CHENNAI: Confined to their homes in a time of crisis, the world as a whole has turned to art for solace (at least the ones who can afford the luxury). While some find personal comfort during these highly anxious lockdown days, others wield it to bring some light to many like them. Coronavirus-influenced work — be it hilarious memes or thoughtful messages — continue to flood the Internet too.
Bringing a whiff of ingenuity to this arena is Mahima Khanum, an Odissi dancer who has garnered attention across the board for her brand of awareness effort. You may know her as the woman from that video, clad in pink and blue and putting COVID-19 dos and don’ts to traditional Odissi. For others, she is the artistic director of Association Lez’Arts Media (a Parisian non-profit dedicated to promoting the Indian dance culture), a dance teacher and choreographer. We reached out to her to talk about her video and what influenced it . Excerpts follow:
Odissi might be seen as an unconventional choice for an awareness campaign?
What led you to choose this medium? Odissi is an art form with many artistic possibilities and has a lot to offer the world. Social issues like the environmental woes and women empowerment can resonate in a very special manner if highlighted in a proper way through its vocabulary. The dance is a beautiful language; the codified hand gestures, called mudras, are an endless means of expression.
They have been passed on to us from so long ago and I think they are still so relevant! Mudra means ‘seal’ in Sanskrit and they literally leave a long-lasting print in the mind of a viewer. Following this short video, I have been overwhelmed with positive responses from many countries, praising it for its message being poetic, touching, full of hope and graceful. Of course, I was already convinced by the objective beauty of Odissi dance but I did not expect such appreciation for a ‘niche’ Indian art form among the global audience.
From conception to putting it out for the world to see, what work did this video entail?
My husband, Avishai Leger- Tanger, a digital artist, and I didn’t really think twice about doing this video. After the lockdown was implemented on March 16 in France where I live now, we had the urge to keep on dancing and say something useful and positive. The video was ready in three days. We discussed the tone we wanted to adopt and referred to the that of a traditional character — the Sakhi, the friend who is very present in the Odissi repertoire composed on Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda.
The shooting was also pretty quick as we didn’t have many options regarding location and camera angles, being under lockdown in our small apartment! The music had been composed a few weeks earlier for a completely different project by talented musicians from Mumbai, Vijay Tambe, the composer and flautist, Ramprasad Gannavarapu (mardala) and Aparna Deodhar (sitar). We decided to change our plans and dedicate their work to this video.
What is your life like outside of the lockdown?
Born in the south of France to a French mother and Spanish father with m i x e d I n d i a n ancestory, I was trained in ballet from the age of three. At 13, I met Odissi artist Shakar Behera, who used to tour Europe, and it changed my life. He accepted me as a student and introduced me to the aesthetics of this art form. Later on, I was awarded an excellence scholarship from Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) in India and the French government to pursue my training with Guru Madhavi Mudgal in New Delhi. I moved to Paris and have lived here for 12 years now.
Avishai and I have been very active in developing an audience for Odissi dance here, with regular classes and workshops as well as different artistic projects. Our recent projects — including Odissi dance + computer animated old painting, Odissi dance + virtual reality and Odissi + lightpainting photography — have been catching a lot of interest and attention.
What do you think is the role of arts in troubled times?
Art is one distinctive feature of humanity. Being able to create and enjoy art is part of what makes us human. In this time, when solidarity means separation and distance, when the very fabric of society needs to be ‘undone’, arts can heal by bringing in more humanity. In the Indian context, many arts are also spiritual practices, like Odissi. They give lots of resources to face the situation. Being locked down for example, and lacking space around us, we need to find space within ourselves. Art can symbolically help break the walls around us.