“Guess what? I’m going to India,” announces Laasya (Vishakha Iyer) as she effortlessly dances onto the scene, inviting the audience along. Her excitement is palpable and her enthusiasm infectious, and the stage is set for Hamsa Venkat’s Utsav, A Celebration of Folk Dances of India.
Offering to be our raconteur, the young danseuse embarks on an extraordinary yatra with friends Ezra (Raphael Speyer), Radha (Nidhi Panicker) and Neil (Neil Khare) to explore the unique folk dances of India. Each is at a critical juncture in life, be it personal or existential; the love for dance being the common denominator.
As the Aussie travellers crisscross the land of colour and culture, they introspect, find inspiration, meet new people (including a TikTok obsessed American in search of the Zen moment – Utkarsh Kumaran), reconnecting with their identity and discovering new purpose in life. Whether it is the fisherfolk in Goa or brush with divine in Vrindavan, every experience was not just immersive but awe inspiring too.
Hamsa Venkat’s Utsav chronicles this visual spectacle from the perspective of Gen Next, growing up on foreign shores but sentient of their heritage.
Hamsa Venkat and Vishakha Iyer: Journeying together
Choreographed by mother-daughter duo Vishakha Iyer and Hamsa Venkat and co-scripted by Neil Khare, the two-hour long production at UNSW Science Theatre raised funds for Hindu Council of Australia in support of the Counsellor of Hindu Tradition (CHT) program which aims in delivering Vedic Chaplaincy. Not unlike the protagonist Laasya, dance and music are a way of life for both Vishakha and Hamsa, rather than merely an artform or hobby.
“We travelled the journey together, Vishakha and I,” Hamsa told Indian Link. “And I found it inspiring to observe traditions that I had grown up with, seen through the eyes of Vishakha. It was a fresh and unique perspective that we tried to weave into the production. I wanted to highlight this aspect of dance through folk traditions, where people sing and dance as part of their everyday life.”
She added, “I was keen to draw the narration through a storyline of people and relationships, each one at a crossroads, and how dance and music resolves their conflict. Dance has that power to soothe and put things in perspective.” To prepare for the creative process, Vishakha undertook extensive research both on various traditions and folk forms before shortlisting the dance items.
“Since I looked at it with a fresh perspective, not someone who has grown up with these traditions in India, I was able to see those stark similarities and differences and zoned in on those unique pieces that stood out as distinct in their form and style,” she explained. The palpable energy of male guest artists served as a refreshing contrast to the grace of core female dancers from Hamsa’s Samskriti School of Dance who never fail to amaze with the sheer variety of their repertoire.
Utsav: Attention to detail
A standout feature of Hamsa Venkat’s Utsav was the splendid costumes and numerous costume changes complete with authentic props as the narrative traversed north, south, east, or west of India, transitioning in perfect synchrony. “A lot of co-ordination and teamwork was essential for a performance of this magnitude with quick costume changes, and this was managed effortlessly on the day by our backstage managers, Priya, Lakshmi and Nandini,” Hamsa remarked.
Vishakha added, “I also looked at the different props and costumes we could use with each of these dances to give an array of diversity. We used traditional props like suppadas, coconut shells, lazeems, lamps, pots, hand fans, kavadis, kolattams and many others.” Likewise, the sound effects, the backdrop and lighting played an integral part in collective experience. The powerful notes of Vande Mataram set the stage for a mesmerising performance transporting the audience across numerous states, showcasing the rich diversity of each.
The tourists arrive just in time to participate in the famed Ganesh Visarjan in Mumbai, travelling a full circle with the Dahi Handi spectacle, where the nimble-footed Vishakha is lifted to the pinnacle of human pyramid to claim the prize for a breathtaking finale. From Kaavadi to Kaikottikali, Gidda to Lambaadi, each showcase was a showstopper. “It was an enriching experience for all dancers and especially for me as we not only performed on the day but through this beautiful window of Utsav got to view the diverse folk traditions of India and engage with our ethnicity,” Vishakha concluded.
Eager to expand her artistic horizons and imbibe new experiences, it is quite clear that dance is not just a passion and raison d’etre for this young dancer, but also a lifelong quest.