Despite her family’s roots in dance, Haritha Thampan’s interest as a teenager lay in the technical details of managing off-stage visual and audio production. Given how her mother and aunt were professional dancers and teachers of classical dance, the art form was an inescapable activity, and she found herself training at regular intervals, often sullenly.
However, a move in 2016 to Chennai, a city where classical dance is as earthly and innate as the stone under your feet, opened her true eyes to the magical world that this art form paves the way to, and she found herself longing to embrace that which she had once sought to bid goodbye to.
With each programme she attended in the city, Haritha became once again the dancer she always was. Indeed! Keeping away from the art form had not impaired the foundations she learned whilst training with her kin, and later, at Lasya
College of Fine Arts in Kannur, founded by her father, Thamban Kambrath, an accomplished theatre scriptwriter and director.
Now, inspired by what she saw in Chennai, she returned home the next year with a renewed vigour to bridge the gulf between the beauty of Bharatanatyam and the evolving tastes of the audience. This desire prompted her to choose the topic ‘Confluence of mise en scene and Bharatanatyam’ for her doctoral studies. Haritha’s idea was to transform the traditional dance form into a contemporary presentation that could resonate with modern audiences. As a Doordarshan-graded artist and professor at Lasya, she is now working towards this vision with a few dance drama productions.
Dance programmes struggle to attract audiences as people find it challenging to grasp the true essence of the art. “Though times have changed, traditional dance styles are still stuck in the past. Dance is like water. It can take different forms, but if we stick to old ways, the audience may not understand what we are trying to say. So, the challenge is to make dance connect with modern audiences and help them see the performance’s purpose in a way that clicks with them,” says Haritha.
Her latest production, Soorya Puthran, reflected her efforts. The drama, scripted by her father, was staged at Soorya Festival in Thiruvananthapuram on Saturday. The dance drama, which depicted the pathos of the Mahabharata character Karna, was a blend of various art forms such as Kalari, Yakshagana, Kathakali, and Karam Holi folk dance.
Haritha’s use of space and the pulsating narrative involves the audience emotionally with the artists as they stage the scenes from Karna’s life as depicted in the Mahabharata. A similar experience was witnessed at the Ganesham Auditorium, where the production was staged as part of the festival.
The idea to bestow stage space with equal importance as a character was inspired by a production of Kurukshetra by her mother, Kalamandalam Latha Edavalath, the principal of Lasya College of Fine Arts. “The dance, the sound, the settings — they all create the mood. By using the entirety of the stage, we convey this better and help the audience have a meaningful experience,” says the 29-year-old.
According to Haritha, Soorya Puthran heralds the dawn of a new age for classical dance in Kerala. “There is huge potential here. But people are not very familiar with artistes. Most think that it’s only film actresses who can dance. A part of the responsibility lies with us — the dancers — to wade through this misunderstanding and announce our presence. We should, sensing the change in the perception of the audience, improvise by putting the old wine in a new bottle. Dance, hence, should evolve. We, too, should evolve,” adds Haritha, who has three upcoming projects. One explores Theyyam with a focus on caste dynamics. Another project, Jahannara, against a backdrop of an Islamic theme, offers a rich exploration of cultural narratives. The third is centred on the character Bali. Haritha’s journey through the realm of classical dance promises exciting ideas, and her pursuit of a timeless charm could rightly herald a new age for the art form.