Praha - an unforgettable experience
- Aparna Mathur

July 29, 2010

For the longest time that I can remember, I have always dreamt of dancing on stage in my complete Bharatanatyam dance attire. In addition to the very emotive dance itself, the bright costumes and jewelery have always held a fascination for me and I visualized myself in it someday. Not in my wildest imagination would I have thought that this dream of mine would be realized at an international dance festival.

As an annual event, the New Prague Dance Festival provides a platform for aspiring dancers to showcase their dance styles. It beautifully reflects the vision of David and Roberta, the organizers, to bring diverse cultures together. While it is a competition, the bonhomie and a genuine desire to learn about other art forms is what defines the spirit of this festival.

After close to 5 months of practice, we were ready to take on the world! At the Delhi airport, the security fished furiously through Shradha's handbag to figure out the metallic beep. It was no coincidence that a small brass Ganesha in her bag was making his presence felt to wish us good luck. After a fairly comfortable 8 hour flight, we arrived to a warm welcome by the dance festival organizers; at the sparsely populated Prague Airport. Along with some more dancers from Switzerland, we zipped towards Hotel Ibis in the Old Town. At the hotel, we met with Lucy and Eva who would be our guide and coordinators for the festival. With the festival brochure and kit in hand, we checked into our rooms and hit the beds for the much needed sleep.

For a large part of the first two days, we had ample time to ourselves, so the 5 of us (Navya, Namita, Shradha, our guru Jyotsna Shourie and I) set out to explore the city. At the Old Town Square, we waited patiently for the Astronomical Clock to strike at the hour. The clock was an amusing sight to see - all parts of the tall tower had small puppets that set into motion when the gong struck 5. I thought it was a more elaborate and animated version of the conventional cuckoo clock. Come to think of it, there seems to be some fascination with clocks all across Europe. The clock tower is usually a well known landmark and one finds varied versions of clocks dotting the cities. The soothing sound of the several clock tower and church bells every hour gives me the goose bumps. While window shopping at exorbitantly priced but exquisite Swarovski crystal stores, we suddenly realized we had ambled quite far away from our hotel. Namita and I pored over the map to figure out what would be the best way to get back since retracing our steps was not an option. With signs of fatigue being voiced by some of us, we had to find a solution quickly. So with a faint knowing of an alternative short cut, we egged the group to move on. With a few breaks in between where we didn't lose the opportunity to ogle at some good looking cops closing in on miscreants, we found our way home. On our return, we flipped through the brochure to check the schedule of events. One complicated puzzle it turned out to be and had all five of us rendering our diverse interpretations of it. I still haven't understood why it carried several pages on arrivals and departures of groups to the theatre!

The next day, Lucy guided us to the Narodini Divaldo, the National theatre which she said was a 10 minute walk from the hotel. At our pace, it turned out to be a 40 minute one! We realized how unaccustomed to walking we were and Lucy made no bones about saying so! The theatre was so huge that it needed a proper guided tour. The stage was ten times the size of the dance floor that we have been used to. The entire enormity of the place overawed us and it did show up in the dismal stage rehearsal we had later that evening. We were losing our balance and forgetting our steps and we wondered why! This episode reflected quite sweetly in Shradha's dream that night when I heard her mutter, "Please, please clap for us." With the way we had performed on our rehearsal day, she probably imagined there would be no applause at all! Every night after returning to the hotel, no matter how tired we were, a rehearsal was a must. Any open space we found was enough to get us started. On one occasion it even invited a complaint from the hotel! Our midnight practice and unending chat sessions over chai (made with tap water from the washroom!) were truly memorable experiences. We baulked at the idea of drinking out of the taps initially but got used to it later. In India we have been so conditioned to relating tap water to falling ill, that it did require some time to de-condition that thought. The force of the water flow made a filled up glass look misty initially causing a brief moment of horror. Of course, it settled down later to crystal clear water!

Getting ready for our first day of performance was quite a task. It took us over two hours and had us scurrying to the theatre to be there on time. By the third day of our performance, we had mastered the act and got dressed with ease and then strutted through confidently in the Metro and the streets of Prague to get to the theatre! I can't imagine walking the streets of India in all our finery. Once, when we were returning to the hotel, our Christmas tree like bright attire attracted a Russian couple who stopped us for a photo op. Another day, we were accosted by a cop on a routine check in the metro for tickets. While we had our hearts in our mouth through the ordeal, we can now look back and laugh at yet another interesting episode to add to our Prague experience.

Stitching the 'rakodi' (or 'rokda' as Namita once referred to it and had us all in splits!!) on the hair buns, pinning every part of our 5 piece costume and jewelery, the war paint like make up, fixing our battery operated diyas for the aarti, using red marker pens for 'alta', last minute rehearsals were all moments of fun, nervousness and excitement. It just made all the effort of the last 5 months so worthwhile. On each successive performance day, the back stage management is what amazed me. 45 teams from across the world, over 450 dancers with props and elaborate outfits and everything moved with clockwork precision. The PA system announcing "No. 16, you are next" still echoes in my ears. Moving up to the wings silently to avoid the sound of our ghungroos from disturbing the other artists, Navya, Shradha and I would hold hands, take a deep breath and wish each other luck. My guru's words of encouragement and prayers did a lot to boost our morale. I just hope we lived up to her expectations and months of untiring effort.

We had prepared three very different dance pieces. Our flagship brand in our repertoire was 'Rhythms,' a peppy fast paced choreography on a Shankar Mahadevan number, 'Dheemtana.' This had taken us the longest to choreograph and practice and was one based on pure footwork. For an international audience, I thought this piece represented a good balance of a traditional dance, set to contemporary music. The second choreography was based on Meera's devotion for Krishna. With a combination of footwork and 'abhinaya' this won the applause of many and even an award in the second place. As Roberta, the organizer put it, "You were telling a beautiful story." The third was an 'Aarti' which had a brief explanation through an audio visual projection while we danced with diyas. Without meaning to sound boastful, I genuinely felt proud in showcasing our culture, tradition and spirituality at an international platform. The immense depth and richness in our art forms is truly unparalleled.

In the hectic six days of the festival, the audience witnessed a kaleidoscope of creative dance forms. From jazz, hip hop, ballet, ethnic dance, there was no dearth of talent here. During the day, there were workshops to facilitate an appreciation of other cultures and art forms. Of the three workshops on jazz, we managed to attend just one.

One was pleasantly amused to see that the world of Bollywood has cut across geographies an Israeli group performed a swinging dance number to "kajra re!" At the Karlstejn castle, we met an Azerbaijani lady who broke into "Mur mur ke na dekh" and "Ichak dana" when she learnt we were from India. Meeting people from other parts of the world was a unique experience.

As Roberta remarked, "I liked the mixing of cultures and the bonhomie that spread." A noble mission indeed, to use dance as a medium to bring the world closer. One lady from Basel, Switzerland, said, "Oh you are the group that makes noise from the feet," referring to our bells. What we consider as integral to dance can be so unusual and intriguing for another. On our free day, the festival organized a visit to Kutna Hura, a quaint town on the outskirts of Prague; known for its Bone Church and the St. Barbara Church. A day well spent with friends in the company of bones, skulls and the serenity of an exquisite Gothic church. Many years ago when the graveyard was attacked, it unearthed several bones and skulls of people who had died during the plague. A truly ingenious idea to make intricate and creative artifacts using them. One has to see the pictures to believe this! In the evening, the dancers were treated to an exotic cruise on the Vltava river. The ride offered a breathtaking view of Prague during the day and by night. With the wining and dining and of course dancing, the excitement of the group was palpable.

Each day in Prague, each performance had something unique to offer. There were countless cherished moments of joy, pride, disappointment during those 6 days. The varied emotions, the strong bonds that the five of us shared, made the entire experience so special. I guess beyond a point words and pictures cannot express much-- it just has to be experienced!

Bharatanatyam dancer Aparna Mathur, a student of Jyotsna Shourie of The Dance Centre, New Delhi, participated in the New Prague Dance Festival from the 1st to the 6th of July 2010.