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Dance artist Arno Kamolika will be showing some of her DanceLab research from Deconstructing A Varnam in her upcoming online sharing and discussion June 24. We sat down (virtually) with her to ask about her dance career, her mentor Jai Govinda and just how exactly you deconstruct a Varnam.
Tell us about your dance career to date.
I started my career as a dancer learning and performing Manipuri, bharatnatyam and Bengali contemporary dance in Bangladesh. I grew up in the 90’s in Dhaka city, the urban cultural hub of Bangladesh, a country that earned its independence by going through a liberation war in the 70’s. In a post-independent country, the whole society was trying to find their voice and identity through experimenting with both eastern and western cultures, and the performing arts were really flourishing. I was blessed to spend time with Bangladeshi choreographers, musicians, architects, filmmakers and theatre people who mentored me and inspired me to challenge, multitask, redefine and re-interpret traditions. At the same time, I learnt to acknowledge the rich culture of the fertile riverine land, the indigenous mythologies and stories of a delta that has warmly welcomed all races and cultures throughout centuries, including Sufism which has created a unique tradition and wisdom around the concept of religion and devotion.
After moving to Canada, I started exploring what I have to offer to enrich and diversify this country’s arts landscape. My early years in Vancouver included dancing mostly as a solo artist, under supervision of my mentor Jai Govinda, in various dance festivals and multicultural events. Eventually, I started collaborating with other artists, mainly musicians from the Lower Mainland area practicing South Asian, and creating productions that speak of my roots through the traditional framework of bharatnatyam. I am also a company dancer at Nova Dance for their upcoming production Svaha. I enjoy teaching bharatnatyam and I have been teaching for Mandala Arts and Culture for the past 5 years.
How would you describe your relationship with your mentor Jai Govinda?
He is one of the best things that has happened to me as a dance artist. I moved to Vancouver in 2009 to complete a master’s degree at UBC, and I did not have any idea how to continue my practice as a dancer. I Googled bharatnatyam and Jai Govinda’s name came up. When I reached out to him, I could not believe that I would be able to practice my art form at a place like Scotiabank Dance Centre where he was running a professional dance school beside companies like Ballet BC! He could see that I was a professionally-trained bharatnatyam dancer, and he was aware of my teacher Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar, who is a legendary scholar in the world of bharatnatyam. I enrolled in his advanced class and he guided me in every possible way to help me grow as a dancer in this city. I think our relationship goes past choreographer-dancer now. He was one of the very few people in this city that understood and believed in my art form, and we had a gratifying journey of artistic collaboration for the past 10 years. I have been introduced to many teachers and mentors through Jai who has been pivotal in my journey.
What inspired this DanceLab research project?
Over the past few years, Jai and I have often had conversations around dancing a traditional art form like bharatnatyam in a city like Vancouver where the audience is not familiar with the tradition, culture, and the texts that the dance is based on. Most of the time when we work on a project, it is usually targeted towards a performance, and we hardly find opportunities to experiment with the work. So, we thought of taking a traditional piece and working with it to find a vocabulary that will welcome artists and audience to have a deeper conversation around the form. Luckily, we received a grant from Canada Council to do the work.
What is a Varnam? How you go about deconstructing it?
Varnam is a fundamental part of Carnatic music (South Indian classical music) that is known for its complex structure. A Varnam consists of progressive lyrics and swaras (musical notes). Dance forms like bharatnatyam and mohiniattam have taken this element of Carnatic music to create the centre main piece of a dance concert. We use abhinaya (theatre) to do the storytelling and create dance segments by adding jathis (rhythmic recitation). Varnam offers huge scope of improvisation for the dancer. The dancer can stretch the poetry as much as they want to play with the storytelling. Also, they get a chance to showcase their form and creativity through the non-narrative part of Varnam (the jatis) that consist of intricate footwork and complicated moves.
Most Varnams are stories of love, longing and devotion from the perspective of a protagonist. Depending on the experience of a dancer, a Varnam can go from 30 to 50 minutes at a stretch. To give a context to the audience of the story, often dancers explain the lyrics of the poetry and their interpretation before they begin the dance. We are looking at ways to make the storytelling more interesting, we are experimenting with the format of the Varnam and also reimagining the structure of it.
If you didn’t have a career in dance, what might you be doing?
That is an interesting question. I can’t think of anything without dance at this point. I remember that as a child, I was very much interested in music, theatre, cinema – anything that had stories in it. I would have probably become a musician. But I was also good at science subjects, especially mathematics and physics. So, I ended up studying architecture that has both science and arts in it, but I did not practice it. Honestly, I have no idea what I might be doing! But I do remember, whatever I used to study, I always tried to find its connection to dance. And my earliest keenness to learn bharatnatyam developed because the rhythm structure of Carnatic music requires complex calculation, and as a teenager I used to enjoy the challenge of learning them.
What might people be surprised to know about you?
When I was six years old, my mother took me to her music school to enroll me in music classes. I got enrolled in the dance class because I was too young to get into the music class. If I got admitted there, I would not have been a dancer. Also, I have a professional degree in architecture and I had never thought of becoming a professional dancer before moving to Canada.
How have you adapted your practice during the pandemic?
The pandemic has been a remarkable time for dancers – because space is a privilege that a lot of us don’t have access to. But probably the lack of space has let me dig deep to have conversations with myself about what dance practice means to me. As dancers, we are always in practice and in creation, even when we are not dancing in a studio. For a bharatnatyam dancer, reading poetries, mythologies, creating music, teaching, learning acting, observing the world are important parts of their practice. Because of the pandemic, there was a huge scope for dancers all over the world to get access to workshops and classes virtually, which was not there even a year ago. I managed to take classes and workshops on Zoom almost every month in 2020. I took a 15-day acting workshop in Kerala called Navarasa Sadhana which is a systematic and daily practice of the Nine Rasas by the actor. I took a workshop on dramaturgy in Hungary, a class on Akram Khan Dance Company’s repertoire and classes on rhythmic recitation (nattuvangham). I cleared the clutter and made space for movement in different parts of my tiny apartment to move. Also, I was fortunate that I received a BC Arts Council grant supporting my virtual internship with Nova Dance during this pandemic. I was connecting with dancers in Toronto where the pandemic situation was even worse sometimes and we all were trying to support and be there for each other in that difficult time. Grieving and virtual gathering became part of our dance practice. I also finished a virtual project with the Chan Centre in February with five musicians. So, I really did not get a chance to feel disconnected, rather I was finding my own ways to adapt to this new normal and connect with other artists, with a dance company supporting me. And when things started opening up, the hours of DanceLab helped me to bring my practice to the studio again.
What is your next project?
I am still working on the DanceLab, so nothing concrete is there in my mind yet about future projects. I will be working on a project with Vancouver Tagore Society for their festival this year and a production called Svaha by Nova Dance Company next year. Right now, I am thinking of everything that has happened to the world in the last year and trying to think how that has changed my artistic expression. Whatever I do next will have a resonance of the time we are living in. I have lost family members and friends in the last year, like many others. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about grieving and loss and how the ritual of grieving brings people together. I am also curious to see what this experience brings out of me.
DanceLab Online Sharing and Discussion
Arno Kamolika: Deconstructing a Varnam
Thursday June 24, 2021 | 530 pm PDT
Pay what you can $0/$10
Supported through The Dance Centre’s DanceLab interdisciplinary research program.
Photos: The Dance Centre, Chris Randle