Indian researcher to document life of ‘Kathakali’s Australian mother’

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Amit Sarwal says he wants to highlight the work of Louise Lightfoot and her role in creating a cross-cultural understanding through the promotion of Indian dance in Australia.

Amit Sarwal, researcher in the field of South Asian Diaspora studies, Australian studies and Indian-Australian cross-cultural relations for the past eight years, has been at the forefront of researching, publishing and organising international conferences on Australia-India connections, Bollywood, Indian Diaspora, and contemporary diplomacy.

In May this year, he organised a symposium on 100 years of Indian cinema at the University of Western Australia, and is currently working on the project ‘Louise Lightfoot – In Search of India: An Australian Dancer’s Experiences’.
Through this edited monograph comprising articles, notes, opinion pieces, and commentaries published by Louise Lightfoot on India and Indian classical dances, Amit says he wants to highlight the life and work of the dancer and her role in creating a cross-cultural understanding through the promotion of Indian dance in Australia.

“Although there is not much funding for the kind of projects I do from the Australia-India Council or Australia India Institute, but I have done it, am doing it and will continue to do it because I love it,” says Amit, who published his first research paper soon after completing his MA and first co-edited book – English Studies, Indian Perspectives, while pursuing his M Phil at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Since then, Amit has published twelve book chapters, eight peer reviewed journal articles and eleven edited collections (Monash UP and Sydney UP), and in 2012 established the Australia-India Interdisciplinary Research Network (AIIRN) – now hosted by CCG, Deakin University. He has also been involved in publishing four books on the South Asian diaspora in Australia, public diplomacy, Australia-Asia relations and Australian perceptions of India. In January 2013, he began his Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Fellowship, on “Cross-Cultural Diplomacy: Indian Visitors to Australia, 1947 to 1980” at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation, a Strategic Research Centre at Deakin University. His project is an examination of the Indian Visitors Program and how key Indian public figures (artistes, journalists, writers and scholars) viewed Australia in the aftermath of decolonisation, 1947-80.
At the moment though, the life of Louise Lightfoot (1902-1979) is taking all of Amit’s attention. Amit says she was an architect by profession and an ardent balletomane best known for moving away from pure Western classical ballet to a fusion of classical technique and romantic emotion in Australia through her First Australian Ballet group and school.

“She was impressed by the performances of Anna Pavlova, Rukmini Devi and Uday Shankar respectively during the 1930s. She decided to recreate experimentally ethnic or ‘Oriental’ pieces, with her dance partner Misha Burlakov, for an Australia audience, resulting in “The Blue God”. Prior to this, many of the Australian theatrical and ballet works performed in Sydney and Melbourne, like “The Indian Maid” (1835), “The Sultan’s Choice” (1858),
A Moorish Maid” (1905), and “The Rajah of Shivapore” (1917), had Indian settings, stories and characters,” says Amit.

“To add authenticity to her Indian classical dance style, virtually unknown and unseen in Australia till then in its original form, and also to present the dance practice in a vivid and hitherto unrevealed form and style, Louise decided to take a short trip to India. This short holiday eventually stretched to months and then eight years as she travelled to Tamil Nadu and Kerala’s Kalamandalam, where she began her study of the complex traditions of Kathakali and Bharata Natyam dance,” he explains.

Amit says that Louise realised at a very early stage that Kathakali would never be “adopted entirely by Western dancers”, and audiences, because it “wouldn’t suit them”, and so realised the best thing to do was to infuse Indian rhythms of this symbolic art with Western dance and vice versa. “Louise’s knowledge and training in architecture, sculpture and painting helped her in creating the elaborate costumes, ornaments and stage design,” says Amit.

In 1947, says Amit, she brought Shivaram to Australia and became his publicist by painstakingly organising, explaining the art to audiences through her well researched lectures and commentaries, and doing hundreds of other tasks associated with event management single handily. The extensive notes, commentaries, explanations and interpretation of the art of Kathakali that Louise provided to the Australian public came in as a “valuable aid”. “Their experimentation in fusion of East and West and making a classical form accessible to uninitiated audiences was a success. In 1951, Louise visited the remote mountain state of Manipur in India to learn a third tradition of sacred Hindu dance and was successful in bringing two eminent exponents of Manipuri dancing style “Jagoi” – Rajkumar Priyagopal Singh and Laksman Singh,” says Amit.

While on holiday in Manipur and doing research about the area’s religion, history, folk songs and dances for her book in 1956, Louise met Ibetombi Devi. In 1957, she brought Ibetombi and Shivaram again for her fourth cultural tour.

“Louise, as dance director and stage manager of Shivaram, Janaki Devi, Priyagopal Singh and Lakshman Singh, supported by an ensemble of Australian dancers including Ruth Bergner, Moya Beaver, Leona Welch, Pat Martin and Betty Russell, successfully toured and promoted a range of Indian classical dance forms, like Kathakali, Manipuri, Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Chhau and Mohiniattam, throughout India, Ceylon, Australia, England, New Zealand, Fiji, Japan, USA and Canada. She also published a monograph, titled Dance-Rituals of Manipur (1958) and released Ritual Music of Manipur, her recording of songs and ritual music, in the American Ethnic Folkways series in 1960. She was working on her book of adventures about India but nothing of it is known,” says Amit.

He adds that it was Louise who paved the way for many Indian dancers and dance troupes. “Louise’s death in 1979 was mourned by some leading Indian and regional newspapers as passing away of “Kathakali’s Australian mother”. In 1997, Tara Rajkumar, who as a researcher at Monash came across these archives, created a dance plus dialogic performance Temple Dreaming to revive the memory of Louise and her passion for Kathakali,” says Amit. And now he hopes to do the same through his monograph.

Meanwhile, says Amit, the next couple of years, will see a flurry of published research papers of his. “Research-wise, in the first phase I have completed two solely authored and three joint publications on Indian dancers; first pre-independence Indian-Australian sport contacts; pre-independence journalist’s perception of Australia; and media person’s visit under the first phase of the Colombo Plan (1950-57)––all ready for submission in 2014-15,” says Amit.

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