for creativeBangladesh.

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