Updated: Aug 7, 2021
Besides dance and painting, aesthetics and philosophy were my favorite subjects in college. Abstract philosophical ideas appealed greatly to my then 18 year old self. This affinity towards great minds of yore still energizes me. I studied Plato among other western philosophers as an undergraduate student at the Delhi College of Art in New Delhi. At that time I did not imagine that he would revisit me as inspiration for dance.
Almost two decades later my mentor Maya Kulkarni shared her ideas on creating a dance based on Plato's Allegory of the Cave. The allegory is well known among scholars and students of both philosophy and politics. In it Plato establishes the concept of a city-state (i.e. a political entity), and who should ideally govern it. Although it is a visually arresting allegory, one could wonder what might this have to do with dance?! Therein lied both the challenge and the magic. For Maya it was an adventurous plunge in creative imagination. For me it was an echo of sort from the past, and a jolt from years of my own slumber in the comfort of traditional dancing.
Before writing further I want to comment on how Maya (whom I endearingly refer to as 'Mayadi') and I work together. Our close association began over 9 years ago. In these years we shared countless hours in the studio dancing and listening to all kinds of music, conversing about the arts in general, about creating freshness in our work, experimenting with new ways of movement, designing new styles of costumes etc. We deliberated tirelessly on minutiae of dance creation and execution. We equally shared the love of art museums, and marveled at works of painters from Delacroix to Turner, and from V.S. Gaitonde to Anjolie Ela Menon. Creative revelations often dawned on us during meals and late-night conversations. We were both inspired by tradition but fatigued by convention.
With Plato's allegory, the dare of translating a philosophical idea into movement was daunting. We are a team of one choreographer and one dancer. The allegory on the other hand invites one to imagine the dance in a multitude of characters. For instance there are the cave dwellers shackled to their chains, the caravan of shadows on the walls, the protagonist ("The Philosopher King") who breaks away from his tribe and ascends into the light, the outside world inhabited by people, creatures, beings etc. We needed to remain faithful to Plato's intensions and not slip into an archetypal dancer's self-indulgence. Unfazed by these challenges we started working on it in October 2018. It has been a process since of creating distinct ways of movement for some 25 characters, of designing a sound scape that combines Indian classical, folk and Sufi musical traditions, and engaging diverse dance techniques that serve to retell the allegory in an entirely new idiom of dance. There are horses, lovers, birds, deer, tiger, dervishes, old women and idling men in it who carry the narrative. There were several more such characters when we began the work. They were dropped during subsequent editing.
In spite of the challenges or perhaps because of them this dance is dear to me. It became dear over time; like a child that one HAD to adopt. Now I obsess and fuss over it. I have begun to live its characters as though they came from within me. There is a compelling need every day to get on the dance floor and relive the allegory.
Dance is the complete embodiment of an idea and its communication through the body. As the dance grows, so does the dancer. Plato's Allegory of the Cave continues to enrich me both as a dancer, and a person. Both Maya and I look forward to sharing this 40-minute solo as a part of the Drive East festival on August 11, 2020 at 7:30pm (EST).