From mudras to a message (The New Indian Express)

“With my husband Avishai Leger-Tanger, who is a digital artist, we didn’t really think twice about this video. After the lockdown was implemented in France, we had the urge to keep on dancing and say something useful and positive.”

Odissi is a total art that opens many artistic possibilities including conveying social messages. This art form has a lot to offer to the world.

HYDERABAD : Odissi danseuse Mahina Khanum, who showed us her dance movie in Samajavaragamana in Ala Vaikunthapurramloo earlier this year, is now in a viral dance video that drives home the point of lockdown, home arrest, Covid-19 in an easy-to-understand manner. The French dancer tells us more about the video that is winning her appreciation.

If you are one of those who shared the video because you were amused by the way the Odissi dancer enacted out the elbow sneeze and social distancing in her video that is now going viral, you also would have been curious to know who this exotic looking dancer is. Well, we tracked down the gorgeous and talented danseuse Mahina Khanum to find out more about the video. Incidentally, you also have spotted Mahina and her team in the recent Allu Arjun blockbuster Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo in the song Samajavaragamana and OMG Daddy. Currently living in Paris, Mahina is the Artistic Director of Association Lez’Arts Media, a non-profit dedicated to promoting the Indian culture dance, dance teacher and choreographer. Excerpts from an interview:

What prompted you to use a classical dance like Odissi to convey a social message like this. Have you done such experiments before?

Odissi is a total art that opens many artistic possibilities including conveying social messages. This art form has a lot to offer to the world. Social issues like the environment and woman empowerment can resonate in a very special manner ifhighlighted in a proper way through its vocabulary. Odissi dance is a beautiful language. The codified hand gestures, called mudras, are an endless means of expression. They have been passed on to us from so long ago and I think they are still so relevant! Mudra means “seal” in Sanskrit and they literally leave a long-lasting print in the mind of a viewer.

They are a real language, having different registers, more or less symbolic or literal, which can become universal. Following this short video, I have been overwhelmed with messages from the five continents, praising that the message was poetic and touching, full of hope, graceful… Of course, I was already convinced by the objective beauty of Odissi dance, but I did not expect such a massive and positive appreciation for a “niche” Indian art form among the global audience. Happy to have received appreciation from those like Minister of Petroleum & Natural Gas and Minister of Steel, Dharmendra Pradhan.

How long did it take for you to compose and finally put out the video?

With my husband, Avishai Leger-Tanger, who is a digital artist, we didn’t really think twice about this short video. After the lockdown was implemented in France where I live now, from March 16, we had the urge to keep on dancing and say something useful and positive. The video was ready in three days. We discussed the tone we wanted to adopt and referred to the one of a traditional character, the Sakhi, the friend, that is very present in the Odissi repertoire composed on Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda. The shooting was also pretty quick as we didn’t have many options regarding location and camera angles, being under lockdown in our small apartment! The music had been composed a few weeks before for a completely different project by talented musicians from the Mumbai scene: Vijay Tambe, the composer and flutist, Ramprasad Gannavarapu (mardala) and Aparna Deodhar (sitar). We decided to change our plans and dedicate this music to this video.

Which country do you belong to? Your Paris connection? And when and for how long di you learn Odissi?

I was born in the south of France to a French mother and a Spanish dad who has a mixed background including Indian ancestry. I was raised in France and was initially trained in ballet from the age of three. At 13, I met an Odissi artist who changed my life. Shankar Behera, who used to tour Europe at that time, accepted me as his student and introduced me to the aesthetics of this art form. Later on, I was awarded an excel lence scholarship from ICCR in India and the French government to pursue my training with Guru Madhavi Mudgal in Delhi. I am settled in Paris for some 12 years. With Avishai Leger- Tanger, we have been very active here to develop an audience for Odissi dance, with regular classes and workshops as well as different artistic projects. Our recent projects have been catching a lot of interest and attention, including Odissi dance + computer animated old painting, Odissi dance + virtual reality and Odissi + lightpainting photography.

You also got to dance with Tollywood superstar actor Allu Arjun.

Actually, my professional team of dancers was commissioned to take part in all dance scenes happening in Paris in Allu Arjun’s latest movie Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo. If you watch the video songs Samajavaragamana and OMG Daddy, you may spot me among my team. Yes, this is a world apart from Odissi dance! But I am fascinated by all dance expressions including modern ones. I also teach other dance styles, including Bollywood dance which is a sweet way to introduce French people to Indian pop culture, before slowly driving them to traditional Odissi, which remains my first love!

What do you think is the role of arts in helping us make sense of things going on around us. Especially the Corona times that nobody had ever anticipated.

Art is one distinctive feature of humanity. Being able to create and enjoy art is part of what makes us human. In this time when solidarity means separation and distance when the very fabric of society needs to be “undone,” arts can heal by bringing more humanity. Speaking about the Indian context, many arts are also spiritual practices, like Odissi. They give lots of resources to face the situation. Being locked down for example, and lacking space around us, we need to find “space” within oneself. They can symbolically help break those walls around us.