Women’s lockdown stories retold: Kantha Katha-K by Amina Khayyam Dance Company

Patrick Studio, Birmingham Hippodrome
September 20, 2022

The thought of yet another work setting out people’s experiences during Covid is not exactly appealing. It’s understandable that artists should want to express how they felt through their art form but, like many others, I’ve seen enough such, usually depressing, works to last a lifetime over the last couple of years or so. But Amina Khayyam’s Kantha Katha-K turns out to be a little bit different.

With the Patrick Studio transformed into a traverse stage, the work has its roots in a project in which Amina Khayyam Dance Company engaged with women’s groups across the country, including in Birmingham, through WhatsApp and Zoom. Using traditional kantha, a form of embroidery found largely in Bangladesh and Eastern India, participants were provided with a pack including calico, embroidery hoop, threads and needles, and worked with artists Abeda Begum and Bhajan Hunjan to tell their Covid experiences and stories. At the height of lockdown, the project was the only connection to the outside world for many. Now, those kanthas and the emotions contained within them form the inspiration for Khayyam’s appealing choreography.

Jane Chan (upstage left) and Sushma Vala in Kantha Katha-K
Photo Simon Richardson

The space is set up so that everyone is face-on and side-on to a ‘room’ or ‘house’ constructed from scaffolding. The strips of semi-transparent material that make up the ‘walls’ are used to great effect as they simultaneously hide and reveal. Sometimes they appear as prison bars holding their occupant in. Elsewhere, they leave hazy shapes rather than blocking out completely.

Running through the 40-minute work is the idea of using old traditions in new ways and to express very modern situations. The kanthas made during the project decorate the set, with fragments also appearing on Begum’s costumes.

The choreography itself seamlessly blends kathak and contemporary dance theatre, with occasional gestural references to needlework cleverly woven in. It is a dance of personal narratives, although the specifics are only hinted at, Khayyam and the dancers neatly leaving the those watching space to layer their own thoughts on them. Being very close up allows you to become fully immersed in the action, as well as see the detail and precision in the movement.

(l-r) Amina Khayyam, Jane Chan, Abirami Eswar (being pulled) and Sushma Vala
in Kantha Katha-K by Amina Khayyam Dance Company
Photo Simon Richardson

There are times when the kathak flows celebratory, but elsewhere the dance takes a more modern, harder edged tone as it carries feelings from the time. Impatience, frustration and anxiety never seem far away. When inside the structures, the dancers reflect isolation and loneliness. They convey a sense of the walls closing in on them as they frantically seek a way out. A duet suggests support and comfort for someone struggling to cope. There’s even one moment that hints at domestic violence. Although rooted in the pandemic, much of what is seen can easily be translated to other situations.

Old meets new musically too, Kantha Katha-K being largely played out to a new orchestration by Jonathan Mayer of the Nocturne from Borodin’s String Quartet No.2. The combination of tabla, sitar, cello and guitar is both familiar and strange; not unlike the pandemic experience.

The music ensemble were outstanding, although the highlight comes when the instruments take a break, and Sohini Alam’s affecting voice fills the theatre as she sings ‘The unknown Bird in the cage’ by Lalon, a 19th-century Bengali philosopher, author, songwriter, social reformer, and thinker. The metaphysical song likens a bird in a cage to the enchanted human soul caged within the body, but whose secret of entrance and exit is unknown.

(l-r) Amina Khayyam, Abirami Eswar, Jane Chan and Sushma Vala
in Kantha Katha-K
Photo Simon Richardson

It ends brightly and joyfully, the dancers linking arms as they celebrate freedom and ‘coming out the other side’, although there’s still time for a quiet moment of reflection on what we went through, and perhaps those we lost.

After the show, a close-up look at the kanthas showed some to be incredibly detailed. As is usually the case however, it is the simple ones that are most impactful. One in particular found surprising personal resonance in an unexpected end to a beautiful and often moving evening.