Finding Lila: Tales of Odissi in the 21st Century

by Nisha Somasundaram 

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Not long ago I attended a seminar on the subject of astronomy and physics written in verse at the university I currently attend. The presenter spoke of how mathematicians of a bygone era in India aspired to write about physics in poetic form in a way that was as beautiful and sophisticated as the subject matter itself. In many ways, this is an idea that underpinned the creation of Finding Lila, a multi-media initiative and website dedicated to exploring Odissi from the viewpoint of UK-based practitioners:

Could the practice of Odissi be explored, presented and discussed with as much nuance and beauty as the art form itself?

Could the narratives that are written about Odissi also reflect an erudition and honesty which matched both its history and current reality?

Inception and beginnings

Finding Lila was originally conceived by myself and London-based Odissi teacher and journalist Urbi Basu towards the end of 2013. The idea to create the website, which uses a mixture of journalism, documenting conversations with artists through audio and written means and photography, was sparked by a conversation which incidentally took place on the London Tube.We pondered as to how technology could be used to supplement traditional Odissi dance practice and create dialogue regarding deficiencies in its scholarship. We also lamented the fact that there were so many fascinating stories and aspects to the art form which were not receiving enough media coverage. Our solution to this conundrum was to create a platform ourselves to help achieve these goals, particularly as no such platform existed which was dedicated to Odissi in the UK.

Finding Lila’s origins are therefore very much rooted in the cosmopolitan cultural milieu of London, where interest in Odissi and other Indian art forms is flourishing and dancers trained locally and abroad, whether it be in India, Malaysia or Australia, are seeking to make their own contribution to the field. It is also taking place in a context where debates continue about the proper education of dancers and authentic representation of “South Asian” arts in a western context. This is reflected in our name itself, to which we field the most questions, where we have taken a dash of poetic license with the world Līlā, a word meaning play or creativity, amongst other things. It reflects the duality of existence as London-based practitioners of a dance form so rooted in Indian and Oriya culture and also brings a touch of humour and lightness in the often-serious world of classical dance.

At the heart of it all: stories and oral histories

The motivation to create Finding Lila was however never purely aesthetic or academic. The essence of Finding Lila is people telling stories in their own words and to that end we have tended to prefer first person accounts of artists and other individuals working in the field over anything else. There is a certain power and charm in hearing great artists and women such as Sujata Mohapatra and Madhavi Mudgal talk about the reality of their art and experiences and what inspires them to do what they do. To achieve an unfiltered and more authentic effect, we didn’t necessarily want people to write an essay about their experience, but rather what we wanted to hear was their candid first person accounts about their lives through dance. Whilst this emphasis on first person narratives has made the process of creating content on the site much more laborious, it has provided some truly stunning insights. Dance theory and dance academic writing have a place in the arts world as do sharing ideas about dance, but it is really the voice of those who have physically realised or experienced the art form whom we have felt provide the most powerful stories. Also by having a primarily on-line presence, there is immediacy to the way Finding Lila can respond to developments and publish material.

We also wanted to think beyond featuring stories of people interacting with Odissi or other classical Indian art forms in the most typical or literal way. There are so many different ways of looking at what dance represents for an individual and society and to that end we have been fortunate to speak with a wide group of inspiring individuals. These include Esther Hyman of Miriam Hyman Memorial Trust whose work includes creating teaching resources incorporating Odissi in memory of her sister Miriam who died in the London bombings of July 2005. It also includes scholars such as Anna Morcom who has done ground-breaking field work in the area of hereditary performers and up-and-coming performers such as young Kathak dancer Vidya Patel who won the South Asian category for an innovative BBC television dance competition.

By pursuing and looking for authenticity in the stories we present in this way, Finding Lila has been able to explore a wide range of issues. These include very practical ones such as access to dance teachers and musicians in the UK, “making it” financially and challenging dance traditions that are incompatible with a big city lifestyle or ethos. The more problematic and unspoken aspects of practising a classical Indian dance form in a western context have also been raised in this way. These include the conflation of classical Indian dance with religion or certain values, inauthentic spirituality alongside the practise of Odissi for commercial means, “brown face,” the tendency for the art form to be increasingly Sanskritized in an ahistorical manner, class issues inherent to dance and the conflict between tradition and modernity. These ideas are not necessarily unique to the UK but by sharing these multitudes of stories from our part of the world, Finding Lila seeks to provide some perspectives as to how these experiences fit in with the greater global narratives about Odissi, art and society in general.

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