His body of work

Ambika Shaligram
Monday, 15 April 2019

Bharatanatyam dancer Revanta Sarabhai holds forth on classical traditions and making them relevant for young audiences. He performs in the city on Friday

Revanta Sarabhai was five when he started to learn dance. At the age of 11, he dabbled in the world of theatre. Now in his 30s, he has acted in a few Gujarati films and also made his television debut as a host on the Gujarati dance reality show, Naach Maari Saathe on Colors Gujarati channel. All these mediums have expanded his repertoire and also required him to express himself in different ways. And boy, has he excelled at them! 

Revanta, who is performing in the city on Friday evening in a dance programme titled From Cosmic Dance to Climate Change, hosted by India House Art Gallery, talks to us in detail about his training and foray into other creative ventures. 

The Bharatanatyam dancer, who will be performing in the city after five years, will be presenting classical margam and a new set of pieces that he has been working on. “These pieces stay within the classical Bharatanatyam structure, but explore new themes which are more relevant to our times. Traditionally, Bharatanatyam has always been a medium that connects stories from mythology, gods and goddesses, epics and puranas. While I have spent most of my years learning these classical pieces and performing them, a few years ago, I started this discussion with my mother (Mallika Sarabhai) about how one can continue to perform Bharatanatyam in its ‘pure’ form and yet make it more relevant to a modern audience, who is perhaps not as invested in the tradition of bhakti,” he explains.  

Revanta and his mother then started exploring themes which were more connected to the young dancer and his life. “The first of the pieces we created was about my experience of studying in London. I was pursuing my Master’s and figuring out what it meant to live in a new country, struggling as a young artist. We came up with this idea of a 21st century devotee experience where, for example, the ultimate goal is not to become one with the god, but to become one with the art form. We pieced this narrative in the form of our traditional Bharatanatyam varnam about globalisation and migration. There is another piece which looks at environment destruction. One of the common pieces in Bharatanatyam repertoire is kirtan, which is a song in praise of a deity. In this case, I have taken the Hindu trinity of Brahma,Vishnu and Maheshwar, and I am in dialogue with them. I describe Brahma and how he created this universe. Then, I talk about Vishnu being the sustainer of the universe. In the third part of the kirtan, I tell Shiva, ‘Look at what we are doing’. We are not only destroying the land, rivers and water bodies, but we are also destroying each other in the name of violence and hatred. I ask Shiva, ‘Does this mean you are irrelevant?’ It takes this idea of Bhakti tradition through kirtan, where the dancer is dancing to the gods, but is very firmly rooted in today’s context,” he elaborates. 

About five years ago, Revanta was involved in restructuring the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad which was established by his late grandmother, Mrinalini. Talking about the changes they made, the dancer says, “Dance is taught physically. Although there are notations and we have textbooks that outline certain aspects of it, it is something that needs to be passed on physically, through the body, from one person to another. When dance is passed on from generation to generation, it sometimes tends to lose certain standardisation. Each dancer, each guru, has learnt a style and made it their own. The style goes through certain changes and differences. We have experienced that in the past 70 years since Darpana was established. Now, we have introduced certain pedagogy into teaching of dance, some of which is new age technology, like the video evaluation. Every three months, students are video-ed while they perform the steps they have learnt and then it is played back to them. They can see for themselves where their posture needs correction, how much they are bending and so on. As part of teacher’s training, we do an annual revision with all the teachers, where we keep going back to the standardised adavaus, the technical aspect of dance.”

When asked about the role of technology, especially when dance teachers are taking Skype lessons, he replies, “I think technology can be used as an aid to help with the training but there is no real alternative to the physical equation between the dance teacher and student, in the same room, where the teacher can use his hand or thattukili to physically affect the dancer’s posture. I remember as a kid the teacher used to walk around with a wooden baton, called thattukili, and if someone was bending or slouching, the stick would dig into your back. And, you would suddenly straighten your spine. Dance is a physical activity and it relies on one’s muscle memory, I think there is no real alternative to that.” 

Revanta was interested in the medium of movies and having worked in theatre earlier, he says, “The switch wasn’t as drastic. It was in 2016 that I did my first set of Gujarati films. It allowed me to take on characters that I didn’t have the chance to portray when I did work in theatre. The depth to which one has to delve in a character from a film is somewhat different from a play. I have done action roles, where I had to really train for the chase sequences. It has been a fun transition from the stage to the screen.”

Hosting the reality show was also quite revealing for the classical dancer. “The talent show allowed me to open a window into that dance world which I was not familiar with. I hadn’t realised the extent to which (these styles) had permeated the small towns and cities in India. During the audition process, we travelled to various parts of Gujarat and it was amazing to see in these tiniest of towns, all those hole-in-the-wall kind of dance classes, where kids and adults are learning dance styles which are actually not mainstream in India, yet. Now with internet, the transition period has cut down. If there is style innovation in streets of Brooklyn, New York, immediately it becomes popular in outer slums in Ganesh Nagar in Gujarat,” he says.

“As a host, I was often asked to do cameo performances, in between the contestant’s performances and because of my training in classical dance and exposure to contemporary dance, I developed an ability to adapt quickly to different styles. The kids were so fascinated to see me switching styles. They realised that watching a few YouTube videos and picking up a few styles is different from watching a person who has spent many years in classical training. The ability that you develop through that kind of hard work and dedication cannot be replaced with a YouTube tutorial,” says Revanta. 

Revanta Sarabhai will be performing at Nehru Auditorium, Ghole Road, on Friday, April 19, at 7.30 pm. The programme has been supported by India House Art Gallery

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