Mayuri Upadhya, in conversation with Bulbul Sharma, talks about the challenges of choreographing a musical play and raising professional standards for the fraternity of dancers.
Choreographer Mayuri Upadhya talked to Guardian 20 about her new musical play Raunaq & Jassi, working with director Feroz Abbas Khan and her future plans.
Q. How and when did you begin your career as a choreographer?
A. It’s more than a career to me. Dance frees me! It is the only life I know.
Perhaps, my first introduction to the mind of a choreographer was when I was a little girl. I knew I had a gift when I could physically be present in a classroom whilst mentally escaping to my world of imagination. Dance was a means of escape from my math class. Like Calvin and Hobbes I liked to travel between worlds, time and space and dance became that creative outlet.
Q. Talk to us about your association with director Feroz Abbas Khan in musicals—Mughal-e-Azam and Raunaq & Jassi?
A. The man has knowledge, taste, and refinement, both in his art and to his outlook to life. Whether he’s working on a film or a stage production, his vision andhold over his craft is thorough. When I see his body of work there appears a very distinct ‘Feroz Abbas Khan-signature’ style. It is classic! He is a director that I look up to and our association over the years from stage to chai shops, board rooms to backstage discussing work and musing about our life’s learning has taught me a lot. I’ll always be grateful to him for things he’s challenged and inspired me with.
Q. How different or similar was the approach while choreographing these two musicals?
A. With Mughal-e-Azam it was challenging the known and with Raunaq & Jassi it was embracing the unknown. What is similar is, in both,my instincts have driven my design methods. And the difference is in the storyline, the period, scale, approach and the means to create. When you are dealing with a classic like Mughal-e-Azam you are dealing with sentiments of people. Both Feroz sir and I were very clear that we would like to respect that. So, my exploration came with a defined border—to be as authentic as possible, approach the classical Kathak in a contemporary way and not to mess the form by fusing it with filmy movements. I watched the film once and shut it off my mind. Each morning with my filter coffee in hand I would listen to the songs and soak it into my system… It was Mayuri’s interpretation of the time and magic of Mughal-e-Azam and not a recreation of the original.
Whereas, Raunaq & Jassi is an original script and so the treatment had to be more inviting than that of complete adulation. The song numbers are energetic, foot tapping and fun. I had to tap into the culture and pulse of Punjab to create this play. Also a lot of research has gone into old authentic style of folk dancing versus current popular trends. Punjabi folk dance forms likeBhangra, Giddha, Jhumar, Luddi andJaago were used. One particular song “Jaana Jogi Da Nal” which is my favouritetook shape and inspiration from sufism. Because folk dance forms come with easy fewer combination steps I had to relymore on my design skills to create variations that go with the mood of the play. My team here included Manvinder Pal Singh as thePujabi folk dance expert and Latha B.S. as my assistant.
Q. What do you think about the scope of musicals in India?
A. We are a country that has dance musicals ingrained in our DNA, yet it is not celebrated. We will buy a ticket to meet a celebrity wave his hand from far away but not spend money on good art that is nurtured over generations. We buy into an expensive Broadway experience abroad but are not curious about our own local nautanki theatre. It’s interwoven in our culture but would we think of it as value for money? No! We expect it to be a free cultural/religious experience. But good production value can only be possible when an artist and his art have resource to finance. And a producer or a sponsor will invest only when he sees a profit or a viable market. Hence, it’s not about a single successful musical or an artiste that can shape the fate of musicals in our country. I believe there is scope only if we look at the larger perspective and address other interrelated questions.
Q. How has your experience of working as a choreographer in Bollywood been so far? How is it different from choreographing a musical?
A. In both, dance is an interpretive element of the story carrying forward the voice and vision of the director. Although, I understand and enjoy stage more, the scope to dramatiseon celluloid is immense.
Choreography dynamics on stage differs vastly from that required in front of a camera. To hold the attention span of the live audience from the frontal view of a proscenium stage without any camera angles, multiple takes, close-ups is a huge challenge. The process is different in both. On camera there’s a range of things one can use to carry forth an idea but stage predominantly depends on body that is stirred high on emotions. To physically make one dance is easy which is usually sufficient for camera but on stage one has to build a team that belong together, enjoys each other’s synergy and believe in the story to bring it alive.
Q. Directors you would love to work with in the future?
A. In theatre other than Feroz sir, Roysten Abel and Atul Kumar.
Film directors would be Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap and Ayan Mukerji.
Q. What does dance/performing arts mean to you?
A. My dance is an emotional response to the moments of life I’ve known and lived. It’s my little way of transforming emotions into movement. For me, more than the grammar of dance it’s about innovation!Anybody can create a composition, I want to be able to curate an experience that touches the core of people’s heart, moves them in some way or other. It’s my way of inspiring the world.
Q. What are the dance forms you are most comfortable with?
A. Although I see myself more as a creator than a performer I enjoy practicing classical dance forms more than others of late. Bharatnatyam, lyrical forms like Odissi and my body’s natural style of contemporary dancing is what I enjoy most.
Q. How has your journey been so far?
A. Satisfying and exhausting! As an artiste, I’ve had a roller coaster of an experience. So far, I’ve known what it is to be an entrepreneur, choreographer, performer, educationist, producer, curator and an artistic director. Yet, I feel like I’m still at the starting point.
I wanted a space where creative minds and bodies came together and innovate possibilities through movement—a place where anything is acceptable from flying elephants to walking, talking trees and that which could break the stereotypes. And that’s how Nritarutya [her dance company] came alive. After 19 years of running this self-sustaining business model I’m happy that I am working towards raising professional standards for the fraternity of dancers.
Q. What is the biggest challenge a choreographer faces?
A. Totally depends on the individual and the nature of project, kind of dancers, time, dance style, etc.
For me, it is to strike a balance between what is required of me and what I want to offer/say.
Q. What are your upcoming projects?
A. Many more choreography productions, dance education, programmes to develop business of dance in India, produce quality dance works of budding artists and the most important of all to get eight hours of sleep.