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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Ancient art modern times
Animated, Autumn 1999. Geetha Upadhyaya's illuminating account of the making of The Selfless Princess - a pioneering collaboration between classical Indian dance and digital art
Doing something different or unusual in life is always exciting, but preserving your identity and traditions alongside is a challenge. I have yearned to present classical Indian dance in a way which is new yet but which would not compromise the integrity of its style and form. The question was: How? Simply adding elements of contemporary technique or other dance forms were not in my equation. I envisaged something that was innovative, interactive and accessible. But I needed someone with which to share my thoughts.

Gerard Deslandes, programme coordinator for photoArts 2000, stepped into the frame, encouraging me to research and develop some initial ideas. He also made me aware of the financial resources needed to launch such an ambitious project. Thus, after considerable reflection and negotiation, the project got the go ahead, receiving support from both Photo 98 (as part of the Year of Photography and Electronic Image and PhotoArts 2000) and Yorkshire Arts Board.

My first task was to look for a digital artist who would be able to engage with my vision, and who understood how classical Indian dance could interact with image. We were exceedingly fortunate to find Thomas Lilse, a distinguished digital artist (responsible for the Stoke Sculpture Court installation). Coincidentally, he possessed considerable knowledge of Indian art and, importantly, empathised with the idea of combining the ancient and modern techniques of these two seemingly distinct artforms. His stunning visuals immediately transported me into another world - I was buzzing with ideas - he was so open to suggestions and eager to collaborate. It was wonderful. After reading several hundred stories over a considerable period of time, we selected an ancient story from Totapari Kahani's Parrot Tales, entitled The Selfless Princess, chosen for its many levels of meaning, and metaphors of a spiritual nature - ideas which would work on a deeper level and through the medium of dance.

Together we planned the outline of the story. Lisle thought that the most realistic virtual environment would be generated by large slide projections; their application in a theatrical context was coincidentally a long-time ambition that he had been harbouring. Furthermore, low resolution slides would make it possible to show a 'cut down version' of the piece in school and community contexts. Video is expensive and unable to capture the magnitude of the South Asian architecture and environments that we had chosen to convey the atmosphere and feeling we required. Interactivity in a linear story is difficult. Virtual reality images are never exact copies of reality, neither do they come under the heading photorealistic painting, rather they could be called synthetic environments, where a whole new set of visual paradigms has developed.

To coalesce with this, I wanted The Selfless Princess to contain elements of pure dance (Nritta) interwoven with mime and expression (Nritya), which I achieved by incorporating strands from three different dance styles - two from southern India and one from the north - rarely seen together in the same performance. They included: Bharata Natyam (from Tamil Nadu) performed by dance artist Sapna Shankar; Mohiniattam (from Kerala), danced by Rashmi Sudhir, community education, health and disability officer at Kala Sangam - both trained in India; Kathak (from northern India) performed by Jaymini Chauhan who trained with Neelima Devi; and folk dancers, Caroline Dainty, Divya Keshani, Kate Lutley and Gillian Wallis.

All forms share common elements of rhythm, hand gestures, mime and expression with differences in certain aspects of movement, such as posture and gait. This fusion would also afford our wide range of able-bodied and disabled, Asian and non-Asian dancers, drawn from the community; as well as audience members, an opportunity to appreciate the similarities and differences between the forms in a subtle way. This was counterbalanced by the mime and expression, or the abhinaya, which was constructed to enable a dynamic interaction between the dancers, and then between them and the audience. This was particularly effective in the sequence when 12 year old Keertia Sampat ran 'sobbing' into the audience and one gentleman consoled her (in itself evidence of active audience participation).

With this dynamic interaction in mind, Krishnamurthy devised a score to suit the slow graceful Mohiniattam, the vigorous rhythm of Kathak juxtaposing it against the exacting style of Bharata Natyam and the flowing movement of the folk dance. Fired by the idea, his composition is reflective of today but underpinned by traditional elements through the use of orthodox instruments fused with a saxophone. The final soundtrack was laid and recorded by London artist, Kulbir Bhamra.

The costuming for the work was complex as some of the scenes necessitated filming in partial darkness as they were set in a dungeon, therefore we created softly coloured ensembles edged with glass to reflect the candlelight. (The candles incidentally, were in themselves ingeniously created by Martin Lutley)

The coming together or fusion of these constituents - ie. the choreography, digital imaging, slides and score - to form a live performance piece, should have occurred at the Alhambra Studios in Bradford. However, during the preview, and to the casts dismay, we discovered that the jewellery box and costumes had been stolen. I was, as the saying goes, in a state of sthitha pragya - Sanskrit for a time when one is neither affected by pain nor pleasure, and accepts things as they come. Events certainly did take a turn for the better when at the premiere, the company received a standing ovation.

The collaborative nature of the project has enabled our art work to reach a wider audience and we are hoping that we can develop the piece into a CD-ROM, as the technology and code exist to make a virtual tour of the buildings and landscapes we created, with a high degree of interactivity. There are few opportunities for such collaborations, particularly ones which enable artists to cross artform boundaries as Lisle was able to. We learnt many lessons, good and bad, but perhaps the most profound was, that it is essential to keep dreaming through pain and pleasure in order to fulfil ones creative intention.

Geetha Upadhyaya, artistic director, Kala Sangam and Thomas Lisle, sculptor and digital artist.

Contact Kala Sangam on +44 (0)1274 223212 and Thomas Lisle on +44 (0)20 79282422 or email .

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001