I make my way to Esplanade rehearsal studio to meet choreographer and dancer Amrita Lahiri. Overlooking Marina Bay Sands we sit down to talk about dance and the upcoming performance of Lahiri, where she will embody the spirit of Kuchipudi dance. A gifted and beautiful dancer and choreographer, she speaks passionately about Kuchipudi, one of the eight primary classical Indian dance forms. Kuchipudi started out as a dance only performed by boys. As it became dark outside, boys would set up an outside stage and play for the villagers, improvising through and through.
Lahiri lets me inside her creative process. In the last few years, she has started making dance pieces from poetry. Poetry is vital to her process, providing an objective focus to create images with dance for each section, intertwined with the rhythms of the music. Emotions are also at the heart of Kuchipudi. Lahiri explains with great passion, ‘From the beginning of our training we learn to take the audience on a journey and keep them spellbound. It sounds funny and cheese in words, but that is precisely what I do in my work dancing; I expose myself hoping the audience can connect with me.’
Lahiri is a very experienced dancer with a career spanning over twenty years, performing around the world. Today, she works with an economy of gestures, knowing precisely what to say with her body favouring the intricate detail in place of big leaps. I am curious to understand how she prepares for performances these days; she confesses, ‘Practice and more practice. Earlier in my life, I was more anxious. But, nowadays I know I need only this much, and I try not to overdo it, not to over-rehearse.’
Words like this sound rare in Singapore, where the tradition is for artists to overwork and over-rehearse. Often I see dancers exhausted on stage, but I imagine it will be the opposite with Lahiri. It is refreshing to speak to someone who’s sure about their practice in dance whilst understanding the challenges and difficulties and uses the analytical mind to distil the best performance possible from rehearsal time. Sometimes less is more though there is still work to do, even for a recurring performance. She tells me, ‘I am worried about fitness, stamina and technique, and the musicians need coordination too. Yesterday we worked with the rhythmic passages, and three days before the show opens the singer arrives from Chennai and the entire team will finally work together.’
Lahiri confesses to having a great time working with musicians, she adds, ‘It’s a lot of fun, having live music and not knowing exactly how it is going to be. In the U.S. I worked with American musicians, and I never met them till three days before the performance, but it was great. The chemistry was right, we all understood what we were trying to perform. The first show went well. The second show missed a few cues, but that’s ok, that’s part of the joy of having live music.’
Classical Indian dance performances require a notable group effort, where different disciplines like music and dance merge in a short space of time. Music and choreography go hand in hand, transferring the vast culture and philosophy that surrounds Indian classical dance. It’s an offering of knowledge that trickles down generations of artists. In a way, we are never only watching the performance but also looking into tradition descending from guru to dancer.
‘If you don’t love India, I don’t think you can love Indian classical dance.’
Lahiri interjects with great passion, ‘you need to understand and tolerate that it comes as a package. There are centuries of philosophy, work and wisdom in learning classical Indian dance. I am carrying forward a practice that is not mine. There is a lot of responsibility and debt to my guru.’ It’s an exciting sentiment, and I can’t wait to see Amrita Lahiri perform on stage.