Battery Dance Festival: India Independence Day

Battery Dance Festival online
August 15, 2020

David Mead

Keeping up the tradition established in 1993, the Battery Dance Festival marked Independence Day in India with a programme devoted entirely to the many and varied forms. The series of tasters make up a selection that’s a rainbow of styles. It’s brim with colourful costumes too.

As the pandemic rages through the world, “The entire concept of time seems warped. Past/present/future all seem amorphous, as though their linearity and circularity no longer exist,” says contemporary kathak choreographer Aditi Mangaldas. I’m sure that’s a feeling many of us can relate to.

Aditi Mangaldas in Amorphous...The Zero MomentScreenshot from film
Aditi Mangaldas in Amorphous…The Zero Moment
Screenshot from film

A coming together of ‘Zero Moment’ from her 2006 work Timeless and her feelings and creative impulses during lockdown, Amorphous…The Zero Moment proved the outstanding selection of the programme. Time past and present become intertwined as the footage cuts back and forth between a stage recordings from performances in London in 2015 and 2016 and recent black and white film of Mangaldas captured on an iPhone at home. It’s the latter that really hits hard in gorgeous and hypnotic dance that’s loaded with anxiety and uncertainty, her shadow on the wall only serving to emphasise those feelings.

I very much enjoyed the brief Two Minutes of Movement by Sooraj Subramaniam, a film born out of a residency at the Kunstencentrum Vooruit in Ghent. A blend of Indian and Western dance styles, the dance combines strength with graceful movement. I particularly enjoyed the momentary pauses. The bare walls and large windows of the studio make for a perfect setting too.

Samsara by Aakash OdedraPhoto Nirvair Singh
Samsara by Aakash Odedra
Photo Nirvair Singh

Two further pieces towards the end of the programme also showed how Indian dance is bridging the gap between tradition and modernity. Grapple, a new film by Sadhya – Santosh Nair Contemporary Dance Company is also a dance for our times. It features the choreographer-director, Sudhir Kumar, and Sahul Bhatia in a world of the unknown and uncertain. In a forest of hanging ropes, the threesome twist and turn in the darkness. Thanks in part to super editing and lighting, beautiful moments include close-ups of hands and shots of bodies in silhouette. There is no hint of its possible extension to a full-length work, although the film does have the feel of a trailer.

A three-minute montage of moments from Samsara featuring Aakash Odedra and Hu Shenyuan gives a flavour of the piece, but the nature of the editing makes it feel very much like a trailer rather than the excerpts claimed.

Elsewhere, there are many more traditional styles on show. The programme opens on the Battery Park stage with bharatanatyam dancer Sophia Salingaros dancing Shambho Mahadeva by Sreedhara Akkihebbalu, in which the god Shiva’s dancing is imagined alongside the story of the birth of the River Ganges. Salingaros is a captivating performer, graceful yet energetic, with super clear mudras, especially when seen against the sky. The outdoor setting does however mean we are robbed of the stage closing that sees the lighting fade to a silhouette, with all the audience seeing being the dancer’s arm representing the flowing Ganges. It is also unfortunate that the film editing includes a number of jump cuts that hamper severely the sense of continuity.

Sophia Salingaros dancing Shambho Mahadeva by Sreedhara AkkihebbaluScreenshot from film
Sophia Salingaros dancing Shambho Mahadeva by Sreedhara Akkihebbalu
Screenshot from film

In Swara Pallavi, Bijayini Satpathy reimagines a duet originally choreographed by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Dancers Akshiti Roychowdhury and Prithui Nayak come to life like a pair of sculptures in a garden. It’s a remarkably alive and colourful dance in which their alert eyes and changing expressions suggest a sense of fun

One of the less well-known forms of Indian dance, koodiyattam is a form of sacred theatre traditionally performed in Hindu temples in Kerala. Koormavataram tells of the god Vishnu taking on the form of a giant turtle and creating a drink of immortality. Only the final five minutes of what is a whole-evening piece is shown, but that is more than enough to show a solo narrative style that sees Kapila Venu, in heavy-looking red and gold costume and heavy headdress, use gesture and face to tell the story and play various characters. Sat in front of a real burning torch, it is her eyes that are the main draw. Full of expression, they flick side to side, up and down, and open wide as she stares into the flames.

Sreelakshmy Govardhanan in SoorpanakhaScreenshot from film
Sreelakshmy Govardhanan in Soorpanakha
Screenshot from film

Historically only performed by men, kuchipudi is now popular as a solo dance form for women, especially featuring heroines from Indian literature. In Soorpanakha, creator and performer Sreelakshmy Govardhanan relives the events and complex relationships in the title character’s life, which included her younger brother cutting off her nose and ear. Close-ups show super facial expression as she relives events, while the forest setting makes a perfect background.

Just what goes into some make-up and costume is shown in Theyyam, which shows the startling transformation of dancer Pradeesh Thiruthiya into Bhagavati, the Mother Goddess who presides over the ritualistic dance form of theyyam, a process that usually takes three hours.

A moment from Dil Dhadakne Do
A moment from Dil Dhadakne Do

You can’t talk Indian dance without Bollywood and the programme ends in decidedly party mode with the dance to the song ‘Gallan Goodiyaan’ (Sweet Talk) from the 2015 hit movie Dil Dhadakne Do (Let the heart go boom boody boom). The film tells the story of a dysfunctional Punjabi family who invite their family and friends on a Mediterranean cruise to celebrate the parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. The dance is jammed with all the pizzazz , high-octane rhythm and suggestive looks one would expect. As the cast dance away on the deck at night, I defy anyone not to be swept up in the energy.

Battery Dance Festival: India Independence Day can be watched on YouTube until August 25. . For full programme details visit