Spanish dancer Monica dela Fuente has been coming to India for over 25 years now, taking in something new with every visit. She saw Bharatanatyam for the first time at Khajuraho by Alarmél Valli. Valli herself practices the Pandanallur-style of Bharatanatyam which Valli describes as more cake than icing. It is the real thing.
Monica says Indian dance is the most complete artistic expression that exists in the world today because it takes into account all the aspects of the human being - the physical, the emotional and the spiritual. “I felt it the first time I saw Indian dance and keep feeling it in my own daily practice.”
It is perhaps the beauty of the Indian practitioner’s delivery which inspires people to deep dive into Indian art. Having trained under the renowned musician T Muktha, poetry and musicality of movement are core elements in Alarmél Valli's approach to dance which has been described as a harmonious extension of verbal melody. “It is a tradition that deepened her awareness of the seamless connection - between word, meaning and music and also inspires her to 'write' with her body, 'sing' with her art,” as she often says.
On Valli’s advise, Monica learnt Bharatnatyam from Kalakshetra, Chennai, for six years, under the tutelage of Meena Raman. She later learnt Kathakali at Kalamandalam, in Kerala.
Like for Valli, the connection between music, dance and the text is what drew Monica to Indian dance. Apart from dancing the different dance forms of Spain from a very young age, Monica was a student of theatre when she first came into contact with Indian classical dance. “For me it was the perfect blend of dance and theatre that gives you all the tools to express yourself. At the same time, it connects poetry, movement and music, and dance for me is the connection with the poetic word, rhythm and melody.”
Monica learnt Bharatnatyam for six years before moving to Kalamandalam to train under Kalamandalam Krishnakumar for a year. After a year, she moved to Trivandrum to learn Kathakali while her husband Guillermo Rodroguez Martin learnt literature at Kerala.
Monica and Guillermo started Casa dela India in 2001, and since then have been involved in cultural exchanges in various aspects of art and cinema as well as in the coming together of Flamenco and Bharatanatyam.
The layering of the ancient and modern appeals to Monica. “In Indian classical dance I could feel the ancient knowledge and at the same time the doors opened to new contemporary expression. I could also identify with the many ancient interesting influences in Indian classical dance, like martial art movement (Kalaripayyattu), yoga and other traditions of movement that are the best training a dancer can have.”
She says that in everything that she does, whether one calls it classical or contemporary, there is scope for new explorations. In her collaboration with France based Indian Carnatic musician Ravi Prasad they “have developed together a personal artistic language where we explore the close relationship between the body and the voice,” in both traditional classical dance and music concerts, as well as in a contemporary performance accompanied with electronic instruments. They take care to “define the frame of the expression. That is to say, we can create a performance based on classical items from Carnatic music and call it “classical”, or we can present a performance which is based on traditional items but is clearly a contemporary work. We have to explain this properly to audiences in Europe so that there is no confusion.”
Monica has performed in many theatres and festivals around Spain, other European countries, in the USA as well as in many cities in India. “I have to say that I like to perform in Spain because it is an interesting process of ‘translating’ a culture by connecting with another. But what I enjoy the most nowadays is performing in India my contemporary creations, because Indian audiences can identify the different sources and influences of my expression and they receive it as something refreshing and new. I also enjoy very much to present Indo-Spanish creations in India, such as encounters of Indian dance and music with flamenco and Spanish traditions, because these kinds of experiments generate an amazing blend of emotions, power and beauty.”
It has always been a vital necessity for her to improvise with the elements she was learning. “I think this comes from the theatre background. I have to experience emotionally and fully what I am learning. Even in my first years of studying at Kalakshetra and Kalamandalam I used to come back home after a very hard day of studying and practicing the different techniques and then liberate myself by improvising with the material that I had learned. Sometimes alone or with other artists (musicians or even visual artists).”
Her performance 'Flower of Desire' inspired by Kalyana Saugandhigam was a solo Bharatanatyam performance where she plays both Draupadi and Bhima. Her 'Narrow Path,' is an adaptation of 12th century feminist Akka Mahadevi's vachanas, which was translated and adapted into Spanish by Guillermo.
The couple’s attraction to the vachana, (free verse poems or sayings), which arose within the Kannada literary tradition during the 12th century sharana movement is intriguing. “While the vachanas reflect various aspects of Bhakti, the vachana poets lay great emphasis on the unity of speech and action. This unity, they stressed, is central to the worship of Shiva” writes Varsha Nair in her essay ‘The Vachanas of Akkamahadevi’.
For Monica, Indian dance made her feel like “an empty bowl” that had to be filled up and “that gave me the beautiful tools and nuances of a language to find and express myself from within. At the same time this has made me search in my own Spanish culture where we also have an important devotional expression through music and poetry. So many of my performances try to connect those mystic traditions and also to understand myself and my own way to feel the spiritual.”
The concepts of Abhinya and Rasa were not new to Monica. Like India, she says Spain has a very rich culture of dance and music. “We can trace layers of different influences in our traditions; so in Flamenco the concept of “duende” can be identify with the notion of “rasa”. In the sense that it is an aesthetic experience close to a spiritual experience through the engagement of the senses and in the communion of the dancer with the audience. In the case of Abhinaya it is not as codified and studied as in Indian performing arts, but again, in Flamenco all the emotions are explored: from solitude to anger, to passionate love, laughter or sorrow. We are also a very expressive culture in gestures compared to other European cultures. We like to express our feelings and emotions.”
She says that learning the texts was important. “A foreign student like me (and this may be true also for young students in an urban society in India today) has to make a great effort to understand all the texts, contexts and poems that we represent in classical dance in terms of Abhinaya and expression. I used to visit the poet Dr Ayyappa Paniker after my Kathakali class in Trivandrum and share with him the poem or padam to understand all the contexts and the nuances behind each and every word so that I could make it my own and express it through my dance. I think, in any case, that one has to “appropriate” the text, the choreography and then let it grow inside yourself. So you have to get into the studio and explore and explore.
On another hand in almost all her creations she works with life music, so "interacting with musicians keeps me creative and alive, as my body responds to music creating new things at that very moment, that particular instance. I have explored with all kinds of music and musicians.”
Monica says the training in rhythm that one gets from Indian dance is excellent. “The dancer is trained as a percussionist so reciting the rhythms in “solukatus” helps a lot to embody it in your movement. It is something that is also explored in Spanish dance when you learn the foot work, but it is not as codified as in Indian dance. Also, for me through Bharatanatyam I explore rhythm in all the body movements, not only in my foot work; and that is very special.”
Dance is an exacting art, both physically and emotionally and classical dance forms require “a lot of effort, control and dedication,” and this includes other classical forms like ballet or Spanish classical dance, says Monica. “The interesting aspect of Indian dance that we can also find in the Spanish tradition of Flamenco, is that you keep practicing and learning throughout your life. The dance accompanies you in all the stages of your life. When you are young you explore the virtuosity, speed and the difficult rhythmic sequences and with maturity you explore more the energy, the emotional part, the Abhinaya, the portraying of the character, and the spiritual aspects of the dance. So you keep training your entire life.”
She regrets that Indian dance is yet to become popular in Spain. Apart from Barcelona and Madrid and her own city Valladolid where she teaches regularly there are not many Indian dance schools. “We do not have a large Indian diaspora community in Spain like in the UK or USA where the children get initiated in those dance forms. However, Bollywood became popular in Spain a few years ago and some of the schools of oriental dance have incorporated also Bollywood. So I have to make a great effort in educating Spanish audiences and theatre programmers in understanding the differences between Indian classical forms and Bollywood dance. I also try to bring Indian dance to dance professionals in Spain so that they can benefit from this kind of training,’ adds Monica.