Begin to begin
Begin to end
The words of Karthika Naïr’s poem echo around the round stage of the Roundhouse, repeated, overlapping, painting a soundscape for the dancers to start.
Begin to win
Begin to end
But where do you begin? And where does it all end? The questions circle around each other endlessly, in Until the Lions – a dance piece by Akram Khan, adapted from a poetry book by Karthika Naïr, inspired by the mother of all epics, the maha (great) bharata (story of the Bharata dynasty), the originary text for the development of Hinduism and the idea of India as a nation state.
Recognising that all beginnings are themselves mid-ways points in other stories, I can trace my own entrance into this intertwined story to a train ride into London on 8th July 2005, the day after four Islamic extremists carried out a series of suicide bombings on the London underground trains and a bus, killing 56 people including the terrorists themselves, and wounding 700 others. The city was reeling and in shock as I made my way past the twisted metal and police cordons around King’s Cross Station to Sadler’s Wells theatre to watch Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherakoui’s dance performance, zero degrees.
Two years later, a friend sent me some poems written by a friend of his, in which the poet writes or a ‘duet/duel’ between a warrior and a monk:
before I read which is which, if one’s end
spells start elsewhere.
Monk departs, a worn being in his hands,
crooning of a day when borders and walls
Khan and Larbi’s exploration of borders and boundaries, of passport controls and fractured identities could not have been more prescient in these times of mass migrations, of refugees and perilous crossings, of war and terror. Reading the poem, I realized that here was a poet who understood dance, who brought the physicality and the energy of moving bodies vividly to the page. The poet was Karthika Naïr, and this was the beginning of a friendship and creative partnership which brought us to today, the Roundhouse, the launch of the UK edition of her book and the preview of Akram Khan’s latest work.
Begin to begin…
The phrase beats like a knell in the a section of Naïr’s book told in the voice of Amba, a princess whose trajectory of life, death, and rebirth is shot like an arrow from the taut bow of her implacable will in search of justice to right an ancient wrong. It is this poem that Khan uses as a springboard for his latest performance.
Dance is sometimes said to be ‘poetry in motion’ and, in its intense physicality – with guts and sinews and muscular body parts – its pauses and leaps across the page and its tightly choreographed, rigorous attention to form, Karthika Naïr’s poetry is the dance of words. “Dance is silent poetry” in the words of the Ancient Greet poet, Simonides. The two are inextricably intertwined.
Even the phrase ‘Begin to begin’ Naïr tells us was taken from another dance: Eva Recacha’s 2011 piece of the same title. But what for Recacha was ‘a piece about dead ends’ has here been transformed into a vibrant outpouring of new beginnings.
Naïr, herself a dance producer, was commissioned by Akram Khan as principal storywriter for his 2011 award-winning dance, DESH. The retelling of a Bangladeshi folk story of the goddess Bon Bibi and the demon-tiger Dakkhin Rai subsequently inspired the illustrated children’s book, The Honey Hunter, written by Naïr and illustrated by the French artist Joëlle Jolivet. Words inspired the dance; dance led to book. In the case of Until the Lions, the roles were reversed: Naïr’s poems inspired Khan to create the dance adaptation, and here I was, in the audience gazing at the appropriately circular stage of the Roundhouse in Camden waiting, breathless, for the dancers to begin. Begin to begin.
Akram Khan’s story in a sense begins almost thirty years ago, with in Peter Brook’s groundbreaking staging of the Mahabharata. At the tender age of thirteen, he was one of the youngest of a cast that included actors from sixteen different countries and was originally written in French, and translated into English, ran for nine hours and toured the world, resulting in a six-part televised mini-series and an Emmy award-winning film. With its dramatic visuals and pioneering multi-national cast, it introduced the ancient epic to a vast international audience. No longer seen as an arcane and convoluted myth involving remote characters with unpronounceable names, it – according to the New York Times – “did nothing less than attempt to transform Hindu myth into universalized art, accessible to any culture.”
And yet, its female characters were given short shrift. “I don’t remember the women begin super celebrated. They were not the main protagonists,” says Khan in his interview with theatre director Danny Boyle. “Looking back, I can see that it gave a very male perspective, which is often the case with mythology.”
The imperative to correct that perspective was one of the impulses that drove Karthika Naïr to tell the story of the Kauravas and Pandavas through the voices of the women: Satyavati, Amba, Ahalya, Ambika and Ambalika, and the rakshasi, Hidimbi.
With Amba/Shikhandi, for instance, Brook’s play shows the reborn warrior forget the reason for his desire to kill Bheeshma, and abandon the final duel. For Naïr, it was also this “unforgiveable” distortion of Amba’s story that fuelled her desire to not just retell the story from Amba’s perspective but to give her a voice. And what a voice. Full of fury, implacable will, a thirst for justice and a strident singlemindedness, Amba wages war in full knowledge of the havoc it will wreak, ending with an unpunctuated march through the alphabet, leaving letters strewn behind her like bodies on a battlefield:
strike strike that spear through gullet and lung and ligament shatter his skull shred might and right and thought to blood bone gristle snuff out your soul triumph
In these times of airstrikes and drones, the women’s voices that rage and keen and lament through Until the Lions bring home the stark reality that war is not a clash of ideologies and its victims not statistics but individuals: someone’s child, someone’s lover. The title of Naïr’s book comes from an African proverb which says that “until the lions have their own historians, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” In her poems, you hear the answering roar.
For the performance, Khan tells the story of Amba with two female dancers – Ching-Ying Chien, who plays Amba, and Christine Joy Ritter as Shikhandi, the male reincarnation of Amba who she becomes in order to kill Bheeshma (played by Khan himself), the regent of Hastinapura who abducts and then spurns her in her earlier life.
The stage is set. Like a massive tree trunk felled to reveal the growth rings radiating out, and split through with fissures that bristle with bamboo stakes providing impromptu spears or lances for the dancers to wield. Ritter enters, twisting and crawling across the circular stage like a sinuous lizard, exploring the space, testing its edges, fingering the cracks. The only other prop is a disembodied head, lit gunmetal grey, which she cradles like an ostrich egg, carries across the stage and impales on a bamboo stake, planting it like a grotesque flag from which vantage point it views the rest of the proceedings with a implacable, blind gaze.
Stationed around the edges, very much like a Greek chorus, are the four musicians, whose howls, cries, and drums create the mesmerizing soundscape for the drama of vengeance and bloodshed to unfold. Bheeshma enters, striding fast around the stage, the prone figure of Amba over one shoulder as she flings her hair around, medusa-like, in her struggle to escape. In fact, hair – and heads – figure just as much as limbs and torsos in this strange ritual: Khan with his familiar bald pate, Ritter with a tight, martial top-knot like a samurai, and Chien with her wild, untrammelled locks. There’s one long sequence, where Khan dances, one hand clamped to his face, alternately plucking at it and having it removed and swiftly replaced by Chien – hands become masks, blinding the wearer to his actions and their repercussions. The two dancers execute a curious duel/duet – not so much pas de deux as mains de deux – as they grapple with each other, echoing the dance of the hands that Khan and Larbi perfected in zero degrees.
As he whirls and flinches, struggling against his willful hand, I am also reminded of one of the most brilliant and unsettling sections of DESH, where Khan dances face-down, a second face crudely painted on the crown of his head, creating a whole other body on the stage. Anyone who has seen Khan in action in earlier dances would also immediately recognize in Until the Lions that particular blend of contemporary and Kathak styles that he has made his own. His flat feet strike the stage with such rhythm and ferocity that you half expect to see sparks fly.
What is particularly intriguing about the story of Amba is the sex-change she undergoes. Amba (and her two sisters) is abducted by Bheeshma on her wedding day and given by him to his brother. His brother rejects her, and Bheeshma also refuses to wed her as he has taken an unbreakable vow of chastity. Spurned and ruined, she vows to take revenge. The strength of her tapas, austerities, are such that Shiva himself responds, granting her the power to kill Bheeshma – a feat only possible for a man. She kills herself, in order to hasten the course of justice; is reborn as a woman, and finally becomes a man – Shikhandi – through the intercession of a yaksha. Answering a question from the audience at the book launch about the book’s ‘feminist credentials’, Naïr pointed out that it was telling that even though this is, in a sense, about the (female) righting of a male wrong-doing, the woman in question can only see justice done in the body of a man.
The section of Naïr’s poem entitled ‘Manual for Revenge and Remembrance’, Amba addresses Bheeshma, warning him that “This time, I shall battle you unfettered, free/of my female frame.” She goes on, “This time we meet – neither shall win: for I will slay you, but first you shall watch me die.” This is tragic in the Greek sense of the term, a curse rather than a blessing, like an inversion of the marriage vow: not even death shall us part, she proclaims, for however many deaths and rebirths it will take, you and I are destined to die together by the other’s hand, killer and victim entwined.
Herein lies the endlessly creative churn that the Mahabharata represents. It is, in Wendy Doniger’s words, “an exposition of dharma (codes of conduct), including the proper conduct of a king, of a warrior, of an individual living in times of calamity” but that “the conflicting codes of dharma are so ‘subtle’ that, in some situations, the hero cannot help but violate them in some respect, no matter what choice he makes.” Less a moral grey area than a vivid rainbow, the Mahabharata is a radically open text: open to different interpretations at different times. The recent plethora of feminist re-readings (Samhita Arni, Arshia Sattar, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Kavita Kané, to name but a few) is just the latest in a two-and-a-half-thousand year old history of such engagements. At the other end of the spectrum, is the hysterical insistence by contemporary far right Hindu ideologues on the historical veracity of its mythological events as they seek to authenticate their own warped sense of cultural and national supremacy. Viewed through the narrow blinkers of Hindutva, never mind the rainbow, even the moral grey is reduced to stark black and white.
The dance ends in a chilling climax, the musicians processing around the edge of the stage in a triumphal march, with pipes and timbrels, wild cries and ululations, a Dionysian revel led by Amba, hair aswirl and free at last. The fissures in the stage crack and heave, as one section rises up and another is lowered. Steam issues up from the glowing abyss beneath as though a continental shelf is splitting, and rising up to form a Himalaya where the women, stand triumphant, and Bheeshma lies at their feet, not hoist but speared by his own petard.
As the audience drained out of the Roundhouse, I wondered whether this collaboration would mark the end of the twinning of Khan and Naïr, or – more likely – what other new beginnings it would catalyze in their, or other people’s lives. Perhaps it is unfair to compare the two – the book of poetry and dance performance – each has its own strengths, its own form and limitations, but for me, the deeper and more lasting resonances are contained within the covers of the book. Naïr’s poetic retelling is subtitled, tellingly, ‘Echoes from the Mahabharata’, and it is the echoes – the reverberations, mishearings, transformations – that ripple outwards giving rise to new forms, new experimentations, new incarnations. As Farooq Chaudhry, long-time producer and creative collaborator with Akram Khan, pointed out at the book launch, “Epics were never meant to be read; they were meant to be told – to be performed.” Whether that means poetry – words read aloud, for their sound and rhythm and cadence – or dance, that silent song of the body – some combination of the two, or some different new form entirely, remains to be seen.
First published in Open Magazine 22.1.2016