"To know is nothing at all... to imagine is everything,” reads the first line of Akram Khan’s dance company website and perhaps, best encapsulates the artist’s genesis.
An internationally acclaimed contemporary Kathak dancer, Khan has been charming his audience for the past 25 years with his performances, which is quite something considering the artist is just about 38.
The Bangladeshi-Brit’s tryst with performance art began when he was just 13 with a part in Peter Brook’s production of Mahabharata.
In the city for the closing performance of The Park’s New Festival, Khan gets candid about his style and substance.
Q: Akram Khan, the dancer, is well-known. Tell us about the person.
A: I like motorbikes. I love immersing myself in films, but only artistic ones. I also like superhero films like Spider-man and Superman. I don’t tell anyone that, but yeah, I like super-hero films. I also like drawing, like caricatures and cartoons. When I was young, I used to find solitude in the bathroom because we had many uncles and aunts living with us. I used to sit there and draw on the walls. I was never screamed at for which I was surprised, but they painted over my master-piece (chuckles).
On another note, if I could have another life, I would love to be an Odissi under Kelucharan Mohapatra, the Odissi dancer.
Contemporary dance is very ambiguous. How do you define it?
It is true that it’s ambiguous but dancing is about feeling and emotion. When I’m dancing, I’m not thinking; you have to feel it, that’s where the movement comes from. Most people don’t know what they’re doing and often, it’s hard for the audience to understand what is being performed. We hope the dancer knows what he’s doing.
Do you know what you’re doing?
I’d like to think so (smiles).
If dancing is feeling in motion with no typical ongoing thought process, what keeps you moving on stage?
Fear. Fear of failure. I am very moved by emotions related to tragedy and angst. My routines are to do with melancholic themes.
Is there some tragedy in your life that you draw from?
My life is very boring. Nothing much happening. That I guess would be the tragedy of my life (chuckles)!
Tell us some of your inspirations.
When I was growing up, my mother and I would dub films coming on the television. Rajesh Khanna was a favourite. That line from Sholay, "Kitne aadhmi they?", I would be like, "How many donuts do you have?" It was a wonderful practice as it gave me the space to be very creative. I’m also a huge Charlie Chaplin fan. People like him, and the more contemporary Anish Kapoor are all very inspiring people.
As a Bangladeshi growing up in London, how did Kathak happen?
My mother enrolled me in Kathak classes when I was young. I think she liked the form of dance and also wanted me to learn under a male artist rather than a female one. Of all the Indian dance forms, I also prefer Kathak because there is a lot of room for improvisations. Even among Indian artists, you will find them improvising quite a bit. It’s like jazz.
You’ll be performing Gnosis this time. Tell us about it and how you came to conceptualise it?
Gnosis is actually the second half of the performance; I usually name my routines after the second half. Because this is India, I’ll be performing two segments – a classical piece followed by contemporary. It shows my transition as an artist from my classical side to the contemporary. Gnosis finds its concept from my fascination with Gandhari from Mahabharata. She faces an internal tussle of being a Queen and a mother. As a queen, she has to fulfill her duty and punish her son Duryodhana and yet, as a mother, she wants to protect him. Also, for a woman of that time, she was educated and very intelligent. She always intrigued me from the time I was a part of Peter Brook’s stage production.
Yours was one of the performances at the opening ceremony at London Olympics. How was the experience?
The experience was very mesmerising. When we initially began dancing on stage, we felt very small. But when an 80,000-strong crowd quietens down to watch you perform, that is awe-inspiring. We performed to Emile Sande singing Abide with Me live. So for the audience, the experience was completely different. But for us, first of all she was really far off. So we had ear-pieces through which the song was playing along with a beat-track to help us keep time, because there was a time lag between when Sadine was singing and we could hear it. That was really tricky.
American broadcasting company NBC didn’t air your performance, which actually even trended on Twitter that night. Plus, you also only found out about it at a press conference the following day. How did/do you feel?
I am very disappointed. I guess it wasn’t big enough, or commercial enough. But we actually have a big fan base in the States who were looking forward to it. I never really bothered finding out why they did that though. The media there, and in fact everywhere, is run by money and that is a sad thing. I know a lot of people would’ve really liked to have seen the performance.
What projects are you working on?
I’m at the moment choreographing for a movie which has Frieda Pinto in it. I’m also doing a theatre project that is based on the composer Igor Stravinsky. Besides that, I have plans of directing a film, an artistic film, not a commercial one. This will be based on my earlier dance routine, Desh, which will also be the title of the film.