Indian classical dance helps me experience design within me: Miti Desai

    Founder and creative head of Miti Design Lab, Miti Desai is a designer and classical dancer. She teaches as a visiting faculty at the Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology (Bengaluru, India) and at Sophia Polytechnic (Mumbai), and has personally created and executed courses initiating children into Holistic Design, aesthetics and Culture through the performing arts. A passionate Mohiniattam dancer, who has performed all over the globe. As in her design work, what comes through is a serenity and a surrender to the medium in its purest and most subtle form. In this exclusive interview, she talks about her passion dance and design. Excerpts:

 You are a designer but how did you become involved in dance?

My parents being architects, a relationship with form came into my life quite early. With dimension and aesthetics being discussed, I found my comfort in visuals and colour. With my innate flair and interest in the visual form, going ahead with a career in art/design emerged as a natural choice. So a course in applied art was the next thing to happen. My journey in dance emerged from my journey in design. I studied applied art in Mumbai, after which I went to the United States to study design. I began to grow more and more uncomfortable at the idea of a life that revolved around commercial and financial transactions alone and that is when I felt an innate urge to engage with and experience design holistically. This was the beginning of my entry into the world of dance: the need to engage with design internally gave rise to a desire to experience design within my body.

What is Miti Design Lab all about?

Miti Design Lab physical form is deeply influenced by the principle of ‘Small is Beautiful’. It is a multidisciplinary space dedicated to individual growth and investigation through dependence, interdependence and independence all at once. Classical Indian dance is a multidimensional design.  Design is like the flowering of a tree. The core of any tree is the root. A rootless tree never flowers. The more the roots penetrate beneath, the stronger is the tree. The roots are like the area of study and research; the deeper they penetrate, the stronger the tree emerges. This is what I feel about research in my work. It is a vital element, which has to be nurtured, watered and protected at every stage of the project.

How did you grow learning dance side by side with design at the same time? How long have you been dancing Mohiniattam and where and with whom did you begin your training?

I’ve been dancing Mohiniattam for the last nine to ten years.  I’ve been training under my teacher Mandakini Trivedi who is a dancer and educationist from Mumbai.  My journey into dance was a rather interesting one, I’m actually a graphic designer and that’s where my journey into creativity really began.  I did my undergraduate in India but then I went away to the USA to further myself and specialise in design and when I was studying I suddenly realised that I loved design but I needed to explore and experience design within my body and that was really the beginning point of questioning that.  I was designing books and everything that was all laid outside of me and I have a really strong mentor, Hank Richardson, who is the Dean of the university that I went to, Portfolio Center, and I used to get quite miserable – I would tell him I love design but I need to experience this design inside my body and I cannot only have outside needs. That’s when I said I really need to dance but of course I did finish my course at the Portfolio Center because I really connected with that vision, I knew that I had to explore the other dimension of design.  I was looking for a teacher and I just called my mother back home in India and she said there’s a lady really close-by, maybe you can learn from her.  But the style I wanted to learn at that point was Bharatanatyam because I’d trained in Bharatanatyam  as a child and I had done a lot of years but I was not really into that style of dance when I was younger, but because I’d studied that certain style I just thought that’s what I would go back to.  So I wrote to her and asked if she would teach me. When I met her and was talking with her I realised that she doesn’t teach Bharatanatyam but she is a Mohiniattam dancer but I innately connected to her and her approach to dance which is very very special and I realised that styles don’t matter but the teacher does.  

So what are the differences between Mohiniattam and Bharatnatyam and which elements do you enjoy from each? 

Bhatanatyam  is more angular and outward while Mohiniattam is very circular and has a lot of swinging movements, it’s very internal because it’s a softer style and it has a rich heritage of mimetic training.  Mime is an integral part of Mohiniattam because it comes from Kerala and Kerala is where Kathakali is from – so Mohiniattam is almost a sister of Kathakali – it’s got a lot of mime and abhinaya and I really enjoy the expressional and representational elements of Indian dance and it a perfect style for me because it suits my personality.  

I had had a taste of classical dance as a little girl, and dance seemed to be the road through which I could internalise and experience body design. This search for an internal, spiritual and design approach to dance brought me in touch with my teacher, Mandakini Trivedi. Her dance school in Mumbai, Nateshvari Dance Gurukul, is committed to reviving the yogic (holistic and integrated) tradition in Indian dance through the perfection of technique and the perfection of the Self. I also trained briefly in Bauhaus Theatre at the Bauhaus School of Design in Dessau, Germany. That gave me a glimpse into Western theatre, dance and costumes, but my heart was drawn to the multilayered, integrated and philosophical principles in Indian aesthetics.

Thus communication through the external medium of design led me to an internal expression of body design, rediscovering classical Indian dance. Indian dance has been the key for my return to my cultural roots, symbols and worldview, resulting in an innate understanding of philosophy, culture and aesthetics, as well as their influence and inspiration in design, education, arts and the environment.

It is deeply rooted in philosophy and is designed as a medium to travel through, with transcendence being the aim. There are seven different classical dance styles. Each comes from a different state in India, with a different geometry of movement, costume, jewellery and music, yet the principles and values are the same in all. Classical Indian dance forms are solo dance forms, and this is closely linked to the value and goal of the art form, with the focus being about the individual spiritual journey. A spiritual journey must be walked alone.

What is the philosophy around classical dance?

The form of classical Indian dance is a holistic design in itself, with a heightened philosophical core layered with subtle and integrated aesthetic and symbolism. The form has two aspects. One is pure dance, the exuberance of movement, where the dancer (and through her, the viewer) experiences bliss and joy. The other is the mythological symbolism and storytelling. This borrows from literature and poetry, and it depicts stories about gods and goddesses within the Hindu tradition, and the celebration of Nature. Most Indian art forms are multilayered, and dance most of all, because it combines poetry, music, theatre and movement, each with a specific philosophical core structure and complexities. When all these arts are combined and layered one upon the other, you can imagine the sheer multiplicity and intricacy of thoughts, values and ideas that are presented. Classical Indian dance beams through its spiritual dimension and thus ceases to be purely an art form.

Is dance a way of life for you, or simply an art form?

Classicism emerges from a very subtle thought, which requires heightened awareness and discipline. And classical Indian dance is devised and designed in a way that facilitates an inward journey. But it is the combination of intention, integrity and intensity that results in the penetration of the art into the practitioner’s day-to-day life beyond just a profession or an activity. The form by itself is designed such that the mere practice of it also gives immense energy.

The dance school I train in and, more importantly, the teacher I train under focus on the ability of dance and art to penetrate into one’s life. In any master–disciple relationship, you are expected to apply what you are taught to your life.

My teacher focuses on what she refers to as “the yoga of dance”. The meaning of the word ‘yoga’ is ‘to become one with’, ‘to unite’. Through the aesthetic form, the themes and the experience, classical Indian dance facilitates this process at the physical, intellectual and psychological levels. And that is how I have been initiated into the world of classical Indian dance. The dancer must integrate with the dance.

Inner growth is of prime importance to me. I try to view every action through that peephole. So professional decisions are weighed against core values. The practice of classical dance leads to an inner journey, an introspection, and I try to support that value in everything I do. I must say, though, that it is a humble attempt from my end and not any tall claim of achievement.

Why do you dance?

My dancing is a form of self-expression that emerges from an innate passion: from a yearning to engage with something more than the mundane, and towards a possibility of transcendence.

The ancient Indian texts tell us: “From the formless comes the form, and the form takes you back to the formless.” In Indian thought the purpose of life is to elevate, engage, introspect and integrate. This thought is given a form through the actual form of the dance. But the real purpose of dance is for the dancer to understand and express, through the magnificent form, the experience of the formless. In other words, through rigorous training the dancer has the potential to master the form and move inwards to experience the formless and enter a point of bliss (ananda). This to me is a heightened goal and a journey that inspires my inner space.

Dance means discipline, rhythmic movements and expressions. How does that reflect in your design?

Classical Indian dance is a multidimensional design. Within one idiom, there are different layers of design that take form to complete.  There is design of poetry layered with design of music, which is then layered with design of movement and further with design of emotions through the medium of mythology, symbols and stories. When the dancer performs, she is at once performing with multi layers of design. Dance has exposed me to art, sculpture aesthetics and music that are surrounding Indian mythology which in a way culminate into the essence of traditional Indian art/ design. Moving beyond rhythmic movement and expression, it has revealed an understanding of traditional design and its principles and aesthetics.  This vast expanse of classical Indian dance has been the significant force that brought me back to my cultural roots. 

Do you ever get angry, agitated, anxious, frustrated? Do you ever lose some sense of ananda?

Yes, of course I do! But what helps is the approach and the magnifying glass of the life philosophy through which I view the anxiety, agitations, anger and so on and try to transcend the negative emotion through awareness and understanding. And I have a deep-rooted faith in the generosity of Nature, through which positivity pierces in dark moments.

But the most vital point to note here is that as a practitioner of the art I am a mere traveller walking towards the destination and not yet having arrived.

How do you see your future? 

I see myself engaging with the two disciplines I am passionate about – design and dance – with a value that focuses on introspection and awareness, based (rooted) within intelligence, supported by the intellect as a process of being. 

I also work closely in and for a cultural commune under the instruction of a spiritual teacher. This is a project that I will be dedicating a lot of my time to. It is a physical space, on the outskirts of Mumbai, called Shaktiyogashrama Gurukulam, a space dedicated to the study of spirituality, arts, sciences, environment and holistic lifestyles. Envisioned for the future are full-time residential courses on art and aesthetics, environmental and ecological studies, Ayurveda (the traditional Indian science of medicine) and other wellness programmes.