LataPadaHeadShot2Carol Anderson: Lata Pada has many associations with York. She holds a Masters in Dance, and is a member of the Dean's Advisory Committee for Fine Arts. A Bharatanatyam artist extraordinaire, she is Artistic Director of Mississauga-based Sampradaya Dance Creations. Sampradaya is very busy, as a community centre, as well as a school and home for her company. Lata is deeply engaged with choreography and dancing. She and her company and school respect traditions of classical Indian dance, and simultaneously explore what it means to be contemporary – investigating the dimensions of Bharatanatyam as a contemporary dance form. Lata will speak to us today about her work in the choreographic process, and has brought examples of the various works she has created.

Lata Pada: It's wonderful to be here again; York is my second home. I've spent many years here during my MA and, as Carol said, have been associated with the Dean's Fine Arts Advisory Committee. I keep coming back for every and any reason, so I was delighted when Carol asked me to come speak to you. An hour is quite short in terms of telling you a little about the context of the art form that I work with and it is important to know that to understand my own choreographic journey and my own voice.

The form that I have studied for over 40 years is called Bharatanatyam and it is a classical dance form that emerged from South India. It is one of eight classical dance forms in India and they are very diverse – extremely different in movement syntax depending on the part of India from where they emerged. But Bharatanatyam has by far been the one that has been most widely taught and performed, and has truly become a global art form. I believe in that very strongly, and part of my vision has been to promote Bharatanatyam as a global art form; I will come back to the reasons why I feel so strongly about that.

There is evidence that Bharatanatyam has been practiced, in one form or another, for over 2000 years. I'd hate to use the word “antiquated” because that immediately puts the form within a particular box of exotica, which I don't believe it is – but truly the form has evolved from a very, very old source. We have records that talk about the principles of the movement of this art form, but only in its recent manifestation of over 300 years ago. (In India we refer to anything 300 years old as recent because it is a country with such an incredibly long civilization.) Bharatanatyam became part of temple ritual as a form and expression of worship. In Hinduism it is believed that dance is one of sixteen forms of worship, the others being singing the praises, the rituals of offering – offering flowers, offering lit camphor and incense and so on – and dance was one of them.

The interesting thing about Bharatanatyam was that it was only practiced by a select group of people and by the women in that community. So you have to be from that particular socio-economic cultural community, in South India, to practice dance because that was a privilege that was apportioned to this group. The men in those families were the teachers, and the conductors, and the composers, and the choreographers of dance. And the women? Their role was primarily to perform the dance as ritual; it was never intended to be entertainment.

Fast forward to about 100 years ago. There was a decline in temple dancing as a societal phenomenon because there was some degree of stigma attached to temple dancing. That is a long history, something you can easily research; I won't go into that today because that will take me off on another tangent. But, it was a combination of the British being in India with their very Victorian attitudes, plus some social reformers who did not appreciate dance in the temples.

I want to go back to the actual movement syntax of the art form, and particularly to what I will later describe when I talk about my choreographic process. Because it was a religious art form, the dance was supposed to be purely devotional, an expression of the celebration of divinity. So the temple dancer performed it in a very small space. If you can imagine the temple there in front of you – the temple's sanctum sanctorum was always very secluded and out of bounds to the public. A very small space which only the priests and the temple dancers were allowed to access.

The form was about honouring and celebrating divinity, so movement was largely based on the interpretation of devotional lyrics. The movement was sophisticated and used complex movement patterns. It developed very much like ballet. It has a very strong pliť position, and this pliť position is one of the hallmarks of Bharatanatyam. You will also see this in the form of Odissi, another classical art form, where everything is done in this position and in Odissi it also has a wider position. But in Bharatanatyam the emphasis was on maintaining this and being able to stamp out very complicated footwork. We were taught to do it in this way and also learned very stylized, complicated hand gestures that had codified usage. Each of these gestures is associated with very elaborate Sanskrit text that prescribed its usage.

Because of the 150 years that the British were in India, for the thirty to forty years leading up to Indian independence, which was in 1947, there was a real desire to reclaim our national identity. National identity for people at that time was best expressed in our dance, our music, our performing arts. A new, rejuvenated sense of respectability was restored to the art form and dance was opened up so it didn't have to necessarily be performed and taught only within a limited cultural community. It became something that people took up as a matter of national pride; it was about that time that I also started studying dance – my parents felt this was something I could do.

I studied with the great masters in India for several years and then I arrived in Canada as a young bride in 1964. So I've been practicing Bharatanatyam for about 44 years. It just so happened that I didn't live in the big urban centres of Toronto, or Vancouver or other large cities. I lived primarily in mining towns in Northern Manitoba and Northern Ontario, and also lived in Indonesia for 10 years in the span that I was in Canada. It was only 25 years ago that I moved to Toronto and then established my career with my professional dance company Sampradaya Dance Creations, and as a dance teacher, even though I had been teaching and performing for all those years.

My particular view is that Bharatanatyam is truly a global art form. For one reason, it is performed and taught and practiced in just about every part of the world. It is no longer just the preserve of people who come from that specific cultural community. It is being performed, taught, and practiced by people who are from Japan, from South Africa, from many countries. Right here in Canada we have a lot of practitioners who are not of South Indian cultural background, but they study the art form.

I've been trying to compare ballet and Bharatanatyam in terms of how ballet truly became a world art form. I think today we no longer attach an identity to ballet by calling it French or Russian ballet – it's just ballet. Bharatanatyam, I feel very strongly, has the capacity and potential to move beyond its label of exotica, belonging to another world and another place. But it needs to be invested with a new freshness that speaks to all people and speaks to all audiences, particularly because I live and work in Canada and I see that there's a very strong urge within me to express the dynamism of this form. It has always been contemporary, in my opinion; there's no way that one can prove that Bharatanatyam as it exists today has any resemblance to what was done 2000 years ago, let alone 300 or 400 years ago. The form has become incredibly sophisticated. It has become very, very highly physical. I think that has been necessitated by the new performance theatres that we practice performance art in.

Remember, the temple dancer danced within a square of only 10 feet x 10 feet, so her movements were very limited. But today you have proscenium stages that span 40-50 feet, so automatically there is a need to animate the whole space. The other thing that must also be remembered is that Bharatanatyam is essentially a solo performance form. It was always a single dancer communicating with the deity in the temple. Today ensemble work and group work is the norm, and solo work is a highly specialized form practiced by some leading soloists, but the common trend is the group work. Part of the reason is that people are not devoting the kind of time required to become a solo dancer. It is an incredibly beautiful and complex art form because it's not just the execution of the physical vocabulary of the form. It also has a lot to do with the sophistication and maturity of the facial expression, which is the second hallmark of Bharatanatyam and other classical art forms. Bharatanatyam has an incredibly strong tradition of what we call abinhaya, facial and body expressions. And the facial expression becomes very important because it is highly nuanced, very delicate facial expressions that are actually meant to communicate only to a smaller audience. You cannot expect facial expressions of that level of intricacy and delicacy to be projected to an audience of 1000 people. That could be one of the reasons why solo is not that popular, but in India solo performance is still very much the hallmark.

How have I worked with my choreographic process? As I told you, one of the main things that has inspired or influenced what I do is my desire to take Bharatanatyam out of its very limited interpretations of the exotica: “Oh I can't understand it, you all move around and each of your gestures is so complex. It's supposed to say something isn't it? How can I relate to it? How can I understand it? And your facial expressions. I know you're interpreting something to the lyrics that are being sung by the vocalist and it's something that I don't seem to have an entry point into.” My desire has been firstly to expand on the movement vocabulary of the form and secondly to work with the actual syntax of the form without compromising its integrity. What I mean by that is if I take a movement that requires me to go (demonstrates a movement), I want to still make sure that I am maintaining my pliť, but I will find ways of seeing whether I can add a jump to it to cover more space. Can I add a jump to it? Can I extend the movement by going backwards? When the temple dancers performed in front of the deity it was inappropriate and banned to turn the back to the lord, because that was seen as a form of disrespect. Today choreography goes in all directions because we are no longer considering ourselves to be within a temple scenario.

I've been really interested in looking at personal voice in my choreography. So to a large extent the work that I do has to emerge from a particular personal space. It has to emerge from a desire to interpret something that has impacted my life. It has to be something that emerges from poetry that I've read, or a particular person who has influenced me. It has to be about a process of self-reflection I've engaged in. It always has to be about something that comes from a personal space. The reason I'm saying that is because traditional Bharatanatyam has a very set vocabulary and repertoire. It's something that is taught to you by your teachers and handed down as part of a particular legacy or tradition. In this way it is not unlike contemporary dance because you know the great teachers have set choreography and have set repertoire. But in our case we're limited by the fact that it's all linear narrative tales. Traditional Bharatanatyam is narrative-based. It's always based on the interpretation of a particular devotional song or the text of a poet set to music, or it can be a very sacred verse from our own Hindu religion and philosophy. I've worked with choreography that sometimes takes it beyond that narrative. I look at how I might actually reinterpret a particular mythology in the context of my own work – I'll just show you a few excerpts and I'll speak about them as I do.

The first one is actually a new work, within the format and the contours of traditional Bharatanatyam, but it is a group work. You'll see that the costume is even different from what traditional Bharatanatyam dancers wear. But it is pure Bharatanatyam and its called Vivarta. This work is actually one of the works we're going to be taking on tour next week. [Sampradaya's ten-week tour in India and Europe.] It's based on the Hindu mythology of the Lord Vishnu who returned to earth, age after age in many manifestations.


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