Keeping on His Toes: Dancer Performs Indian Dance at Music Academy

Hari Krishman, dance artist in residence, presented a lecture demonstration on South Indian Court dance and the grandeur of the Tanjavur Quartet in India Dec. 31. (Photo by Cylla von Tiedmann)
Posted 12/19/05
Q: Hari, when did you come to Wesleyan as an artist in residence in dance?

A: July 1, 2001. I teach courses on not only traditional Bharatanatyam dance technique but also lecture on the post colonial experience as well as on the global contemporary manifestations of the South Asian dance. Bharatanatyam is the classical dance from South India. Bharatanatyam historically evolved in the royal city of Tanjavur, South India in the nineteenth century. The grounded technique of Bharatanatyam dance or abstract dance is based on principles of symmetry, geometry and precision. The abhinaya or mime is based on a highly sophisticated integration of hand gestures, text, music and subtly of facial expression.

Q: What are your thoughts on the Wesleyan students?

A: I have, and continue to have, a truly enriching experience teaching this form at Wesleyan in both its classical and contemporary contexts. The students are extremely bright and hardworking. They are my source of inspiration. I always try to bring an exciting intellectual and artistic curiosity, exploration and adventure into my class.

Q: You recently performed at The Music Academy, one of India’s premiere dance and music institutions Dec. 31. What did you do there?

A: I performed and gave a lecture demonstration on South Indian Court dance and the grandeur of the Tanjavur Quartet, the 19th century codifiers of Bharatanatyam dance as we know it now.

Q: Who do you study under?

A: One of my teachers is Guru Gopalakrishnan Pillai. He comes form India’s most distinguished family of hereditary Bharatanatyam teachers. Gopalakrishnan received training the hereditary technique and repertoire of the Tanjavur Quartet. For many years, he taught music and dance in Bangalore. For a past several years, he has lived in Chennai, where he provides master-classes in Tanjavur Quartet repertoire at Tapasya Kala Sampradaya. After death of my primary teacher Kittapa Pillai in 1999, I continue to train under Gopalakrishnan Pillai. He is being given the prestigious TTK award and the Music Academy has given me the rare honor of dancing his family’s legacy.

Q: What other awards have you received?

A: I have been the recipient of several choreographic grants from various arts councils such as The Canada Council for the Arts, The Laidlaw Foundation, The MSR Arts Foundation, The Ontario Arts Council and The Toronto Arts Council. I was also nominated for the 2002 Bonnie Bird North American Choreography Award instituted by The Laban Centre in London. In 2001, I was invited by the University of Minnesota as the Sage Cowles Land Grant Chair to create a work on the dance department. I am also regularly invited to conduct master classes in technique, repertoire, history and theory at institutions and conservatories in various parts of North America and Asia.

Q: Where else in the world have you performed, taught or choreographed?

A: My earliest choreography was presented in Singapore in 1988. It continues to draw critical acclaim in Canada, the United States of America, India, Malaysia and Singapore. My choreography has been featured by dancers of Indian, Modern, Malay, Indonesian, Chinese and Ballet disciplines. In 1997, I was also the first Canadian dancer to have been commissioned to mount a piece on a dance company in India. My choreography has been featured in several festivals and venues including the Singapore International Festival of Arts, Danceworks Mainstage, The Can-Asian International Dance Festival, Kalanidhi Dance Festival in Toronto, Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Quebec, the University of Minnesota, St. Mark’s Dance Space in New York, Rubin Museum of Art in New York and Tangente in Montreal.

Q: Is Bharatanatyam a rare, specialized dance or is it recognized most places you travel and perform?

A: Based on my experiences, Bharatanatyam, when properly taught or presented, has the unique ability to cut across cultural, social, religious and political barriers making it a truly universal dance. Its ability to be simultaneously classical and contemporary makes it apealing for a western student of dance to enter the form with ease and comfort. I always feel for any classical artform to be relevant, the student has to have an informed comprehension of the context of the form, its indigenous development as well as it global manifestation in both its source country as well as in the Diaspora. I feel fortunate to be in a unique place to be a practioner of both classical and experimental Bharatanatyam.

Q: Do you enjoy dancing or teaching more?

A: I equally enjoy performing, choreographing, teaching and researching. I try and bring a holistic approach to my art.

Q: What do your dances represent?

A: Over the past 10 years, I have been creating a unique dance language that expresses my unique Canadian/Indian/Singaporean identity. In South India, there are female courtesans known as devadasis, males from the royal house used to learn dance from the male dance masters called nattuvanars. My representations of devadasi repertoire are thus stylized abstractions that call attention to the language of desire, eroticism and love once spoken by devadasi women, and today silenced by their disappearance. I have studied the devadasi community for over a decade, and over the years have integrated their aesthetic sensibilities and abstraction of human feelings into my own performances. Adhering to this tradition, as a male dancer, I sometimes interpret female roles. The Bharatanatyam dancer today, irrespective of gender, fluidly interprets these universal feelings in an almost androgynous trans-gendered manner and has a responsibility to continue maintaining the dignity and integrity of this great tradition.

Q: Where did you receive your degrees and in what?

A: I hold a bachelor’s of arts degree in linguistics and Asian studies from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, a master’s degree in religion and philosophy from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg and finally a master’s of arts degree in dance from York University in Toronto. My modern dance training includes classes with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the School of Toronto Dance Theatre and the Singapore Ballet Academy.

Q: What are some of your current projects?

A: I am at present working with Canadian modern dance legend Margie Gillis who is creating a solo for me to be premiering in 2006-7. I am constantly working with internationally respected choreographers. My research areas include colonialism, post-colonialism and Indian dance, globalization and the arts of India, modernism in Bharatanatyam and the history of devadasi dance traditions in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh, South India. I conduct ethnographic fieldwork on a regular basis in South India, with a particular focus on the Tanjavur, Cudappah, Madurai and Pudukottai districts in Tamil Nadu, and the Krishna, East Godavari and West Godavari districts in Andhra Pradesh. My research brings together several interpretive and theoretical approaches, as it integrates the disciplines of performance studies, anthropology, history and gender studies.

Q: Tell me about the Toronto-based dance company inDANCE.

A: inDANCE, is my company. It is a South Asian dance company established in 1999 as a vehicle to encompass the entire range of my creative output: choreography, performance, touring and teaching. The primary mandate of inDANCE is to form creative partnerships with Canadian and international collaborators, including choreographers, dancers, musicians, designers, scholars and presenters. I am always commuting back and forth between Toronto and Middletown in addition to my international engagements.

Q: Do you have a significant other and family?

A: My partner and soul-mate Rex who is an interior and costume designer, continues to inspire and fuel all my creative and artistic endeavors. He is also my harshest and most constructive critic which makes me the luckiest dance artist in whole world! My two nephews Sanjay and Kirin are my pride and joy and I am extremely attached to them.

Q: What other activities do you enjoy?

A: I am a movie buff, watching a plethora of films, from art movies to commercial cinema. I loved the recent Harry Potter movie as well as the brilliant adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.” I cannot wait for Peter Jackson’s “King Kong!” I am constantly drawn to contemporary pop culture, which I always bring to my art. I feel this makes my art relevant and accessible and for me that is extremely important. I never want my art to become a stagnant museum showpiece – that is dangerous for any artist.

By Olivia Drake, The Wesleyan Connection editor