Pulse Exclusive: Interview with Miti Desai

Credit: Courtesy of the Artist

Mohiniattam dancer, Miti Desai, is set to perform in The Good Fashion Show, later this week.  Pulse caught up with Miti ahead of her performance to get the lowdown on all things dance and design.  Interview conducted and edited by Lucinda Al-Zoghbi.  

LA: How long have you been dancing Mohiniattam and where and with whom did you begin your training?

MD: I’ve been dancing Mohiniattam for the last nine to ten years.  I’m from Mumbai in India and I’ve been training under my teacher Mandakini Trivedi who is a dancer and educationist from Mumbai.  My journey into dance was a rather interesting one, I’m actually a graphic designer and that’s where my journey into creativity really began.  I did my undergraduate in India but then I went away to the USA to further myself and specialise in design and when I was studying I suddenly realised that I loved design but I needed to explore and experience design within my body and that was really the beginning point of questioning that.  I was designing books and everything that was all laid outside of me and I have a really strong mentor, Hank Richardson, who is the Dean of the university that I went to, Portfolio Center, and I used to get quite miserable – I would tell him I love design but I need to experience this design inside my body and I cannot only have outside needs. That’s when I said I really need to dance but of course I did finish my course at the Portfolio Center because I really connected with that vision, I knew that I had to explore the other dimension of design.  I was looking for a teacher and I just called my mother back home in India and she said there’s a lady really close-by, maybe you can learn from her.  But the style I wanted to learn at that point was bharatanatyam because I’d trained in BN as a child and I had done a lot of years but I was not really into that style of dance when I was younger, but because I’d studied that certain style I just thought that’s what I would go back to.  So I wrote to her and asked if she would teach me and she said she would teach anyone who came to her and, with that, I booked my flight to India and was back there the next day.  But when I met her and was talking with her I realised that she doesn’t teach BN but she is a mohiniattam dancer but I innately connected to her and her approach to dance which is very very special and I realised that styles don’t matter but the teacher does.  So I started quite late, I mean it’s not like I’d been learning since I was a little girl but my teacher, Mandakini Trivedi, has a really strong influence and her approach to dance has really shaped me as a dancer, if I may call myself a dancer. 

LA: So what are the differences between Mohiniattam and BN and which elements do you enjoy from each? 

MD: BN is more angular and outward while Mohiniattam is very circular and has a lot of swinging movements, it’s very internal because it’s a softer style and it has a rich heritage of mimetic training.  Mime is an integral part of Mohiniattam because it comes from Kerela and Kerala is where Kathakali is from – so Mohiniattam is almost a sister of Kathakali – it’s got a lot of mime and abhinaya and I really enjoy the expressional and representational elements of Indian dance and it a perfect style for me because it suits my personality.  It also comes from the nature of the place, if you go to Kerela it’s got these tall coconut trees and the backwaters and these movements are almost reminiscent, an inspiration that emerged from the nature.  

LA: I understand that Mohiniattam isn’t practised very much in the UK, why do you think this is? Do you think it’s important for the form to be practiced here as well as India? 

MD: I think the reason is probably just because there aren’t many Mohiniattam dancers who are here and practising in the UK.  Of course, if you look at the styles in India BN, kathak and odissi are the more popular ones because there are more practitioners in those styles.  Mohiniattam is popular in India and there is an abundance of Mohiniattam dancers but it’s a style which has developed and found its identity much later than the other styles.  It’s a style which is very fresh and new because it offers the possibility for the practitioners to work on it and develop it and shape it and, for me, Mohiniattam is the language in which I express myself and the dance is more important than the style but I’m more interested in the exploration of dance and that happens to me through the style which I have learnt.  

LA: How did you become involved in TGFS? And what made you support the event? 

MD: TGFS is actually happening at the Good Enough College which is a centre where a lot of Postgraduate, Doctoral and research artists live and it’s been organised by Antoinette Saxer who is also a Good Enough member and so am I.  That’s where I’m doing research in Design Education and that’s why I’m in London and where I’m living.  Antoinette were talking one day and she was really interested in the dance and she was telling me about TGFS and sustainability and I really connected with the vision in principle and I really believe in ecological living and lifestyle and I feel that the classical Indian arts are very sustainable and ecological because they have been created as forms that do not need outside influence necessarily.  I do not need a lighting infrastructure, I am a dancer and my dancing is enough and I’m on a platform to communicate and that in itself is ecological living – no external working force or more and more things – you know the less the things the better it is, and the arts are performed like that.  Each classical style has its own make up, costume and jewellery style but they all come from the region that they have evolved in and that’s how they are sustained through very economical and ecological aspects.  It’s about immersion and questioning and transcending a different type of conscience, and that is also the purpose of the artist – to manifest something that they feel as an individual.  The principles of the Indian classical arts and TGFS are something I completely agree with – normally I wouldn’t dance in a fashion show because I am a purist and a classicist and I wouldn’t dance in any event whose basic vision does not tie together with the vision of the art – that you need to think of not just the environment of yourself but the environment around you and that’s ties in with the classical element and how I practice with the art.  The theme for the evening runway show is Transformations and Mohiniattam is really about transforming – transforming the form through the music, the movement and transforming through yourself and that you need to give to the viewer and it’s an individual challenge, these are visions which are given to the students through the practitioners of the art.  

LA: Do you get lots of performance opportunities like this in the UK? 

MD: I’ve actually only been here [in the UK] for a few months if I’m honest so quite a short amount of time to establish myself as an artist here but I performed at the Sri Lankan High Commission in November and I performed at one of the temples at the end of October.  I will be doing other performances at the Royal College of Art at the end of February which are going to be more like lectures than performances – I will be working with the design students on the MA programme.  I’m going to be deconstructing the form through the medium of design and my journey from design to dance.  I’m also going to be performing at the Nehru Centre at some point in May, I’m just in the process of fixing a date, so yes I am performing and I will be performing in London.  I think it’s just a matter of time, I’m going to be here for another year and a half so I’m sure there will be lots of performances coming up but it all depends.  

LA: You’re a dancer and designer, these could be two careers in themselves, but you’re doing both.  How do you organise your time and creativity between the two?  

MD: Basically I work under the umbrella of Miti Design Lab which is a free space for me to operate under.  It has no geography, no infrastructure, it’s almost a lab of who I am and, as I travel along, wherever it is it emerges.  Design and dance are two dimensions through which I express myself so they are two dimensional and three dimensional designs, for me dance is a form of design so I don’t myself having two different careers they are just two different sides of the coin.  It’s just the way I express myself, sometimes I use the two-dimensional medium of graphic design and sometimes I express myself through movement so for me it’s not so different.  I work in design education, I’ve been a teacher for several years at the graphic design faculty in India and right now I’m doing a research in design education so I’m not just interested in performing or the outward impression but it’s both – theory and practice go hand in hand.  I study design theory, aesthetics, design education, in movement, culture and it all comes together in me, it just depends on the way in which my creativity flows.  Of course, classical Indian dance is an extremely intense and demanding medium in itself but it’s almost been an entry point for me into the world of the design of a culture, the design of storytelling, the design of symbols and lifestyle and, more than anything, I’ve really explored and understood the design of being.  This has come through my teacher whose approaches are very broad in the dance – not only does she teach me Mohiniattam but she’s taught me to perform on the stage and perform in life.  So classical Indian dance has been my major source of inspiration and I would say that dance is my inspiration, design is my imagination and creation is my driving force.  

LA: Do you perform in India and, if so, in what sort of setting? Do you notice any difference between the audiences there and here in the UK? 

MD: I perform quite regularly in India, like a few months before I came here I was in New Delhi at the Habitat Centre and I was performing at an arts festival Bangalore in December, so I perform on the main professional dance circuit in India.  I feel that there is a difference between audiences for example in India it can be easier because there is a background that they already have about the culture, the stories, the dance – they are used to seeing a dancer dress in a certain way with the costume and make up so they’re not taken aback.  So it can be easier to share mediums but sometime they can get over-exposed and then it’s just another dance but there are different kinds of responses.  In the UK, also Australia, I find the western and non Indian native audiences very fresh and open and they want to receive with perhaps more enthusiasm because they haven’t experienced a kind of medium like this.  So it’s never been a negative experience performing for audiences outside India, not performing in India has been a negative experience either, but sometimes I feel that, in a different culture, it’s tough for audiences because you have to break things open and initiate the audience a little more.  So at The Good Fashion Show I’m going to be talking for sometime in order to address the theme of transformation as a theme in Indian dance and then I will be dancing but I feel this is important because the audience need to know the connection between Indian dance and transformations and also why I’m even at a fashion event and dancing.  But you know both audiences, human beings are human beings and emotion and energy is the same regardless of geography, caste and creed so everyone has feelings and the more you connect with their feelings, independent of where they are, I think my experience is the same.  Even when an audience here does not understand the language, I have had a lot of positive feedback because we are all human and the human feeling connects and I like that universal aspect which the art has in it.  Even if you don’t know my language, if you’ve never seen people dress like this, if you’ve not heard this kind of music there is something in the human energy and if I am able to feel and communicate – I know the audience relates to it.  It’s always a pleasure to perform to an audience who is willing to receive. 

LA: Wonderful, thank you for taking the time to speak to us, Miti.  We thoroughly look forward to seeing your performance at The Good Fashion Show.   

MD: Thank you and I hope you enjoy the performance.  

DATE: Saturday 18 February 2012
VENUE: London House, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 2AB