Ahead of her return to London’s Sadler’s Wells, noted Indian choreographer-dancer Aditi Mangaldas talks to David Mead about her solo show, which considers the so often taboo subject.
Why is the world scared of female sexual desire? Why are women the world over, in liberal as well as conservative societies, sanctioned, judged, controlled, hounded, punished even, if they have the courage to express and own it?
Just a few of the questions Aditi Mangaldas asks in Forbidden, the title of which reflects the fact its subject is something that should not be discussed, not even thought about. But never one to be afraid, it’s a work that sees her journeying through emotions and experiences, reclaiming her desires.
As with all her choreography, Forbidden starts from a personal autobiographical perspective, she explains. “In 2019, there was this whole thing in India about purity and what is pure. There were many things around it, and some of it was to do with sexuality. As I was thinking about it, something started arising within me.” She started to question herself. “Even though I come from a really liberal background, there seemed so many barriers around exploring sexuality. One thing led to another.”
Mangaldas observes that we are surrounded by popular culture: images, music, movies and more. As we live with them, they instil a mentality and outlook. They condition us. “If you come from a liberal upbringing, you sort of look at it and say, OK they should not affect me, but they do, in very insidious ways.”
And with the rise of social media, things have got even more difficult, she agrees, noting that while there is a kind of democratisation with social media, it just reinforces the taboos even more. “Everything is judged instantly and those judgments get even more reinforced by others. The hounding becomes more. And all the time the sanctions become internalised so much.”
Interestingly, perhaps significantly, she observes that men tend not to be judged the same way as women when it comes to sexuality. “A good example is growing up. In college, if a man has ten girlfriends, he is a Romeo or a stud. He is looked up to. He’s someone who has this incredible fire of attraction. Whereas if a women has the same, she is instantly judged, categorised, compartmentalised. Why?”
But, Mangaldas insists, “This piece is not about sermonising. Not at all. I’m not a social scientist. I don’t have answers. But I do have questions.”
She explains that, although work on Forbidden started in 2019, everything came to a standstill in 2020. The premiere was postponed to 2021, then again to 2022. “But the pandemic and lockdown made the piece much more ferocious and innocent simultaneously. Something happened during that time.”
She tells how the work starts with an erotic dream. “A young girl suddenly wonders about these small sensations that are starting. Like buds opening about her being: mental, emotional and physical. As these flowers bloom, she can feel the texture the smell, the fragrance and the colour. But slowly she starts to see barriers, which increase. And that’s how the narrative continues.”
Mangaldas’ entry into the narrative is through popular images and bells, which she describes as “part of her being as a kathak dancer.” She explains how they are ornaments by which she becomes part of society, but with parameters set by the male gaze, and how they reflect the way she needs to behave to be sexual while not having control over her sexuality.
“They become the mirrors at which through which I look, I accept what’s going on and I see the taboos. They become the beasts that I need to devour if I am to find the find the courage to own my desire. They become the entrails of the beast. They become the boundaries that I need to burn. And, eventually, they become flowers. Because that’s all it was; the flowering of a bud in all its glory.”
Mangaldas describes Forbidden as being “contemporary dance based on kathak.” She began training in the classical Indian form aged 5. Now 63, she says she still dances a lot of classical kathak. “Every single day. It’s part of my being.”
When it comes to her contemporary work, she explains that different sensibilities relevant to images, music, movement vocabulary, whatever, become absorbed within her kathak body. “So, it’s like taking a kathak seed and watering it with different movement possibilities. A tree will grow very differently if you only water it with kathak sensibilities.”
For Forbidden, she has also been working with martial arts. “I don’t do martial arts in it but it’s something I need to understand within me. When somebody turns me into a stone, how do I burst out? How do I find that rage within myself?
She also talked to an Egyptian artist, a belly dancer, to see how she could look at the structure of her body differently to what she sees in kathak, which is a very strict form. “How do I find the movement of the hips and the bust, and where is that coming from? All these things that have been acquired now have been allowed to slowly sink into this kathak body.”
But Mangaldas has never been afraid of bringing in new elements and making her dance very much of today. She says she’s always wanted to question, to take nothing for granted. “Very often, in cultures like ours where you have a long history of dance, everything starts becoming so heavy. There is a constant supremacy of thinking. Classical dancers are told about the great culture, the responsibility they have.”
But she says, she started to feel that it was being put in a museum, that it was being cemented into the way of being. “No culture exists like that. It needs to breathe. My dance breathes. I breathe. I can’t be thinking in terms of not being open to what is happening in the world. So, therefore, I feel that you have to be constantly evolving. Asking questions. Being open. You may be wrong, you maybe right. But at least you are not concretised in history and geography. You are a human being.”
Tradition is not fixed, she agrees. “It’s like a flowing river. It’s constantly evolving. If the river passes through a forest, it imbibes from the forest. If it passes through a concrete city, it imbibes from the concrete and the electricity of the city.”
She insists one must be open to change. “I find it extremely difficult when people talk about ‘pure.’ What is pure? I shouldn’t be dancing kathak at all, because once only men danced it. So, how far do you go back? And if you go back long enough, there was nothing like kathak.”
Looking ahead, Mangaldas reveals that British audiences in London and on tour will get another chance to see her when she returns in 2024 with Mehek, a new work created and performed with Aakash Odedra. “It started with me calling him during the pandemic. He said, ‘Shall we think of a work together?’ When we talked again, we found we both had the same idea: a love story, like Romeo and Juliet, like Heer and Ranjha – there are many similar in India – but with an older woman and a younger man. That is socially rarely seen, not very accepted. I’m very excited. It’s about desire and love, but a very different set up from Forbidden.”
Returning to Forbidden, while about female sexual desire, she insists it’s not specifically aimed at women. “I am addressing it to humanity. It’s about questioning. Why? What is the world afraid of? Why is there this fear? Don’t you think that the first step is to question? To have doubts.”
But while acknowledging that art can be a powerful medium for change, she says, “I’m not an activist. I’m a storyteller through dance. I can’t make change happen but I can put doubt in your mind, sow seeds. I can open a little chink, a little window, whether you are male or female, and make you think.