May 2, 2015 at 2:16 am
The Dancer’s Diamonds: A review of Raghav Handa’s Tukre’
By Roanna Gonsalves
There was once a little boy who watched his grandfather at work in India, as he cut diamonds by hand in his workshop. The boy watched as his grandfather looked intently at the diamond in his fingers, then turning to look at him, again and again. That little boy was Raghav Handa. The memory of the movement of his grandfather’s hands and head as he shifted attention from the diamond in hand to the face of his grandson, became the heart of Tukre’, a contemporary dance show choreographed and performed by Handa, now on at Riverside, Sydney, Australia.
Tukre’ the word for ‘pieces’ in Hindi, is a collection of short dance compositions, the tukras or short pieces of traditional Kathak, deliberately brief and puzzle-like, yet held together firmly by the intertwined seams of family memory, and circular and linear dance movements recalling the weight of centuries of Kathak performance.
The meditative, ritualistic start, from darkness to the lighting of the symbolic jeweller’s lamp, invokes the ancestral body, as Handa replicates in art what his grandfathers practiced as a trade in North India. It is personal homage to this ancestral labour. It is also a transformed and transformative carrying forward of this labour through the nimble footwork of the Kathak style, and the quick, repetitive hand and head movement in the style of some Indigenous Australian dance practices.
The syncopated rhythms in the music serve to powerfully highlight a different syncopation that takes place in this show, where what is usually unstressed and unaccentuated in real life becomes the breath of the piece. While this piece is memory of and memorial to the ancestral trade of Handa’s grandfathers and great grandfathers, it is the minor histories, and publicly elided aspects of our collective present woven through Tukre’ that make this show memorable: conversations that Handa on stage has with his enchanting mother projected on curtains, the inclusions and exclusions of gendered work, the splicing up of Hindu marriage rituals that Handa can only savour in small, broken and incomplete morsels as someone in a same-sex relationship (revealed through the show and in the Artist Talk after the matinee).
The curtains in the show serve as surfaces for video projections, but also serve as a symbolic space where the dancer changes and thus moves from one life event to another. In one segment of video projection, Handa’s mother Shashi Handa, displays her necklace studded with diamonds. She says that it was passed on to her as wedding dowry from her father, and she will pass it down to her son. Then she asks, matter-of-factly, “Are you allowed to get married?” And Handa, the dancer on stage, looks up at his mum projected onto the curtain and says, “No mum.” In this one serene yet mighty intersection of video and live performance, Tukre’ moves from an intensely personal conversation between mother and son, to political statement. The statement is political not just because it highlights the deplorable fact that same–sex marriage is still illegal in Australia, but also by the quotidian way in which the mother asks about the son’s marriage, normalising her son’s gay relationship in cultures (India and Australia) where such relationships are often a source of great parental anxiety.
The white ‘Anarkali’-style kurta with a pleated bodice and flared skirt, that adorns the body for parts of the performance, is taken off at the exact same moment that Handa’s mother puts on a yellow and magenta sari, as seen via a video projection. This set of reversals casts family relationships and entitlements in a new light, as the mother is allowed to adorn herself while the son must cast off the hopes that he holds dear.
One of the luminous closing images of the show is that of Handa carefully, deliberately, putting on his mother’s diamond necklace. Time is sliced into the tradition of the past when the necklace was handed down from his grandfather to his mother, the reality of the present where he can never be given the necklace as a wedding gift in Australia, and a utopic reimagining of a future where he may be able to wear the wedding necklace. The dancer’s body thus transcends the engaging intimacy of family memory and becomes Tukre’, pieces of a hoped-for whole, as the re-imagined labour of Indian jewellers, as the contemporary Indian-Australian vessel of the Kathak dance-narrative tradition, as an artist of colour in a same-sex relationship claiming a space in the world of contemporary Australian dance.
Like other arts practitioners of colour in Australia, I am painfully aware of ways in which artists of colour are contained within certain spaces in this country and are very rarely seen in the mainstream. It was thrilling to witness Handa’s eruptive Tukre’, this highly-skilled, eloquent and understated personal statement that was powerfully political as well. This show was a long time in the making, and was enhanced by Martin Fox’s video and projection work, Martin Del Amo’s dramaturgy, Clytie Smith’s lighting design, Lachlan Rostock’s music, Shruti Ghosh’s singing, Marissa Yeo and Pheonuh Callan’s costume design, and Melinda Tyquin and Anton’s production management.
This dancer, Raghav Handa, is one to watch and support.
Tukre: 29 April – 2 May, 2015
Lennox Theatre, Riverside, Parramatta.
Image credit: Lucy Parakhina