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Sports & Fitness
August 06, 2014

Cultural Fountainheads and Kalaripayattu

Text by Nittal Chandarana

The graceful marriage of dance and martial art, with an original music score. Daksha Sheth shares her insight

  • Kalaripayattu, Martial Art, Kerala
    Kalaripayattu
  • Daksha Sheth, Dance, Sari
    Daksha Sheth
  • Isha Sharvani, Daksha Sheth, Dance
    Isha Sharvani in Shiva Shakti (Image courtesy: David De Souza)

This was supposed to be a piece about Kalaripayattu. However, after a chat with dance maestro Daksha Sheth (who we did a short workshop with), things were bound to get interesting and move in different directions, much like the danseuse herself. First, we tackle the martial art.

Kalaripayattu has its roots in India and is practiced primarily in Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu. Considered to be one of the oldest martial art forms in the world, it is often said that this was created by the Gods. It makes use of animalistic stances as key positions and involves kicks and strikes and at a later stage, weapons. It is rigorous and strenuous and involves engaging every part of your body. A number of dance schools have been including Kalaripayattu in their exercise regime, one of them being the Daksha Sheth Dance Company.

Daksha Sheth lives in Kerala with her husband Devissaro and children Isha Sharvani and Tao Issaro. Devissaro is a composer and Isha and Tao have taken to dance and music, respectively. They have created an ashram-like atmosphere where they reside and their home is a hub for these art forms. Both children were home-schooled and allowed to choose their desired paths of life. These cultural fountainheads have time and again rebelled against traditional norms merely by their way of existence, and are as close to a Howard Roark-ian way of life as can be. Last month they brought contemporary dancer Jasmiina Sipila from the University of Arts, Helsinki, Finland to conduct a workshop here.

A Q&A with Daksha Sheth

1. How long have you been practicing Kalaripayattu?
I’ve been practicing this since 1989. When I saw Kalaripayattu for the first time, I realised it was a deeply holistic form; it is not superfluous. I have a Kathak and Chhau background. At that time, we would begin our routines without warming up. I did a lot of experiments on myself and had a lot of problems with my ankles and knees. You are lucky, you live in the information age and have easy access to everything. I realised that Kalaripayattu would change me internally and externally and that I must incorporate it in my training. What I have gone through, my dancers must not.

2. What are the things absolutely essential for learning Kalaripayattu?
Any form, be it martial arts or classical, there are two things required: the desire to learn and the dedication to follow up. Perseverance and pain come along the way. Most people, especially in metros, learn this during workshops. Always study any form for a long time. There are two kinds of people – the flies and the bees. The flies flit and sit on everything for a bit but the bees only sit on flowers and finally, it is the bees that make honey.

3. What exactly is the Disha Dance style?
Disha is essentially an amalgamation of our names – Daksha and Isha. My main interest, my focus, was to create a completely new dance form. Disha means direction and we wanted to develop a new direction in terms of dance. This is not fusion. What we do is transformation. When I started creating, I had already 25 years of Yoga, Kathak, Kalaripayattu and Chhau in me. It is all muscle memory now and therefore, all comes together in one movement. It becomes a part of something as basic as our walk and every movement that follows. It is like music and singing; also a part of us. Disha is created from the information my body has gathered over a period of almost 50 years. Then I met my husband, Devissaro, a composer, who completely complimented me with his music. In our shows, we always have completely original music to go with the dance. In-house music is a luxury very few artists enjoy, even in the international realm. We’re also a music school.

4. Both you and your husband double up as gurus for your children. Does this personal connect make it easier or tougher?
It’s how you look at it. For the children, it’s good; they get both. Discipline was anyway never a problem. The atmosphere in the house is very creative, inspiring and alive. Ours is not a normal house. Isha and Tao have grown up with music and dance around them. Our working and living space is the same. There is no concept of Sundays and holidays because it is one and the same.

5. What are the themes of your shows inspired by?
All subjects should completely mean something to us. We don’t accept topics. We have to be inspired. It takes a long time. The seed of the concept stays with us for many years. Sari took five years. Shiva Shakti took close to three years. Every production has an R&D period. It’s like creating a new dance language. I have no training in western dance. I feel India itself is so rich and my dance style must come from here. My roots are here.

Watch this space for information about their next show. Mumbai may get a rendition of Sari in December. 

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