Caro Meets Dance & Physical Interview

Jaivant Patel: Yaatra

By | Published on Friday 11 October 2019

Jaivant Patel heads to Tara Theatre this week for one night only with ‘Yaatra’, an intriguing sounding double bill of dance pieces that combine contemporary and Kathak dance, while exploring some rather personal themes touching on Patel’s personal heritage, and exploring faith, tradition and the representation of LGBTQ.

I arranged to speak to Patel ahead of his London performance to find out more about the show and the performer himself.

CM: Can you start by explaining what style of performance to expect? How would you describe the type or genre of dance you use in it?
JP: ‘Yaatra’ draws from two forms or genres of dance: Kathak and contemporary. Kathak is a classical Indian dance that developed in north India. When talking specifically about the style of performance, I describe it as a blending of styles and dance forms, this is reflective of where I am currently in my creative practice.

I trained as a contemporary dancer and started incorporating Kathak technique into my practice around four years ago under the guidance of Nahid Siddiqui, who is a renowned global exponent in Kathak. I am fascinated by the forms, principles, aesthetics and Indian classical dance, and my ambition is to create an idiosyncratic language and vocabulary reflective of me. At the moment I am still very much a student of Kathak and so the production is a meeting point of Kathak and contemporary dance and where I am currently in achieving my ambition.

My approach to Kathak incorporates a desire in understanding nuances rooted in its cultural heritage and relating them to my own identity as a member of the global South Asian diaspora. I personally see Kathak as a reference point of culture and heritage, both of which are very important to my identity as a British Indian; there is something in it being inherent that has a richness I can’t shake. I think of it similar to Martha Graham referring to dance as ‘blood-memory’.

I am hoping all who watch are able to connect on a universal level with the content of ‘Yaatra’. That all said, if you simply want to have an evening of good music and dance then this is the show for you.

CM: There are two pieces, aren’t there? Can you tell us what the first one – ‘Awakening’ – is about? What themes does it explore?
JP: This piece is heavily influenced by my grandma and my personal reflection of growing up around her and seeing her practice her faith. The piece features her voice speaking in Gujarati – my mother tongue – singing hymns and reciting Sanskrit scriptures. Essentially, ‘Awakening’ explores the gender fluidity and gender binaries present within the iconography of Indian mythology.

Growing up, I remember seeing representations of gender fluid, intersex and binary narratives within my Indian faith and cultural heritage, that I was able to connect and identify with in the understanding of my own sexuality. These representations weren’t acceptable, nor did they exist for me within the context of contemporary society.

‘Awakening’ uses the Kathak form to revisit my personal heritage and examines me as a homosexual man with faith. In Kathak, we often see a role-playing performer – regardless of gender – in mythological narratives of a Nayika or heroine, relating the many guises of emotion such as love, with Indian deities like Krishna as her hero.

A question I ask in this section particularly is what do these narratives look like with a male performer hero falling in love with his male god?

CM: ‘Awakening’ is a collaboration with the aforementioned Nahid Siddiqui: how did that collaboration come about?
JP: I was very fortunate to have worked closely with Nahidji, my guide in Kathak as a choreographic collaborator for the first part of the evening which is ‘Awakening‘. She was instrumental in my understanding the foundation of the form. Her using the purity of the form to choreograph in a contemporary context helped me approach self-choreographing the second piece of the evening, which is also entitled ‘Yaatra’.

I had been working with Nahidji since 2017 when I became her student in learning the technique of Kathak. It was only natural for me to approach her to be the first choreographer I work with for ‘Yaatra’, exploring the form in relation to South Asian LGBTQ+ narratives. Nahidji has been instrumental in putting Kathak on the UK map, having raised much awareness and appreciation for the form, particularly among non-South Asian communities.

I approach collaboration with as much of an open mind as possible. I see it as a meeting of two or more creative pools of experience in which you will find a crossover of similar thinking. That is where the magic happens for me. I have been incredibly fortunate that all my creative collaborators for ‘Yaatra’ have been of similar thinking and thought process when developing the production and so it has been an enriching experience for me as an artist.

CM: Tell us more about that second piece ‘Yaatra’: does it tell a story? What are its themes?
JP: ‘Yaatra’ means journey or pilgrimage. This contemporary dance piece explores my personal experiences of navigating complexities and intersectionalities, of being a homosexual man of different cultural heritages.

‘Yaatra’ again asks two questions pertinent to anyone that identifies being apart of the South Asian LGBTQ+ community. What does is look like when a homosexual British Indian man speaks his truth on entering a traditional space of worship? What happens when he speaks the same truth in the spiritual space we imagine he creates for himself?

‘Yaatra’ has drawn on my personal history and weaved a narrative reflective of my identity that also is universal in presentation to be accessible to all regardless of your experience or knowledge of dance.

In ‘Yaatra’ I also hope that existing perceptions of work created around wider LGBTQ+ narratives are subverted and there isn’t a burden or pressure to continually create work in the context that is popularist, formulaic to a degree, out, loud and proud. We can create work that is out, loud and proud too in other ways.

I must also mention Urja Desai Thakore who was a choreographic mentor, for ‘Yaatra‘ along with Ben Wright and Shane Shambhu. Urja is a UK based choreographer and Kathak artist who has created classical pieces in contemporary contexts and as a fellow peer and mentor was able to explore with me what that meant in relation to the multi-layers narratives I was exploring in the evening as a whole.

CM: Why are these themes important to you? What inspired you to create a show focusing on them?
JP: ‘Yaatra’ started by asking a simple question that was ‘What does dance look like through the disruptive perspective of the South Asian queer lens?’. For me it is a great starting point through which I am exploring the rich possibilities rooted in South Asian LGBTQ+ narratives.

I realised very early on in my career that alternate voices from the LGBTQ+ community needed to diversify work in the form of dance. South Asian LGBTQ+ voices are rarely exposed and often marginalised and I wanted ‘Yaatra’ to contribute towards a change for this to happen.

Whenever I look at existing and current work in dance in the UK and most international scenes, I rarely see myself as a gay Indian man being represented or pieces that are reflective of the narratives, themes and issues that are important to me. ‘Yaatra’ is about empowering representation and encouraging others do similar work if they have a desire to do so.

I am also hopeful those proactive in any faith will be able to connect with themes such as spirituality in the piece when coming to see it.

This production also sees my coming back into performing after taking some time out to concentrate on other areas of my professional development. ‘Yaatra’ is also my first full; length solo production; something I have been wanting to do for a while and now feel as a mature artist, is the appropriate time to do.

CM: The music’s obviously very important to the pieces: can you tell us a bit about the composer?
JP: When ‘Awakening’ was being developed Nahid Siddiqui had asked her long-term collaborator and son Hassan Mohyeddin to compose the music in a classical Indian style.

During the process it just made sense for Hassan to carry those themes across into creating contemporary music for ‘Yaatra’ as he had started the journey with me. In both instances he responded creatively from seeing footage of both the pieces and exploring the emotional journey of the works. The music has developed a lot since the research phase in 2017 and is in a place which complements and accompanies the moment and choreographic structure of the work in a beautiful way.

I have known of Hassan’s work independently as a composer and felt a connection to his work and what he was communicating through music. Particularly the duality of an identity that was strong feature in his sound due to his many global influences and experiences. It was great to have worked with him on ‘Yaatra’.

CM: Can you tell us about Ali Harwood’s contribution to the work, and how that came about?
JP: My collaboration with Ali was accidental. I invited him into the studio space during the research phase in 2017 and found a beautiful response in his poetry to what I was exploring physically. We then mutually decided to expand and see how spoken work could work in the choreographic structure of the second piece of the evening ‘Yaatra’.

Initially we used Ali’s voice for the research sharings, however in the full production development we recorded my own voice and also incorporated unused stanzas in the beginning of ‘Awakening‘ for a continuity of theme and contribution to the multi-layers within the whole evening.

I got to know Ali and his work through Bisakha Sarker, a mentor of mine whom has done some amazing work in the field of creative Indian dance in the UK. She was a student of the famous dance exponent Uday Shankar and his wife Amala Shankar. Uday Shankar became famous whilst touring the west with prima ballerina Anne Pavlova. There was something in Ali’s understanding of the spirituality within the Indian Culture that drew me to pull him into the initial process and the rest as they say is history.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your past, now? Did you always want to be a performer, and how did your career begin?
JP: ​I won a place at Northern School of Contemporary Dance and started my formal training there but had no previous experience in dance technique. All I knew about dance referring to my heritage was folk dance for festivals such as Navratri from the Gujarati community of which I belong.

I struggled to find my place in an institution that was full of more experienced dancers. It probably wasn’t until my early thirties that I really started a journey of discovering of who I was as an artist. I had always wanted to dance but it has taken a while to gain confidence to reach my potential. Equally, I am successful as a cultural producer and creative consultant, skills that enable me to be flexible as both a creative and artist.

I would probably describe the process of research and development of ‘Yaatra’ in 2017 as the start of my career or at least a new chapter. I have to thank Sarah Shead and Spin Arts for really believing in me and my work to support and help with the investment needed from partners for ‘Yaatra’. I am pleased to be sharing this journey with them.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
JP: ​There have been many highlights in my career thus far and I must recognise it is still a young one at this stage so there is a lot more I wish to achieve and explore.

However, this is definitely a stand-out thing: there’s a book in which a whole chapter is dedicated to ‘Yaatra’. During the early stages of the production, I was invited by Sean Richardson to talk about the subject of homosexuality and faith in the context of ‘Yaatra’. This conversation now forms part of a dedicated chapter in a recently published book entitled ‘Unorthodox, LGBT+ Identity And Faith’. This book is published in October 2019 by Five Leaves Publications.

Other highlights include being Named on India Gazette London’s 2018 ‘High & Mighty’ Powerlist of individuals ‘you should know’ in the UK-India Corridor. I was also a 2019 and 2018 National Diversity Awards Nominee – Positive Role Model in LGBT Category.

On a further note, Jai Jashn Dance which is a voluntary non-profit organisation under the umbrella of Jaivant Patel Dance was a recipient in 2017 of The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. I was invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace in recognition of the award.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
JP: A major ambition and aim is to continue bringing South Asian LGBTQ+ narratives to the forefront of my work, in the hope that other diverse and marginalised voices become empowered to represent other untold stories.

CM: What’s next for ‘Yaatra’ after the performances at Tara Theatre?
JP: After Tara Theatre on the 17th October, ‘Yaatra’ continues its tour to Midlands Arts Centre on 13 Nov, Arena Theatre on 23 Nov and Déda Derby on 28 Nov. We are hoping to continue touring nationally then into 2020/2021 and maybe even internationally.

CM: Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
JP: There are a few other exciting projects in the pipeline I am unable to talk about yet so keep watching this space! But if you follow me on social media or look at my website you will be able to see what is coming up.

‘Yaatra’ is on at Tara Theatre on 17 Oct. See the venue website here for all the details.

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Photo: Matthew Cawrey