Stepping back in time


Local dance choreographers Govind Pillai and Raina Peterson say their new production In Plain Sanskrit takes the audience on a journey into the 3000 year old tradition of Indian classical dance

“What really is tradition?”

It’s a question many children of the diaspora ask themselves. And it’s inspired a bold and provocative new Melbourne production by well-known local dance choreographers Govind Pillai and Raina Peterson.

In Plain Sanskrit challenges tradition – taking us on a journey to peel back the layers of Indian classical dance as we know it in search of its 3,000-year-old roots.

“As migrant children we sort of inherited this tradition,” explained Pillai, director Karma Dance Australia. “The only way we access it here in Australia is through a guru who knows that art, so we go to classes and we’re told this is what it is.”

But the traditional Indian dance we see on stages from Bombay to Bendigo nowadays is, Pillai said, “very different from what it actually used to be.”

“There’s a lot of paraphernalia, like elaborate costumes and jewellery, and very complex music and a lot of make-up, which is what we characterise classical Indian dance as now, and that’s our received tradition.

“So we’ve said, ‘What if we peeled away all those layers? And we tried to really find out what it is underneath.”

The result is a pared back performance with minimal costuming, which Pillai said, “will not look familiar to any classical Indian dancer”. “It’s traditional and new all at the same time,” he said.

“We vocalise, and the dancer becomes musician at times, musician become dancer. As it used to be done probably 800 years ago – we’ve really gone back in history and peeled it right back to how it used to be performed in the temples.”

The vocals featuring in the performance revive an extinct tradition known as vaachika abhinaya.

It’s just the latest in a string of successful shows put together by Karma Dance, classical and contemporary Indian dance company, which Pillai co-founded in Melbourne five years ago.

Prior to starting the company, Pillai trained in Bharatanatyam dance and Peterson studied Mohiniyattam at Tara Rajkumar’s renowned Natyasudha dance company in Melbourne.

“Our earlier work was very classical in its nature and really drew on the traditional classic Indian dancing,” Pillai said.

“As we’ve incorporated more contemporary repertoire, and collaborated more with musicians that are from different styles and backgrounds, as well as dancers, we’ve ended up with a repertoire which is quite a blend of a number of things and I think represents more of what multicultural and diverse Australia is.”

Karma Dance has made a name for itself in the local arts scene, touring productions around Australia, New Zealand and internationally, to Malaysia. They were the opening act at last year’s Indian Film Festival of Melbourne, Parramasala festival in Sydney’s west, and Queensland’s Woodford Folk Festival, to mention just a few.

Taking a show to India is, “very high on the agenda,” according to Pillai. But it’s complicated, with the export of Australian arts being a challenge the entire industry is struggling with, “particularly migrant Australians”.

“We’re really thirsty and very good at bringing art in [to Australia] but I think we can do so much more to export art, so it’s definitely something we’re trying very hard to do,” he said.

Pillai said Australia had a mature Indian diaspora, with artists who were, “taking the next step in a lot of our traditional arts, be it music or dance and even painting”.

“We have material now here in Australia that’s made by Indians in Australia that could stand up against and right next to what’s made in India. There’s very deep artistic practice here and we’re ready I think to take that [back to India] but there’s very few so far who are doing that,” he said.

In Plain Sanskrit premiers at Footscray Community Arts Centre from 17 to 19 July with three performances.

To book tickets, visit: or call: 03 9362 8888

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