'Chinnadevi – from dancer to Queen' – A first-person perspective of a new production touring in London
Chinnadevi is new bharatanatyam dance piece created for performance in a London temple: ahead of the performance of Chinnadevi on 30 November at the London Sri Murugan Temple, Chamu Kuppuswamy fills us in on the background and context of the work.
As a bharatanatyam dancer, the prospect of deepening my cultural knowledge and engagement brings a sense of coherence and continuity. At the same time, the evolution of culture within a new context fills me with excitement and adventure. Finding spaces in London where the foundational values of the culture are sovereign and implicit is, for me, a prerequisite for deepening culture. First in line for this are temples, followed at some distance by libraries with specialist collections, then museums and high streets with ethnic commercial establishments and eateries.
In these institutions I see a living, evolving culture in the global city of London. The edges, the fringes, the meeting points, the interfaces of this culture with the global culture form the evolutionary pathways that I am interested in, as much as the core of its practices, places, ritual and tradition. It is within this context of cultural inquiry that a novel I read based on the life of a famous king, Krishnadevaraya, transformed itself into the voice of his queen, Chinnadevi, which formed the inspiration for my new production. A fabulous piece of fiction, I found it steeped in cultural elements and alluding to a real period in history. I, Krishnadevaraya was written to fill a gap, giving the personal perspective of the great King; and when I read it, I felt a gap in the exploration of the female experience.
It is a unique way for me to connect dance and temples, its cultural motifs, ritual, tradition and literature. Funded by Arts Council England, ‘Chinnadevi - from Dancer to Queen’ is a 120-minute production on tour at six different temples in London over 2019-2020. Working with a storyteller who enjoys telling stories in sacred spaces, the script of 'Chinnadevi' took shape for narration. My brainstorming partner in this production, Mathangi Keshavan, is a third-generation dancer from Bangalore, steeped in tradition, with a Masters in bharatanatyam practice and keen on exploring bharatanatyam for modern sensibilities. Together with a kuchupudi dancer, and other bharatanatyam dancers, we explore the bharatanatyam margam items in a cultural context, matching items to deities and spaces, valorising legends, recalling vintage sounds, and exchanging language. 'Chinnadevi' is creating for us an ecosystem of culture for a South Indian classical dancer. Dancers and narrator in this production come from different genres, multiple cultural backgrounds, multiple styles of movement and interest in temples and culture.
For ‘Chinnadevi’ dancers, temples are spaces of inspiration, sights, sounds, smells, an experiential space that moves mind and body into movement and creation. We are making links with the cultural elements of London temples such as the nadaswaram (a South Indian reed wind instrument) and thavil (a barrel-shaped percussion instrument) players, the reciters and the ritualists, tapping into the cultural microcosm in London. Regular visits to the temples, reinventing them as performance spaces, engaging with the management and congregation with our story and ethos, as cogs in the wheels of evolution of culture and community, we are both commentators and actors in the process.
From the perspective of an audience, the production opens a spiritual building to those who may not usually assume they can visit, but who feel warmly invited to see a dance production there, therefore helping to strengthen intercultural and interfaith relations.
Our first London performance of 'Chinnadevi' took place at Sri Mahalakshmi Temple in June 2019. The second performance is scheduled for the 30th of November, from 5.30 to 7.30 pm at the London Sri Murugan Temple, East Ham. All are welcome, catch us at a temple near you!