Lok Virsa: Without Borders

Credit: Abhijit Pal

In advance of her appearance at Alchemy this week, British kathak artist, Sonia Sabri, sets the scene for Lok Virsa:Without Borders, an event that celebrates the arts across the Indian subcontinent.

Lok Virsa comprises of a performance-lecture on Tuesday 17 April at 6-7pm in the Clore Ballroom, Royal Festival Hall.  There will also be a range of free workshops on Saturday 21 April from 11am-5pm which include Arabic calligraphy, a poetry recital and Pakistani Folk dance and music.  

Photo Credit: Abhijit Pal

Do you feel that it's important to use the arts to cross cultural barriers?

Yes! It’s important to celebrate ones own cultural heritage and just as important to be enthusiastic about discovering and learning about other cultures through a fluid dialogue.  This enhances understanding and appreciation which inevitably has a profound effect on us, as human beings, to live and enjoy a stimulating and harmonious life.  As artists, this effect translates into our craft whether it be other cultures influence our artistry expanding and developing our form or through other ways that sometimes can't be fully articulated.

I personally feel, we as people are not meant to remain culturally segregated but to learn to and engage with other cultural landscapes which contributes to the evolution of human existence.
Kathak in itself is a living testament of cross-cultural celebration of ancient India, Turkey, Persia, Mongolia etc.  And it continues to evolve with the current influences including western aesthetics, advancing of technology, etc.  Kathak is very much part of the British dance scene – a clear example of crossing cultural barriers.
Do you feel you have a responsibility, as an artist, to represent these multiple cultures?
I myself am a living example of cultural exchange; being born and brought up in Britain and fortunate to have British and Indian values.  My artistic expression is an extension of myself.  I aim to be as true as I can be when I dance or when I create work and so my appreciation of British and Indian culture is one of the first elements that surfaces through my artistry.  I’m not sure whether I necessarily make it compulsory for this to happen, or that it is my responsibility, but it resonates because this is who I am.
Do you think the arts can help to relieve the political tension in a country like Pakistan? Is there a clear divide between artists and politicians?
The arts whether dance, music, poetry is an entity that is indescribable. It is has the power to comfort and strengthen the most vulnerable and soften or enlighten the impervious.  I’m not one to dwell on politics but whatever tensions there may be I certainly believe the arts can have a positive impact.  Having said this, politics is generally about materialism, power, and greed and the arts is not about these things at all, but help people to rise above these and awaken an appreciation for the beauty of nature and the value of life.  There is a clear divide between people and politicians, let alone artists!
For you, who are the key artists in Pakistan and why?
There are many but in terms of dance I would say (Late) Ghulam Hussein Maharaj and Nahid Siddiqui.  They retained and developed Kathak during very difficult times in Pakistan.  Despite death threats from people who opposed dance and the arts in general, they stood up for the value of the arts and I think that’s remarkable and truly inspirational.  You can see more on 17th and 21st April!

Can you tell us about Lok Virsa. What is the unifying theme and what is the artistic aim behind the work?
Lok Virsa simply means the 'heritage of the people'. It is this beautiful simplicity that I wanted to celebrate, bringing together the art of music, poetry and dance rooted in the lands of the Indian subcontinent.
India and Pakistan share a rich and robust cultural heritage, which even today unites the people of each country, despite modern borders and political differences.  This living heritage has spread across the globe, influencing much of our contemporary arts today: a testament that physical or any form of segregation does not affect the spirit of the arts and culture.  In fact, it is the arts that enable us to rise above material matters and celebrate our existence, beyond what words can describe.
Sarvar Sabri (Musical Director of SSco) and I have come across some fantastic musicians from Pakistan now living in the UK and we have invited them to be part of this vision of celebrating our arts heritage for the Alchemy festival.
The artistic aim behind Lok Virsa is to revisit the roots of some of today’s thriving artforms including Kathak dance and vocal and instrumental music.  It is believed and can be witnessed even today in much of rural parts of the Indian subcontinent that Kathak in its earlier form was folkloric style varying from region to region.  Only later due to certain sect of people and through the influence and patronage of the Rajputs and Mughals did it then develop into a ‘classical’ style of dance.  Another example, the Jhoomar in Multan is very similar to the Jhoomar in Rajasthan and indeed much of the movement/ expressional based vocabulary and phrasing techniques are prevalent in Kathak.  Regional poetry and music from Pakistan is not dissimilar to that in North India and is incredibly sophisticated in terms of language, sub meaning, philosophy, style and execution.
I personally feel as well as diving forward to develop our craft for the contemporary aesthetic we must always remember its original form and how it came about, so for me Lok Virsa: Without Borders is a homage to the roots (of the arts from the Indian sub-continent).