There are dreams which come through in life; in one of my dreams the legendary prima ballerina Carla Fracci was waiting for me under a bridge and was calling me, telling me to hurry up! I was nineteen when I had this dream and by then the possibility of continuing with classical ballet training was totally out of the question. At that point my focus was on how to reject and rebel against anything and everything which was considered conventional and orthodox by the bourgeoisie society surrounding me. I had written down this particular dream in my notebook along with my other dreams and it was not until twenty years later that I was actually called by her and even shared the stage with her!
The first sit-ins and occupation of the college premises started when I was in the second year of the Liceo Scientifico. Maurizio was one of the first among the students to start distributing political pamphlets at the gate and to incite his fellows companions with speeches and political meetings. We had just started seeing each other and his boldness and defiant attitude had a great influence on me. I immediately joined the rebels and used to sit in the frontline besides the locked glass door in the college premises. On the other side, among the authorities and police forces, was my father, then occupying the post of President of the Province. He used to be called by the Dean hoping that his presence would convince his daughter, and with her all the others, to relent.
My relationship with Ernesto started during this time. How different from the previous turbulent relationship with Maurizio! Ernesto was fifteen years older than me and I was passing through a phase in my life when I thought I could conquer the entire world. I was brimming with confidence, exuberance, courage of living and of facing challenges. While Maurizio had been a determinant in putting me on my own feet and detaching me from my father’s clutches, Ernesto came in to further pamper my excitement towards life by complying with all my wishes and letting me live life to its fullest
When I approached one of the senior professors of the faculty of philosophy in Milano explaining him that I wanted to give my remaining exams on subjects related to Eastern philosophies, his reply was: ‘But there is no philosophy in the East!’ It was the year 1973. It took some more years before the proud bastion of the Western thought (at least in Italy) started to realize and acknowledge the ancient wisdom of other civilizations. But I was not in a mood to wait; the very next day I shifted all my papers to Ca’ Foscari in Venice and though enrolled in the Faculty of Philosophy I got the permission to do my remaining examinations in the Faculty of Eastern Languages. My first step towards the East had been taken and from then onwards there was no looking back.
We immediately changed our plans and after finding a beautiful park on the outskirt of the town, we decided to ‘make a trip’ with a pill of LSD which we were carrying along. It was probably one of my first ‘trips’, I did some more after that. But each turned out to be different depending on where , with whom and in what circumstances. This one remained impressed in my mind because it was done from dawn to dusk on the top of a huge tree in the park. For an entire day we moved and lived in a vertical dimension completely oblivious of the ‘normal’ people who must have walked on the ground all through.
I had heard enough tales about the legendary Orient Express and the still more mysterious trip to India; each and every person who had done the trip had a different story to tell and advice to give. I had to confess that when I left I was excited but at the same time scared, but the resolution to leave was absolutely total and firm. I wanted to get out from the known and safe environs I was living in and wanted to experience life from day-to-day, without any pre-fixed plans or certainty about the future.
Days were spent taking long walks on the beach, with only a loincloth around the hips, and a wooden flute in my hands. Everyday I was going a little further to discover new bays and springs hidden in the forest nearby. The beautiful sunsets of the Goa coast were coloring the evenings, which were spent near the hut with a small drum in my hands. I did not mix much with the other groups who were living in nearby huts but the sounds of their instruments and smoke of their chillum were reaching me.
We brought back from Turkey some seeds of marijuana hiding them in the double soles of our shoes. I planted these in my kitchen garden and for years every autumn the harvest went on like a ceremonial ritual. After my departure to India in 1979, my brother carried on the operation and after his moving out my mother was entrusted with the duty of watering and taking care of the plants. Naturally she was unaware about the real nature of the plants mixed as they were with other aromatic and medicinal herbs that I had planted in the garden.
Everybody was searching for an alternative form of expression which would arise from an intense physical and vocal training. In this search one important source of inspiration was represented by some forms of Oriental theatre among which the Kathakali dance theatre of south India was quite prominent. It was a Kathakali demonstration which I saw in the premises of the TTB that winter of 1978 which gave my search a new turn. I suddenly realized that the grammar of the body which I was searching in all possible ways with all sort of improvisations and in all sort of directions not only was already existing in that part of the world but was flourishing over centuries and passed over from generation to generation in the most systematic way.
There was only a small story which seemed to act as a link; few pages underlined in the book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses describing the strange destiny of Echo and Narcissus; Echo who, in love with and rejected by Narcissus, loses her body and remains only voice not being able to talk first, and the beautiful Narcissus, who being cursed by the nymphs to fall in love with somebody whom he will never be able to get, turns himself into a flower.
This story was to be my next project; where and how and with whom I did not know. The only thing I knew was that I needed to learn more before proceeding in my attempt to stage this story and I decided to go back to India for one year and to spend six months in Odisha and six months in Kerala to continue the training in Odissi and Kathakali. This story took eventually six years before being staged, and not as a play but as a creative choreography in Mayurbhanji Chhau.
How free I thought I was when I was running nude on the beaches of Turkey and Goa or when I was posing for nude artistic photos or creating shadow with my nude silhouette on the enlightened white surface of the bed sheet, but then, if everything was so exciting and liberated, why did I need to come here where women were still modest and shy about their nudity even when they were amongst themselves?
One word in Odia was enough to make everybody’s face open up with a big smile and eyes shining with surprise and joy; how warm has always been the hospitality in the many houses I had free access to. Each house in Cuttack seems to be always ready to receive guests; one does not need to be officially invited since an open invitation is permanently pending.
What had remained separated in my previous experiences in the West, that is the search for a physical form of expression on one side and a philosophy of life on the other, were now starting to become one. I had found a language which was giving expression not only to my body but also to my inner feelings and emotions; a language which was translating symbols into dance movements, a language which was not only a discipline of the body but also a grammar of the soul. The synthesis which had escaped me until now making me search in different directions without being able to find a fulfillment in any of them, was finally happening in this remote land of Odisha where everything is believed to happen because of Lord Jagannatha’s will.
On the day of the programme I was quite nervous. Guruji did my entire make-up, tied my hair inside the hair ring which I had made with my fallen hair (I had lost a lot of hair since I reached Odisha, so much so that when my mother first saw me after one and half year the first thing she said was: ‘what happened to your hair?’), taught me how to drape my dupatta with tiny folds in front of my chest, tied my benga-patia (silver belt), pinned all the loose ends of the costume, painted my feet and hands with alta (red coloured paint) and showed me how to tie the ankle bells in such a way that they would not become loose during the dance.
One of the first Chhau dance workshops I conducted was held in the Prithvi Theater, Mumbai in 1983. Among the students I remember were Anita Kanwar and Neena Gupta who became wellknown actresses in the years to come. One day while the classes were going on, a distinguished looking gentleman approached me on the stage and expressed his appreciation for the graceful and elegant movements of the dance style I was teaching. He asked me more about it; he wanted to know where it was performed and by whom. Very politely I asked: ‘May I know whom I am talking to?’. Somebody standing next to him, with half voice, whispered in my ear: ‘He is Shashi Kapoor!’ I was not yet much aware of the Bollywood scene by then so I could not recognize him at first sight. We met a few times after that when I happened to be in Mumbai, just casually on the road or in a restaurant, and every time he would address me as ‘Odissi’.
When in January 2003 I received a phone call from Owais Husain, son of M.F.Husain, the celebrated painter, asking me if I was interested to choreograph a song of the movie set to music by A.N. Rahman, I could hardly believe my ears. It had always been one of my dreams to choreograph to Rahman’s music whom I considered to be one of the greatest among contemporary Indian music composers. The song was a quawali titled noor-un-ala-noor penned by the same M.F.Husain and it was to be the opening song of the film Meenaxi: Tale of Three Cities to be directed by the painter himself with cinematography by Santosh Sivan.
I never found much difference between performing for a foreign audience and for an Indian one and I have never compromised or tried to make the performance more ‘Westernized’ or ‘modern’ to please the audience. On the contrary I realized quite soon that the foreign audience was hungry for something absolutely traditional. For this reason I did not find so meaningful to present my experiments in Chhau in Italy; it would have been difficult for the public to appreciate the experiment when the traditional form was not known.
Although this was happening relatively less in case of students yet the fact that I did not belong to any of the orthodox prototypes of their own culture was putting me in an ambiguous position. On one side I had gone through the most rebellious and anti- conformist attitudes which led me to find my own direction in life and on the other I was teaching an art steeped in tradition which was demanding from my part a strict and uncompromising attitude. Which one of these two contrasting personalities were my students supposed to emulate?