Interview With Mira Kaushik OBE
We are delighted to interview today one of the leading women in South Asian Arts scene in Britain, Ms. Mira Kaushik who has relentlessly, for the past thirty years as part of Akademi, preserved and promoted the classical dance forms of the Indian culture. She is one of the key personalities who is responsible for such a beautiful and seamless integration between the two countries, India and the United Kingdom.
This week, she was featured for the second year in a row amongst ‘100 Most Influential in UK - India Relations’ compiled by India Incorporated.
Born in Belgrade (former Yugoslavia), Mira ji was educated at the University of Delhi, India after which she moved to the UK in 1982 where she coordinated the first Festival of India at the Commonwealth Institute. She went on to work in television as an audience researcher for the BBC World Service and as a freelance researcher working on documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4.
In 1988, she was appointed director of Akademi, formerly known as Academy of Indian Dance and has since taken South Asian arts to hundreds of schools, community centres, theatres and unconventional spaces in the United Kingdom and Europe.
We speak to her about the Akademi, cultural significance of South Asian Dance globally, Akademi’s latest production The Troth, UK-India relations, future projects and more!
Mira Kaushik OBE (Credit - Vipul Sangoi)
Q: Akademi has time and again excelled as a strategic arts development body of global importance, pushing the boundaries of the South Asian dance artform and reaching out to a varied audience, teaching them about the culture and also art appreciation. How does the future look for Indian Classical Performing Arts? Will global influences and the rise of multicultural millennials have a large impact on contemporary performance of Indian classical dance?
A: Akademi is a British organisation that has strived for nearly 40 years to make Classical Indian Dance intrinsic to British creative DNA. A combined strategic approach by us and our contemporaries across the UK has achieved that. Akademi’s mission is to inspire audiences and change lives by creating and nurturing excellence in classical, contemporary, popular and participatory Indian dance. Our current work is created for a range of diverse global audiences with varied demographics, aiming to enhance awareness and appreciation of Indian dance in a contemporary British setting.
We believe that dance is a living entity. In my opinion, the future of Indian classical Performing Arts is as bright as it has been over the last 90 years of its existence. We are beginning to take note of the professional needs of Indian classical dance sector. The classical sector has consistently evolved to adopt the rigour of technique, content and presentation that has enabled it to easily sit within the global professional dance scene and therefore made it more relevant to an ever-evolving wider audience.
I believe that the teaching of any Indian Classical Dance form must be holistically connected to the learning of language, literature, philosophy, music, as well as the modern-day presentation techniques of stage craft. This will ensure that the Guru-disciple tradition and Gurukuls led by individual teachers flourish and the sector will create solid rooted work, that is easily relevant to the aesthetics of the multicultural millennials.
Dakshina (Credit - Simon Richardson)
Q: With a growing global audience, how important do you feel it is for dancers/choreographers to experiment with choreographic works and step out of the strict traditional shadows? How can we ensure that the essence of Indian Classical forms is not diluted?
A: Classical Indian dance is initially a solo activity where dance is learnt, composed and presented by an individual. Over many decades Gurus, dancers or artists have consistently composed dance for the performances at Arangetrams or other cultural events which have been perceived as experiments. Choreography on students is easier in comparison to putting up a professional company and paying everyone to participate in a choreographic project.
In the 20th century, many dance legends globally have carved a niche for themselves by experimenting with the narrative style, which are well documented for the global audiences. Yet some of their work has stayed true to the spirit of classical Indian dance, as it is practiced in the context of mind and body in the contemporary times. I believe that experimentation and interaction with the modern-day realities, including technology is essential to the evolution of any art form. If the intentions and fundamentals are clearly laid, dilution cannot take place.
Q: The Troth, based on Chandradhar Sharma Guleri’s iconic Hindi short story Usne Kaha Tha, is a story of love, loss and sacrifice against the backdrop of the horror and conflict of World War I. Told through dance, music and film it is Akademi’s first theatre show after nearly 20 years of primarily outdoor performances. What made you choose this story, and what was the collaboration process like with Director/Choreographer Gary Clarke?
A: I am from the world of theatre and television, therefore throughout my stint at Akademi I have used my visual experience of street theatre, cinema and literature to shape Akademi’s creative work. When planning for World War I commemorations started in 2012, I remembered Guleri’s Usne Kaha Tha that I had read growing up in India. I tried to inspire my producer friends to create a piece of work based on this story but was unsuccessful. My passion for the story and belief in its relevance to the commemorations made me take up the challenge myself.
While I dreamt of the final product, I wanted to find an appropriate creative output to tell this story in an authentic manner and true to the context of the greatest love story of a soldier. During my research, I happened to watch Gary Clarke’s ‘Coal’ and was completely struck by his compelling handling of the narrative, highly physical and emotionally direct style of choreography, that had a successful track record of critical acclaim from the audiences. I presented the prospect of bringing him on board to Akademi’s board of trustees and a number of artistic colleagues. After going through the process of detailed discussion, we agreed that he was an artist who would bring new perspective to a much-loved Indian story and realise our vision of a living silent film.
To ensure integrity and historical/cultural authenticity, Akademi brought Gary together with a cross-cultural team of artists and advisors, including composer Shri Sriram, Professors Tripurari Sharma and Ashok Bhagat (National School of Drama, Delhi), Dr Santanu Das (Kings College London), Amarjit Chandan (poet) and Jasdeep Singh (National Army Museum). This breadth of expertise helped us achieve an authenticity of the time, place and soul of this period drama.
I am glad that while maintaining the authenticity, we were able to make the piece accessible to a wide audience, including many who do not know of the story. Through this show we reached out to audiences in places like Taunton and Ormskirk, who are not exposed to many South Asian dance companies.
Troth Watermans-35 (Credit - Simon Richardson)
Q: How was your experience touring with The Troth to the Jaipur Literature Festival and other parts of India, for the world premiere early this year?
A: We were anxious to take a British show about an Indian story, to India. We decided to do our World premiere at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Chandradhar Sharma Guleri, the writer, was a resident of that city and ‘Usne Kaha Tha’ is a classic piece of literature known to be the first Hindi short story, so the festival seemed as the apt platform. Hawa Mahal was just the right venue for the show and its beautiful open-air surroundings added a magical touch. The Troth was then performed in New Delhi (Kamani Auditorium), Bhopal (Bharat Bhavan), Jabalpur (Tarang Auditorium), Kurukshetra (Haryana Kala Parishad Multi Art Cultural Centre) and a further on-demand performance at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (for the International Kala Mela). The tour concluded at Rashtrapati Bhavan in the presence of Shri Ram Nath Kovind, President of India, and decorated veterans of Indian Armed Forces.
I and my entire team were overwhelmed by the warm reception with received from the organisers and the audiences in these cities. All our shows were oversubscribed, and our spirits soared high.
The Troth returned to homeland for a UK premiere that took place at Curve, Leicester (two performances, the second of which was filmed for digital release, funded by The Space), followed by a successful tour to Belfast (MAC, presented by ArtsEkta), Taunton (Tacchi Morris Arts Centre), Ormskirk (Edge Hill University), Lancaster (The Dukes) and a London premiere at Southbank Centre’s Alchemy festival.
We are now working towards a summer and autumn tour in the UK and hope to return to more cities in India.
Q: The Troth was produced as part of Reimagine India, and you were involved with different organizations like the Arts Council, the British Council, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and its London base the Nehru Centre, the Indian Ministry of Culture and the British army, among others during its production. Was it difficult liaising with so many different stakeholders. Were they involved in the creative process too? And how did you manage to strike a balance between creative aesthetics and (giving in to) mass appeal, if any?
A: It was the biggest challenge of my lifetime to deal with so many stakeholders, including international ones, in one project but that is what made it even more exciting. The fact that such large organisations believed in our vision and agreed to support us was very humbling. But with large establishments come numerous levels of processes and protocols. I am glad that I had the best team led by Tim Foxon to support and guide me while I tried to navigate the system.
Creation was an entirely internal process led by the Akademi team, fronted by me to all the stakeholders. The ambition was to tell the story in the most authentic manner. We wanted to create an accessible show, which transcended continents and touched the hearts of those who saw it, giving this story a voice.
Troth Watermans-57 (Credit - Simon Richardson)
Q: Akademi works with autistic children showing how dance can help them express themselves, and also with dementia patients who find joy in the movement. With programmes such as ‘Dance Well’, ‘Reach Out and Reveal’, how has the experience been so far and what other efforts we can see towards Dance Movement Therapy? How can people contribute towards this effort?
A: Our learning and participation projects work with young people with autism (Reach out and Reveal) and older adults with long term health conditions (Dance Well), however there are many similarities in the approach and benefits of the two programmes. In both groups we have seen a positive impact on mental and emotional wellbeing as well as benefits to fine motor skills. There have also been clear benefits to physical health including balance, strength and coordination.
Throughout these programmes, Akademi’s dance artists have developed a movement vocabulary inspired by South Asian dance forms including Kathak, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi and Bollywood; incorporating storytelling and rhythm into the workshops. This brings the joy and playfulness of South Asian dance to both programmes and is a tool for engaging both children and older adults – including those living with dementia.
Looking to the future, we hope to equip and encourage more South Asian dance artists to deliver workshops in the community so that they can use their dance form as a tool for enhancing mental and physical health and wellbeing. Artists can contribute by growing their own knowledge and skills in this area through continued professional development. Akademi provides resources to aid in this development including books, educational videos and training symposiums for dance teachers willing to work in these settings. Anyone can contribute to this development by advocating for dance for health, specifically in South Asian dance. They can use their voice to create awareness about the benefits that dance can bring to everyone, irrespective of their abilities and background.
Q: Tell us more about your artist development plans. What can we expect and what are the other projects in the pipeline?
A: Akademi aims to continue to play its part in building more sustainable career pathways and leadership for South Asian dance artists. We have a refreshed suite of development opportunities as Akademi begins a new phase of Arts Council England funded activity.
Building on previous successful artist development projects, such as NAVODIT, DAREDEVAS, UTKARSH and CHOREOGATA, the new programme follows detailed evaluation and sector consultation and aims to respond directly to the needs and ambitions of dance artists. Akademi began this new phase of work in April with a day of auditions, offering dancers the chance to receive feedback from experienced performers and providing a pathway into employment and development opportunities with Akademi. In the forthcoming years, the programme will include -
NAVADAL: a biennial youth dance competition, offering a platform for the most talented young dancers, with opportunities to connect with the wider dance sector.
NAVODIT: bespoke support for emerging dancers who are committed to developing their performance skills.
DAREDEVAS: enabling established artists to create and showcase unique performances through collaboration with live musicians. This project aims to create viable touring work and will build new venue partnerships to take it to a wider audience.
Choreographic development: unique residencies and workshops with leading choreographers from diverse traditions, offering practical and theoretical training to aspiring South Asian dance choreographers, tailored to the context and traditions of Indian classical dance.
Specialist training: training and guidance for South Asian dance artists to develop their practice in educational and community settings – including unique shadowing and mentorship opportunities. Creating learning and training resources that they can use.
Additionally, it is Akademi’s 40th anniversary in 2019 and we will have a particular focus on classical dance. We will also use this moment to celebrate the breadth of Akademi's work by highlighting excellence in South Asian dance and celebrating the work of dancers of different generations who have shaped Akademi during its 40 years of existence.
Thank you Mira ji for your time and this insightful interview. Wishing you and the entire team at Akademi continued success in your future endeavours.
Akademi is the UK's leading producer of South Asian dance. Their international dance theatre production The Troth will visit the Edinburgh Fringe this August for a two-week run presented by Army @ The Fringe in association with Summerhall.
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