City based dancer Vikram Iyengar talks about blurring the lines between the audience and a performer in today’s times

Vikram runs a Kolkata based hub for dancers named Pickle Factory Dance Foundation, which encourages dance, movement practice and dance in all forms

Raima Ganguly Published :  30th December 2022 12:00 AM   |   Published :   |  30th December 2022 12:00 AM

Vikram Iyengar

Through his art, Vikram Iyengar tries to consciously bring together his knowledge of classical dance with movement, drama and design in order to create an experience of total theatre. His diversity is essentially rooted in the fundamentals of Kathak, for which he trained under the legendary danseuse Padma Shri Rani Karnaa. Vikram runs a Kolkata based hub for dancers named Pickle Factory Dance Foundation, which encourages dance, movement practice and dance in all forms. Pickle Factory is currently hosting the third season of a festival that will present live performances and gatherings up till February next year. Known for his affinity towards spaces beyond the proscenium Vikram wishes to re-enter spaces and bring together people after three pandemic ridden years. Vikram’s oeuvre isn’t just limited to dance as he also identifies as a director, curator-presenter and arts researcher and writer who introduced Ranan Performance Collective to the world which emerged as a kathak-based performance company which demystifies classical dance in order to make it comprehensible to a wider range of audiences. We speak to him to understand his vision of dance, and what’s keeping him busy.

If you were to describe your dance style, how would you do it?

I do not think style is the apt word to describe the form of dance an artist is involved with. Rather, I would say every artist develops a certain relationship with their form over the years which then becomes specific to them, especially if they belong to a classical background. Classical dance as it is perceived in India can often demand to subdue yourself and achieve a certain preconceived parameter which might erase the identity of a dancer. My Guru was never comfortable with that and was very clear in her choices of how she saw Kathak. She was particular about the kind of work she would create and the team she would like to work with and this contributes to a personal signature of dance. What I have found over the years in Kathak is that from my early years I developed a propensity towards Rhythm, as Kathak focuses heavily on the same. It took me years of persuasion from my Guru and self-discovery to align with more dramatic Avinay aspects and the softer side of Kathak. I have also now gravitated towards unpacking the rigid armour of Kathak that overshadows the performer on stage with forms. I find myself looking for ways to inhabit the form with humanity these days. My search and work has been more towards the quieter, more silent sides of the dance form that can create an atmosphere of serenity and contemplation even if the performance is fast paced. It is essential for me to create a sense of time and space within the performance where everything seems to expand.

How has the relationship between the audience and classical dance forms evolved over the years?

Firstly the term classical dance is highly problematic as it is considered to be a translation of Shastriya Nritya, but Shastriya doesn’t exactly mean classical. Also when you go into the power hierarchies of dance forms, classical is always seen from a certain linear angle. I am saying this as a response to this question because the terminology has a lot to do with whether people are going to come and see or not because it is being put inside a box of audience perception. Over the past twenty years one of the main things I have pondered on is how to reach out to a segment of the audience who may not think Kathak or classical dance is for them. It is a responsibility on the artists’ part to create the shift in audiences. So when I used to tour all across India, we would often get responses where people have seen Kathak but not in a similar manner. This only happens when the passion of an artist is being communicated with the viewers in a way to engage different kinds of audiences. As dancers, it is important to learn the approach, designs and dramaturgy of theatre artists as well in order to create that shift.

Are you also experimenting with the space of performance in order to create better communication between the performer and the audience?

My work over the past few years, ever since I came back to India has been very much to do with space. I perform very rarely in proscenium and as a presenter, I do not use proscenium stages due to varied reasons. Dance was never historically presented in auditoriums, especially in this country. One way of moving closer to the audiences is when a dancer realises they need to move beyond the sanctified space and perform in spaces where a blurring between the artist and the audiences can occur. The other reason is also that auditoriums are often unaffordable in our country given that dance doesn’t pay here. The other reason is an artistic reason which I am very encouraged by that dance is a visual medium. So for dance interacting with different spaces is natural to it. It isn’t just because of its aesthetic value but because it opens up avenues to actually communicate with each other. Some of my pieces are particularly choreographed for certain spaces which can never be replicated anywhere else because the architecture of the space is an integral part of that particular piece. I have also collaborated with a lot of European artists who only work in a site specific manner.

What performances are you planning at the moment and in the coming few months?

I work as an artist, a presenter and a curator. As an artist we are just closing a collaboration with a designer based out of the UK, with her we did a community project in the Sundarbans. None of us were performing but it was a series of interventions into the Sundarban community which was simultaneously being carried out by her with a community in Wales. This initiated a conversation between the two communities. The most recent performative collaboration I have done is with contemporary choreographer Preethi Atreya from Chennai in a piece called The Bird. This project made me go back to the fundamentals of Kathak in an attempt to find silence and stillness. The piece is not visually Kathak at all, but the performance made me revisit the invisible fundamentals of Kathak in order to perform the piece. I have also created a solo this year. As a presenter and curator, we have an established organisation called The Pickle Factory Dance Foundation and at the moment The Pickle Factory: Season 3 is running which began last month. There are also big plans for January. I am also trying to contribute to a sustainable dance ecology in Kolkata as despite having a lot of dancers, the city is known more as a theatre city and not for dance.