Tradition and Modernity: Interview with Raina Peterson and Govind Pillai

Tradition and Modernity: Interview with Raina Peterson and Govind Pillai

What really is tradition?’ asked Raina Peterson and Govind Pillai from Karma Dance Inc..

Trained in the classical Indian dance forms of Mohiniyattam and Bharatanatyam, Raina and Govind will be bringing Melbourne a provocative new work In Plain Sanskrit, premieres at Footscray Community Arts Centre on 17 July. We spoke to Raina and Govind about their practice, classical Indian dance forms, and what it means for them to reinterpret traditions through dance.


Can you please tell us a bit more about Karma Dance Inc., and your own dance practice?

Our dance practice is perhaps easily described as a tree with ancient roots and fresh new leaves. Our roots are deeply planted in a rich classical Indian dance tradition where the soil is teaming with nutrients and minerals – the learnings from thousands of years of dance wisdom planted by our cultural ancestors. We love standing here, in that soil, it’s where we belong. But from here – we sprout new leaves as we experiment with learnings from other cultures, more modern times and our own life stories.

Govind is trained in Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance form from Tamil Nadu, and Raina is trained in Mohiniyattam, which originates in Kerala. The two styles are quite distinct: Mohiniyattam comprises of slow, circular, sinuous movements while Bharatanatyam tends to present with lines, angular formations and pronounced rhythm. There are certain structural similarities between the two styles, and working together has challenged us both to find ways to be synchronous (and create positive tension), seeking harmony between the sharpness of Bharatanatyam and the roundness of Mohiniyattam.

How did you come to create ‘In Plain Sanskrit’?

We’ve spent the past couple of years performing in festivals around Australia and overseas, and travelling gave us a sense of freedom to experiment with our dance practice. This process of experimentation tested our comfort and boundaries surrounding our sense of tradition and authenticity, causing us to question what really is at the heart of classical Indian dance. This process was coupled with our own research into the history of classical Indian dance, eliciting questions around tradition and modernity.

In Plain Sanskrit‘ is the culmination of our inquiries into the essence of our dance tradition.

Govind, you stated previously that challenging tradition ‘gets you closer to its soul’ and opens up ‘new ways of doing things’. Can you please elaborate on that?

It’s a bit like a delicious baked cauliflower recipe of my mum’s. Like any old tradition, there was always a bit of mystery about what lay underneath that made this so delicious! One day I embarked on learning the recipe from amma. Getting closer to its composition made me start thinking “yes THAT’s what makes this delicious….but ….WHAT if I replaced the cumin seeds with aniseed which I had only recently started cooking with? How about doing this whole step at a different point in time, or perhaps in more modern equipment – would that create something I might like better?

When we expose the heart of something old that we love, I feel there is an urge to see if we can somehow make it even better by bringing in something new that we have learnt ourselves. Perhaps this is the very reason so many traditions have changed over time, passing from one generation to another.

What should the audience expect in the show?

We hope that audiences will find ‘In Plain Sanskrit’ to be accessible, immersive and dynamic. Perhaps they may even learn something from our celebration and inquiry into a non-western theatre tradition, but we hope they will be moved. Expect the beauty and technical rigour of classical Indian dance in a work which is contemporary, innovative and riotous.


In Plain Sanskrit  season opens Friday 17 July 2015 at Footscray Community Arts Centre Performance Space.

1 – Photo by Indian Film Festival of Melbourne
2 – Photo by Adrian van Raay

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