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Mohika Shankar: Observing and Grounding in the Present Moment

To kickstart a new series of ten creative artists on Between the Art is Kathak dancer and aspiring choreographer Mohika Shankar.

Originally from New Delhi, India, Mohika has a background in the Classical Indian Dance form Kathak. Studying for over 13 years, Mohika has been taught by many Gurus, which has provided her with a very varied dance journey so far. Starting out as just a hobby, her passion grew as she learnt and gained so much from the art form, prompting her desire to give back to the dance world. Mohika came to England two years ago to study at the University of Derby, studying Psychology with Dance and Movement Studies. She aspires to be a Dance and Movement Psychotherapist, having previously experienced the joy of performing and moving with others. Mohika is currently being taught by Guru Shri Munna Shukla Ji.

At a time when there is still so much uncertainty, particularly surrounding the performing arts industry, it was refreshing to hear how Mohika has dealt with the challenges of the past year, largely through a gratitude practice and continuing to stay present in the moment. Read on to learn of Mohika’s journey from India to England, why the act of observing is important to her practice, and to discover a new feature on the blog for this next series of artists!

Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?

When I first moved to Derby, coming from New Delhi, it was a total change of scenery. All of my surroundings were completely different, a 180 degrees turn! Even now when I go out for a walk, I always discover something new or notice a detail in my surroundings; it could be people walking in the street, or cars on the road. There is this element of not knowing something and then discovering it. There are many changes in perspective, a lot of observation. It’s also much quieter here – back home, there are so many people! I used to live in a Metro City, where people are just on the go all the time, perhaps similar to London. Being in Derby, I have learnt to slow down, to observe and notice things around me.

I have done a few projects in the past year where this observation has been important. I have always had a tendency to observe people, their interactions and reactions, as I am naturally more silent. Now, I have come to notice the non-living things, such as objects, water, or a pebble on the street.

How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?

I feel as though I am still learning parts of this. I have only recently done a few projects that I have initiated, although I have collaborated with many other artists who already have ideas of what they want to create. However, the pattern I have observed from the few pieces that I have choreographed is that I like to work around an idea. I decide on what resonates with me and what emotions I am feeling at the particular point in time. What is important to me in this current state? And, then I try to translate this into movement.

I also work around music. My training is predominantly in Kathak, which is a dance form that is so intertwined with music. It can be done in silence but music really enhances what you are trying to communicate to the audience. Sometimes I hear music that resonates with me, and I develop a concept for a piece, and from there it starts to translate into movement.

I really enjoy the technicalities and the tradition that comes with Kathak. One on my earlier teachers recognised that I had this ability for the style as it's very beat-based, and you have to be very strong in this aspect. You also have to be very strong in the Bhavas, which is the emotional aspect. I now feel very lucky to be taught by my Guru. Currently, I am the youngest of his students but I think my mind-set and journey into the practice has developed a lot during these past few years. My personality would have been completely different if I hadn’t come across my Guru.

What is the main subject of your inspiration?

This is a hard question as it changes all the time! During this past year and the pandemic, I have focused a lot on emotions: how do we experience them? What do we connect them to? Everything around us has an emotional meaning; memories, objects, they are connected to us through their emotional contexts. This can be very intrinsic and personal to one human. Translating these emotions into something tangible that can be presented towards an audience, it blows my mind how we can provide the experience, or at least the intention of providing the experience, of a window into what we feel as we move on stage. I find this magical.

"Everything around us has an emotional meaning; memories, objects, they are connected to us through their emotional contexts. This can be very intrinsic and personal to one human."

What are you working on at the moment?

I have a few things in the process. When I went back to India in the summer last year, I worked on a few pieces with one of my close dance partners. This is still in the editing process.

I’m also working on a group choreographic piece with other dancers. It’s interesting to figure things out whilst in lockdown! All of us come from very different movement backgrounds: some of us come from very technical training; some of us have more of a freestyle background. I was surprised at how well we learnt from each other to incorporate these different styles and elements.

What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?

How I interpret “sense” is through the five senses and the processes in connection with this: what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch and tactile experiences. We become aware of a place through these senses. For example: we become conscious of the birds flying overhead in the sky; listening to the water that is flowing down the river; or the feeling of walking barefoot on grass. All of these elements can be tied together through our senses, and they help us to make sense of the place we are in.

Sense of place has been an anchor in ideas I have explored in recent years, particularly for the creation of Ganga: River Eternal – created in 2019, a short musical art film that celebrates the sacred beauty of the River Ganga through the convergence of traditional Indian music and dance. This was based on where the river flows. It goes through city areas as well as wild islands and forests. We explored many of these different locations for this piece.

Recently, I was chosen for the ScreenShare Mentoring Programme 2020 conducted by The Fi.ELD from East London Dance, which culminated into the MESA Online Festival. My film was based around the five elements that make up the human being: air, water, fire, earth, and space. These are also found in the outside world. You can find them in your surroundings, but you can also find them inside yourself. There is this interaction between the outside world and yourself. It fascinates me that they are so intertwined with each other, and that we co-exist together. If this co-existence is not present, then we as human beings can also not exist.

Even when I'm not outdoors, I feel there is always inspiration that I can use in my work. For the group choreography I previously mentioned, the concept we are exploring is “Home.” This can also be a sense of place: how do you interpret home? What is home to you? It might be a specific place in a geographical sense, or it could be to do with certain people you are surrounded by.

"There is this interaction between the outside world and yourself. It fascinates me that they are so intertwined with each other, and that we co-exist together. If this co-existence is not present, then we as human beings can also not exist."

Are there elements of your work that connect with or are inspired by the natural world?

The natural world is a huge inspiration within my practice in Kathak. It’s a narrative-based dance form and we use hand movements to tell a story of specific things, often objects or living-things taken from the outside world, such as a flower, rain, lighting, or even a bud with bees above it. It can be very literal, although you can make it abstract. The movements are directly linked to the natural world.

In terms of my choreographic practice, I feel there is something different about dance pieces when they are performed in specific locations. There is something that occurs that cannot happen with pieces that are presented against a blank, black or white space. However, this does depend on the perspective of the artist. I always envisage my work to have some sort of connection with a specific location that is appropriate to what it is that I am trying to communicate. There is always something new to be explored in the outdoor world: no two leaves are the same, no two flowers are the same…

Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?

Yes, particularly in this past year when there has been so much more focus on the outside world as we have been told to stay inside. When we lose the option to go outside freely, we appreciate it more; we recognise how lucky we were to have been able to go outside. There have been moments this year when things weren’t how I wanted them to be. The situation was not ideal because I’m very far away from home, and therefore I have been alone for quite some time. Therefore, going outside and sitting in parks has helped me to clear my thoughts and appreciate what I have in the moment. There are so many things to be grateful for, and being outside helps to you to focus on what you have instead of what you don’t have.

Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?

When I first came to England, there were so many new things to discover. I feel as though I have found a pot of gold! I have discovered so many new artists, including a lot of Kathak dancers. Their perspectives and ideas are very different to what is being explored in my home country at the moment. There are differences, perhaps because of location or training, but they translate their explorations so beautifully without compromising on the traditions in Classical Indian Dance that Kathak requires. It’s inspirational to see how they are working with the dance form and pushing the boundaries just enough to venture into new ideas and collaborations.

A few of the artists are Raheem Mir, a Kathak dancer based in London; Saloni Saraf; and Vidya Patel, who has done a lot of work with well-known artists and companies. They have given me a new perspective and a fresh set of ideas to explore within my own practice.

What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?

Exploring without fear is an approach I would advise artists to adopt. When I first came to England, I was apprehensive and worried that I would lose my training. I didn’t want to change! But I realised that it doesn’t have to change, I’m simply adding on new skills. Without compromising on the purity of my training, I’m exploring how far I can take it and interpreting it in a new ways.

Another thing I would say is to observe. There are so many things that are present in the current moment, but they require observation in order to extract them.

Going with the flow and not worrying about the process is also important. From the conception of an idea to the final product, it’s a long way – it’s a journey all of its own. Worrying about how you are going to make it all work just blocks your creativity. Trust the magic that is in the process. Try to enjoy it by being conscious and present. It probably won’t go in the way you imagine it to, as I don’t think anything in this world ever really goes the way we imagined, but trust in your abilities to complete the project. This really helps in developing something tangible that you can present to others.

Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?

Gratitude: abiding by this and bringing it into your daily life. Be grateful for what you have because that ensures abundance of all the positives in your life. One has to put on another pair of glasses and focus on the positive things! Cherish these things, and never stop saying thank you. It’s such a small gesture, but saying these two words really can brighten someone else’s day and it will generally make you feel happier.

I also want to say that dance and the arts are not just for entertainment. We are increasingly recognising the power of dance to raise awareness of important issues. There are so many benefits of dance, such as the many health benefits, or the development of creativity. We need to give back to the art form in the same way it has given us all these things. Supporting the industry, artists, and those who aspire to make a career in dance, and recognising dance as a profession is so important.

Mohika's Book List:

1. The Magic by Rhona Byrne

This book has been an anchor for me during these recent challenging times. It has also helped me to confront my fears. It has practices that you complete over a number of weeks, including cultivating a gratitude practice and positive mind-set.

2. The Power of your Subconscious Mind by Dr Joseph Murphy

This one has helped me to become a more holistic, well-aware, grateful person.

To see more of Mohika's work head over to her Instagram @mohika102

Images 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7: Nishikant Singh, courtesy of Kathak Reet

Images 3, 8, 9, 10: Swapna Maini


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