Rewriting tradition with skill and charm

21 September 2023

It’s a privilege to witness the stunning dexterity of choreographer Raghav Handa and musician Maharshi Raval as they disrupt the traditional roles of Indian dance with grace and charisma, says Rita Clarke.

TWO, Raghav Handa
PICA, 20 September 2023

Fast-held traditions will always be seen by some adherents as sacrosanct but how minimal our world would seem if there were no brave challengers to widen and enhance entrenched ideas.

In the world of dance choreographer Matthew Bourne’s production of the ballet Swan Lake comes to mind, where he dared to change the delicate traditional female swans into strong alpha males. It made a spectacular and unforgettable impact.

In a similar quest for change in traditional Indian dance, Sydney-based, Indian-born artists Maharshi Raval and Raghav Handa have, for ten years, been challenging the revered Kathak tradition in which the tabla musician (Raval) leads and the dancer (Handa) must follow. That’s the premise of TWO, a work created for the pair by Handa.

An inviolable rule was that the dancer not touch the drums, but during this one-hour performance Handa is invited to play the smaller tabla and in turn persuades the traditionally seated musician to dance.

Raval is very good at it. Looking rather like Richie’s dad (Thomas Edward Bosley) in Happy Days, he sashays around the floor, whilst Handa, with all the confidence of The Fonz (Henry Winkler), keeps him twirling and following his lead.

Raval and Handa’s teasing, improvised, collaboration is a bit like being at a family party watching the antics of certain unpredictable uncles. Pictured are Raghav Handa and Maharshi Raval in Handa’s ‘TWO’, 2021. Photo: Joseph Mayers

The large square black-lined PICA performance space is unadorned bar some strips of lighting on the ceiling, a suspended frame through which Handa will dance, and at times a rainbow of colour flooding the floor.

As the audience enters Handa is stretching and waiting for Raval who arrives carrying a large, pale coloured, curved case, soon opened to reveal his instruments. The pair construct a small dais upon which Raval sits cross-legged, having settled the two attractive tabla before him on red velvet cushions adorned with a row of jewels. As Handa warms up, he tunes the drums to different pitches – a fascinating sequence in itself.

It is thought that the tabla drum was invented in the eighteenth century to produce a subtle and melodic percussion instrument to accompany traditional Indian dance. It’s now the basis of the modern performance of Indian classical music. It is difficult to learn and play but Raval is a maestro and coaxes tones the uninitiated would not have imagined. You find your eyes riveted to his fast-moving fingers, his wrists and the heel of his palm as he drums the disparate rhythms for the momentum of Handa’s slithering movements.

Handa martyrs his body to the beating tabla, but on his own terms. He’s like a tumbleweed flying across the floor, a trembling jelly as he shivers along the length of his body, or a stick-insect manipulating seemingly dislocated limbs.

The two intersperse this disciplined artistry by ordering each other about, talking, hanging up a huge poster Handa brought as a gift for Raval and discussing their colourful portraits displayed upon it. Raval consults his mobile and Handa changes his drenched T-shirts, behaving like the staunch friends they have become, rather than conforming to the master/subject hierarchy designated for them.

Raval and Handa’s teasing, improvised, collaboration is amusing and it’s a bit like being at a family party watching the antics of certain unpredictable uncles. However, it is highly unlikely those uncles would display the stunning dexterity of these two charismatic virtuoso performers or that you would feel so privileged to have seen them.

Two continues at PICA until 23 September 2023.

Pictured top: Raghav Handa and Maharshi Raval in Handa’s ‘TWO’, 2021. Photo: Joseph Mayers

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Author —
Rita Clarke

Whilst studying arts at UWA Rita found herself working at Radio 6UVSfm presenting the breakfast and Arts shows, and writing and producing various programs for ABC’s Radio National. A wordsmith at heart she also began writing features and reviews on theatre, film and dance for The Australian, The Financial Review, The West Australian, Scooby and other magazines. Tennis keeps her fit, and her family keeps her happy, as does writing now for Seesaw.

Past Articles

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