Work-in-Process

How does a choreographer who wears multiple hats, re-imagine an old work to make it relevant, and extraordinary at the same time? Read on for an interview with Aravinth Kumarasamy, Artistic Director of Nirmanika Re-imagined

As a youngster Aravinth Kumarasamy says he was always very interested in the basics and nuances of architecture; “I travelled – in my pursuit to learn – to many ancient monuments in Asia appreciating their beauty and the many stories each of them hold within them.”

This admiration and appreciation for the world of architecture is really what inspired him to conceptualise a dance production inspired by some of the ancient monuments. Say hello to Nirmanika Re-Imagined that premiered in its new avatar on February 26 and 27, at the Victoria Theatre, Singapore.

Inspired by the architectural marvels of iconic temples of India and the influence beyond into Southeast Asia, this work is an iconic production that provides a deeper understanding about our Indian heritage and culture. Architecture and dance, albeit are two very different disciplines, that share commonalities in process and creation. Choreographers and architects, when creating new bodies of movement or conceptualising building infrastructures, are always posed with the question on how to manipulate space and light to construct new forms. Nirmanika, a dance production which means “architectonics” in Sanskrit, explores the forms and aspects of architecture through de-constructing ancient monuments such as India’s Taj Mahal and Indonesia’s Borobudur Monument through Bharatanatyam techniques such as nritta (movements) and abhinaya (expressions). Collapsing the performance into six segments of dance that elaborates on concepts such as geomancy, space, structure, philosophy, history and form. Nirmanika is ultimately about the beauty of architecture expressed through dance.

In its original form, as envisaged by Neila Sathyalingam, Nirmanika explores some of India’s renowned monuments – Sun Temple (Konark), Meenakshi Temple (Madurai), Brigadeeswara Temple (Tanjore) and the India-inspired Buddhist monument, Borobudur in central Java, Indonesia. In this re-imagined version, the work includes five more monuments representing the five elements – Ekambareswarar Temple (Earth), Srikalahasti Temple (Wind), Arunachaleswarar Temple (Fire), Jambukeswarar Temple (Water) and Chidambaram Nataraja Temple (Ether).

Nirmanika Version 1 was performed with a live music orchestra across the venues in the world. In its new version, Aravinth Kumarasamy, who also composed music for this work, pre-recorded the music with a stellar team of musicians including Carnatic musician, Sikkil Gurucharan from India. While the original costume and accessories as designed by Smt Neila Sathyalingam have been retained, the re-imagined version has an additional costume designed by Mohanapriyan Thavarajah of Apsaras Arts.

Read on for an interview with the Artistic Director of Nirmanika Re-Imagined as he breaks down this work, for us!

Aravinth, do you remember what was the exact moment when you decided you wanted to re-envisage Nirmanika?

During the lockdown in late 2020 and early 2021, I realised that I could use the free time I had on my hands to re-imagine this work by Neila Sathyalingam, as 2022 also marks the production’s 10th anniversary. We had also returned from the Natya Kala Conference (NKC) which was held in late 2019 at the Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai, where we had presented Anjasa, a production, which was created as a sequel to Nirmanika. Anjasa received much acclaim from the dance fraternity gathered at NKC and I thought it would be good for many to see Nirmanika which was where our journey towards exploring architecture and dance really began.

As Artistic Director, how different is it to envisage something from the start vs re-imagining an existing work?

Yes, I must admit this was a daunting task indeed as Nirmanika had already been perfected with so much re-staging across numerous international tours etc. It was hard to envisage how I would edit any of its segments. But the process helped me understand that there is always room for new ideas. And herein was born a new act on the Panchabootha Sthalams. This was created from scratch and I re-worked some of the existing choreographic sequences.

How did you decide what must go, and what must remain? Can you please give us an example?

Most of the acts were retained, and a segment on the great monument, Taj Mahal was completely removed as all the monuments were based and inspired by the Pallava and Chola architecture. In that context, Taj Mahal seemed totally out of place. On one of the international tours, I had added a segment on the Mahabalipuram Pancha Rathas, then again, the other monuments part of production, were all “living” monuments and both Mahabalipuram and Taj Mahal aren’t. Hence, I decided to center the theme around living monuments.

Has Nirmanika also been re-imagined for a different kind of audience? If yes, what is that understanding you bring as its director?

After a decade, I wanted to appeal to another generation of young audiences. As a result, the choreography was infused with a fresh dose of lighting and design. The direction while re-imaging it was to use avant-garde technology without ever losing the aesthetics of the monuments and the art of Bharatanatyam.

As this work’s Artistic Director, how would you break the process of its choreography into parts? And what are they?

As an Artistic Director, one has to visualise the coming together of music, choreography, movement vocabulary and lighting design. Since I conceptualised, composed music and choreographed many of the segments, it was possible to direct this with a holistic view.

You are also this work’s music composer? Did it help that you were part of the original and therefore the work was very close and part of your system?

I learnt from my Manasika Guru, Dr Padma Subrahmanyam on the art of “Seeing Music and Listening to Dance”. This has helped me a great deal to visualise the music and feel the rhythm of the movements and the expressions to choreograph.

We like the title of this work; re-imagined; what does that mean vs re-visited?

Re-imagining means going back to the drawing board without any attachments on the work that has already been done and dusted, in a sense. This attitude of detached-attachment helps to give ample room for creativity and innovation.

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