Akram Khan is in town with his latest creation, Gnosis. Fresh from his performance at the London Olympics opening, the Bangladeshi-British star from London, whose wife is Japanese, performed at Kala Mandir on Friday evening. A t2 chat with the dancer who has floored Peter Brooks, partnered Juliette Binoche and choreographed for Kylie Minogue.
How would you look back on the experience of teaming up with Danny Boyle for the Olympics opening?
It was nerve-racking because of its scale. That was the biggest thing I experienced with Danny. That I had to constantly remind ourselves of the scale of the stadium. In a theatre it’s very contained but in a stadium, you’re performing in front of 80,000 people. We were like ants in this huge stadium. That was my real, daunting experience but I love making big-scale work.... After that I wish to do more and direct films. At least one...
How Bengali is the British-Bangladeshi dancer who was born and bred in London?
When I’m in Bangladesh I realise how British I am and when I’m in England, I see the Bangladeshi side of me — my mannerisms, way of thinking. You know this thing called adda? Not that I’m into it but when you’re a Bengali you can’t help but be a part of it. All my aunties used to have adda in my house all the time and sing Rabindrasangeet from morning to night, which drove me insane! Because they would want me to play the tabla! I was only 13 or 14 and back from school and they would sit down for adda at 7 at night and carry on till 5 in the morning. And it’s not like they could sing very well! (Laughs) So I went through that torture for years till one day when I was 31 and I said, ‘Okay I’m buying a house’ and moved out. It was a love-and-hate relationship.
So I’m in between both and depends on where I am. I fit into the Bangladeshi community very easily. It has to do with my dance and my mother refusing to speak to me in English until I was 10. She only spoke to me in Bengali because she knew that English I would learn in school. The first time she said ‘hello’ to me I freaked out. She made sure that I didn’t lose a part of my identity through her history. Well, it is very different now because everybody treats you separately because of your success. Before, you were just one of the boys and a part of wedding parties, doing a folk dance or fisherman dance and eating with your hands.
Was dance a tough choice for a young Bangladeshi boy from a conservative community?
Yeah. But that’s not just for me. It’s with all boys. They always think it’s a girlie thing to do. They thought athletics or football was the only manly thing to do. So you get teased a lot if you’re a boy who dances. Or you’re immediately cast as gay. So I kept on saying, ‘No, no no… I’m not gay’. I have nothing against gay people but don’t call me gay if I’m not gay. Just because I dance does not mean I’m gay. So you go through that as a child and all the boys tease you forever.
What about parents and their dreams about sons going the doctor-engineer-lawyer route?
My mother’s father was a scientist, a genius and he didn’t want his daughter to dance. So my mother secretly learnt dancing. But because he forbade her to dance, she wanted to give me that opportunity. She pushed me. She did the exact opposite of what my grandfather did. My mother shoved me into dance, so I had no problems on that front. My father did his own thing, he had his own restaurant business. He did, at one stage, want me to take part in the business because I didn’t know what future I had. But I carried on with dancing, with my mother organising performances. In fact one of my favourite Bengali words is what I call my mother: agnikanya.
So when did you decide that dance is what you wanted to do for a living?
When I was cornered. I eventually realised I couldn’t do anything else. I think it was during university that I realised that dance is what I wanted to do.
Do you ever find yourself split between the European world of art, your Bangladeshi roots and marriage to a Japanese?
You know, my wife will give birth to our baby next March, so we’re all wondering what our child is going to be like. Questions are being raised about what culture, religion, education… and I say that I want the child to have both and that’s what makes a child unique. It’s the coming together of two people. I would love the child to speak Japanese equally as much as Bengali. But usually they say you should have two languages not three. If I’m speaking to the child in Bengali then I shouldn’t change to English and if the mother speaks in Japanese she should stick to just that. Three languages might confuse the child. So we’re discussing all those things now.
As Bengalis, we’re much more emotional, the Japanese are very controlled on the surface. We’re also very over-dramatic all the time. Every moment is the Mahabharata for us! I have to be careful about that, especially in my work.
In my dances, Desh is all about Bangladesh and also about my father, his connections to his roots and how I rebelled against it. As a teenager you’re connected to Prince, Michael Jackson or Pink Floyd. You want to be like them but after that comes the state where you’re comfortable with not knowing who you are and then comes a time when you stop to think that you want to reconnect with your parents’ roots.
But then if you ask me if I would ever live in Bangladesh, the answer would be ‘no’. It’s another world. A system and a way of life that I cannot relate to, especially in dance. In UK there’s a structure for dance. They also put in money for dance. It’s in a far better place than it is in Bangladesh and India. There are a few individual companies that are trying to push forward like Tanusreedi (Shankar) here, Attakkalari in Bangalore, The Gati in Delhi but there isn’t enough money in the arts... although there’s money for Bollywood. It’s alive and has a purpose of escapism but it’s not the truth of India.
Have you thought of extending the Akram Khan Company to Bangladesh and India?
If I were a millionaire or super rich, I would come and do something. Invest money in an institute or something. The arts cannot solely exist if money isn’t put into it for artistes to come and perform, research and create. Forget about Bangladesh, India doesn’t even have one theatre technically equipped, equivalent to a western theatre. That is unbelievable for a country that is so powerful. China has hundreds of incredible theatres. How can we do lighting designs if you don’t have the equipment to do lighting? How can we raise sophistication if there isn’t that infrastructure or financial support to have a place where one can research? During the Moghul period, they invested money in the arts. It’s disheartening that there are so many young entrepreneurs doing incredible business today but they’d rather have buildings designed rather invest in the arts. We have no Indian sponsors although I’m grateful to Prakriti Foundation.
You’re one of the best male dancers we have in the world today. What do you feel is your forte?
Knowing that that’s not true. That is very important for me to know. That is every artiste’s strength. One mustn’t believe that because that’s the day you stop learning and your career is over. The more we know we realise how we know very little. If you’re talking about a particular technique, I don’t call it that. In fact when you call it a technique, I’m worried. Because then it’s defined and it means I’m dead. I’m still alive and still evolving. I don’t really have a technique yet but there are certain things that I like. Extreme energy and shifts of speed, new vocabulary of movement and new physical and emotional states are things that fascinate me.