To call this production a walk down memory lane would be an understatement since it was way more than just that. ‘Encounters-Seen Unseen’, a grand live production staged recently at Bunjil Place in Melbourne with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, not only marked a wonderful collaboration between the Indian and Sri Lankan artistes of Australia and India but also was a seamless amalgamation of music, dance, theatre and virtual reality. Needless to say, it took the audience on a mesmerising time travel of sorts.
‘Encounters…’ traced the journey of five South Indian dancers and three musicians who travelled to Paris in 1838 during the time when some parts of India were colonised by the then French Protectorate. These artistes went on to perform hundreds of shows in France, the UK and other parts of Europe, eventually ending up in Vienna. Such was their influence on the European art scene that one of the dancers named Amany has even been immortalised forever in the form of a bronze statue at Le Musée de Guimet, one of the most well-known museums in Paris.
How it all began
Speaking of the live production that was attended by over 500 people, the two main performers of the show, Dr Yashoda Thakore and Dr Priya Srinivasan feel that the story of these artistes had to be told as not much has been written or documented about them. Priya, a Melbourne-based researcher, performer and choreographer, says it all started with the success of the first part of ‘Encounters’ which was staged at the same venue last year. “It was all about composer/musician Muthuswami Dikshitar and his encounter with a British band at Fort St George in Madras,” she recalls. “We also performed another piece about the environment, which was composed by Hari Sivanesan, a Sri Lankan/UK/ Australian veena player and composer.”
An impressed Melbourne Symphony then asked Priya and Hari if they could stage another production. Also the co-founders of ‘Sangam: Performing Arts Festival of South Asia and Diaspora’, which gives a platform to all artistes from South Asia from different backgrounds, the two artistes were extremely excited just at the thought of it. “There aren’t that many opportunities for Indian and Asian artistes in Australia. We are pretty much a minority.”
Priya had been researching Amany and her troupe when she had been working on her first book ‘Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labour’, but was not sure how to present their story on stage. “Hardly anyone knows about the encounters these women had with Western musician/composers like Johann Strauss 1 and Josef Lanner. But their music is still played by orchestras all over the world,” she says. “Amany’s interactions with the Russian ballet Russe choreographers Lucien and Marius Petipa even led to the creation of several Indian-themed ballets such as ‘Sakuntala’ and ‘La Bayadere’.”
Once Priya came up with the basic premise of the production, she asked her good friend in India, Yashoda, if they should create a performance together. Yashoda was only eager to collaborate with her as it was something deeply meaningful to her too. The most spectacular bit of the story is Yashoda’s own connection with Amany. Says the Hyderabad-based Kuchipudi dancer who hails from the hereditary Kalavanthulu community, “When Priya told me about these women, I spoke to my guru Annabattula Lakshmi Mangatayaru and we were amazed to discover that Amany was one of her ancestors. It was so overwhelming to see this connection.”
‘Encounters…’ saw Priya taking the stage live with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra while Yashoda charmed the audiences from India over the big screen. Hari Sivanesan composed some of the music along with the orchestral arrangement by Alex Turley. While Amany and her troupe’s images came as lithographs on the screen, the beautiful blend of Priya’s contemporary and Yashoda’s traditional dance didn’t leave a dry eye in the audience. Even their costumes showcased the best of the East and West with Yashoda’s ‘devadasi’ costume and Priya’s tutu layered over a sari material. Another segment of the show called ‘New Homes’ by Hari, who has worked and toured with the likes of George Harrison and Pandit Ravi Shankar, traced the journey of Sri Lankan immigrants who have fled their motherland.
“We tried to present history in a contemporary way. Amany and her troupe were some of the first international acts from India and we wanted their stories to be put out there, particularly on how they crossed borders and seas and went there,” explains Yashoda. “The best part was my guru telling us that it was her family history that we were sharing on an international stage,” she adds. The duo now plans to hold a series of talks online. “There is so much more to be looked at as Amany and her troupe did over 150 performances across Europe. The impact they had was incredible,” says Priya.