Power play is always a compelling thing to witness in life and in drama, and it can be wildly hilarious in a comic context. In Kathak dance performance Two, dancer Raghav Handa and tabla drummer Maharshi Raval sought to subvert the tradition of the drummer commanding and the dancer following, in a playful contemporary reworking of a centuries-old dance form. As they state in their press release, ‘The roles of “leader” and “follower” are up for grabs.’
Kathak dance is one of the main genres of ancient Indian dance and is said to have originated from the travelling bards of north India, who were referred to as Kathakars or storytellers. Kathakars communicate stories through rhythmic foot movements, hand gestures, facial expressions and eye work. Lord Krishna was a popular subject in Kathak storytelling, which became popular in the courts of northern Indian kingdoms.
The Two press release states, ‘While motivated primarily by a love and respect for Kathak tradition, Two throws open the doors of the discipline and stretches the limits of musician/dancer interactions. In so doing, it not only speaks to the principles of Indian Kathak, but transcends formal and cultural specificity, interrogating shifting power relationships and inviting audiences to consider the profundity of collaboration.’
Raval improvised the music during each performance – no two performances were the same. And while he mainly took the lead and dictated the performance with his skilled tabla playing, there were some cheeky moments when Handa took the upper hand, using vocal percussion to push the performance in a different direction. It created a playful irreverence within the tradition of Kathak music and rather than telling a story about Lord Krishna and ancient Indian mythology, the story became a contemporary examination of the relationship between these two men.
The show began casually and informally – it appeared as though the two were rehearsing for their next show. Raval interacted with his phone, hilariously asking Siri to find his next gig, and disappeared at one point to ‘put some more money in the parking meter’. In the second half, the spectacle developed as Handa lowered a Bollywood backdrop depicting the pair, and they played with a lit-up picture frame, drumming and dancing within it as a nod to Bollywood glamour.
Handa’s dance was a joy to witness; at times his whole body vibrated in time to the music, and there were some delightful moments between the two men, when the dancer’s kinaesthetic intelligence seemed to anticipate what was coming with the tabla. Similarly, Raval’s skilled solo on the tabla was mesmeric, his exotic rhythms primal and hypnotic. Such was the synergy between the pair, it was difficult to glean who was leading whom.
There’s no doubt that this was a skilled exploration of the Kathak tradition; however, as a theatre lover I longed for more conflict in the narrative between these two artists. It would have been hilarious to see Handa completely take over, prompting a frenzied dance/drum play fight, in which Raval reasserted his dominance by beating Handa into an exhausted submission with his athletic drumming.
This aside, their performance felt like a playful and inclusive introduction to Kathak music for Western audiences. It was a full house, and I noted many people on the way out raving about the show. It was a joyous celebration of a bromance born out of 12 years of collaboration and dedication to this delightful dance form.
PICA Performance Space, WA
Dancer: Raghav Handa
Tabla musician: Maharshi Raval
Two was performed 20-23 September 2023.