Arts Illustrated

June 24, 2020

Remembering the Earth

Watching the dance-theatre performance ‘Bhu|Earth’ is to remember our links to nature, the Earth and the essence of its origin that animates the body beyond time and form

Anu Majumdar

The lights go out. The stage is dark, expectant. It is time for the magicians to take over the world. The scene opens with the slow-moving steps of a dancer, perhaps a warrior? He carries an earthen pot from which smoke billows, his face barely visible, his hair curling into the smoke. He turns his back to the audience and walks down the centre as the smoke overtakes the stage like a cosmic memory being invoked. From the left wing a man rushes in. He is older, perhaps a teacher. The two circle in the smoke as the teacher blows through it, and looks out, his eyes questioning and a little amused. Do you remember? He seems to ask a world that has forgotten its own memory. Bhu|Earth is about memory, about Earth, about a memory inside the body which the dancer digs deep into, from where the earth and the universe join in a cosmic unfolding of self-knowledge.

dance-theatre performance ‘Bhu|Earth’ remember nature Earth Anu Majumdar
Photograph by Marco Saroldi.

The drumming starts. The scene shifts to a ‘Kalari’ where the warriors are training. There is concentration and intensity for the practice must be flawless. Bare bodies leap and fly, roll and slide over the earth, dust covering their bodies. Their training reaches crescendo when abruptly a young man leaps into the arena, brazen, angry with the world and hungry for a fight. Dressed in modern clothes, jeans and sports shoes, he tries to break in, hoping to meet the master who will teach him to be a great warrior and dominate the world. The encounter is fierce till the master appears and stills the scene. Who are you? He asks three times, reducing the angry man to pulp.

The teaching begins with three imperative commands, stripping the young man of all outer layering: shoes, the T-shirt and jeans go off. He now stands exposed, all defences gone. Instead of teaching him combat and aggression, the master warrior drives him within, to a greater connectedness within.

dance-theatre performance ‘Bhu|Earth’ remember nature Earth Anu Majumdar
Photograph by Marco Saroldi.

Do you remember, the teacher asks, when you were Earth? The young man passes out.

His journey now follows a gradual healing, of learning to fight his own inner demons, breaking down his ego, emptying his anger and fears till he is gradually pulled back by his companions, no longer adversaries in blind combat but with whom he can now perfect his art with power and harmony. Their bodies glisten, they listen to each other, they listen to the wind. The perfection of their bodies now has ease. Their clear lines, also music. The drums break out in celebration till the master reappears and erupts in a joyful and ecstatic song.

Do you remember sheltering Fire inside when you were the Earth?

Do you remember birds making you visible when you were the Air?

Do you remember flying on a comet’s tail when you were Water?

Do you… Remember!

dance-theatre performance ‘Bhu|Earth’ remember nature Earth Anu Majumdar
Photograph by Lavanya.

The master yells with wild, laughing abandon and flies into a spin. The audience hangs on, enthralled by this storyteller, shaman and actor. And by the two stunning principal Kalari artists who have become dancers and actors, their bodies transitioning from technique to poetry, from ancient forms to contemporary sensibilities by way of small signs where the body changes gear to become more than one language and enter all elements. Then comes the final ceremony of surrender, to the Earth and of peace, as the young man gently takes leave.

‘Bhu, or Earth, questions the body memory of the dancer, one with earth and Nature,’ says choreographer and artistic director, Philippe Pele Baldini. ‘It is an experimental play that uses both modern theatrical, choreographic tools and the traditional form of Kalaripayattu to create an organic, contemporary work. Connected to the Shakti (primordial or feminine energy) within the body of the warrior dancer, this artistic process develops traditional Kalari movement in a contemporary way.’

dance-theatre performance ‘Bhu|Earth’ remember nature Earth Anu Majumdar
Photograph by Marco Saroldi.

Together with Thierry Mocazambo, the actor-storyteller, singer and dancer, in the role of the ‘teacher’, Philippe has worked for thirty-five years on body memories and to find links with nature, Earth and origin. Not historical origin, but of the essence that animates the body beyond time and form.

Philippe and Thierry hail from the island of Reunion, where they set up a dance and theatre company, ‘The Water Carriers Company’, working with a wide spectrum of dancers, actors and musicians and with traditional art forms from India, the Indian Ocean and Africa. This led them to Kalarigram in Pondicherry, South India, where they worked closely with Guru Shri Lakshman Gurukkal and his team of practitioners to understand Kalaripayattu, the world’s most ancient martial art dedicated to the five elements, where the masters are both warriors and healers.

dance-theatre performance ‘Bhu|Earth’ remember nature Earth Anu Majumdar
Photograph by Sven.

The principal Kalarigram cast includes Nikhil Varagiri, who plays the evocative angry young man. He is both Kalari artist and dancer, as is Swaroop Kannan, his adversary and companion in Bhu, both adept in their field. The two others, Prakash Sathiya and Madhu Jayamurthy are Kalari artists and musicians. Music and rhythm form an essential landscape in this work, which is completed by Suresh Kaliyath, kalari artist, actor, musician all in one, from Kalamandalam, in Kerala.

Together, Bhu continues to question the notions of identity, memory and freedom through the body. Naturally, this asks for a total dedication, Philippe adds, always listening to the inner energy and rhythm, looking for its presence with sincerity and truth, not to dance but to be danced.

dance-theatre performance ‘Bhu|Earth’ remember nature Earth Anu Majumdar
Photograph by Ashwanth.

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