Actor-dancer Rima Kallingal is in her element when we meet at the Fine Arts Hall in Kochi, Kerala. She is “happily tired” for she and seven members from her dance company, Mamangam, have been practising daily for the past two months for their maiden show, Neythe—Dance of the Weaves.
The 35-minute Indian contemporary dance production, which will debut this Saturday, is an ode to weaving and the handloom weavers of Chendamangalam. The small town, which is one of Kerala’s handloom hubs, was among the worst hit by the flood of 2018. Looms and livelihoods were lost as were the fabric stocks prepared for that year’s Onam.
The destruction led to a movement by designers, entrepreneurs, actors, and regular people to help rebuild the artisans’ lives. “It got me thinking about weavers, their craft and their livelihood,” says Kallingal, 39, who collaborated with Save the Loom, a nonprofit that works with handloom weavers. What she saw in 2018 stayed with her.
Then, during the pandemic downtime, Kallingal recalls coming across content created by an African dancer, who documented the dance forms of her region. “It was a tribute to the local artists and dances that nobody knew of,” she says, adding that it was where everything began.
Weavers’ body language
At first, she teamed up with photographer Ajay Menon, who was equally fascinated with Chendamangalam. They planned an NFT series of eight videos, shot by Menon, each dedicated to a weaving process. However, by the time they finished it, COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, life got busy, and it was put on the back burner.
When they revisited the idea this year, Kallingal felt that “since people were stepping out to theatres and events, we shouldn’t just release the videos”. It needed a different approach. She assigned a process each to her dancers — from washing and dyeing to spinning and weaving — to come up with a “visceral” movement linked to their favoured dance style.
It meant paying attention to the nuances of the weavers’ body language and their interactions with each other. “We have brought in the pauses, the eye contact, when they laugh at, or with, each other,” says the trained classical dancer. “They are not bothered by what they do with their bodies when they work. It is normal for them. But as artists, looking at it from outside, we were enamoured.”
Once the dancers completed their assignment, they had a suggestion: to convert it into a stage production. And Neythe was born. The production follows the progression of Sarojini Naidu’s poem, Indian Weavers, from birth to death.
The choreography, Kallingal confesses, has been “quite a process”. “There are no myths or metaphors [in it], just raw life. The people inspired us,” she says. “That is what contemporary dance does. It forces you to look at life as it is, and you imbibe the energy of what you see to create movement from it. We are the weavers, the yarn and the machine, the loom and the warp-winding machine.” The video series has been integrated into it too, to make it a “multimedia production”.
A missed opportunity
Kallingal wanted to debut Neythe as an outdoor performance, at the Vembanad lake-facing Rajendra Maidan, a few metres from Fine Arts Hall. The rains, however, played spoilsport. “None of us wanted to do it indoors; an enclosed space is restrictive. The weavers’ workplace is in the middle of nature, with a river and trees.” She speaks of a 60-foot-long warping-machine that she felt would have made a stunning prop. The only prop (from weaving) they have used is yarn, which in one instance represents the umbilical cord.
Heading to New York
But amid the excitement of the debut, she confesses to moments of confusion, of succumbing to imposter syndrome. “I have woken up these last few days, wanting to shut off social media. I see children suffering in Gaza… and I am doing a production about weaving. I couldn’t help but think, ‘What am I doing?’ I don’t know if it is worth it, whether my art has value. These are the difficult questions for an artist.”
But she’s glad she stuck with it. Calling Neythe a work in progress, she wants to extend it to an hour and take the production outside Kerala, and the country. Kallingal — who was last seen on screen in the horror thriller Neelavelicham, based on the story written by writer Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, earlier this year — is in discussions with the G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture (Mumbai), the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA, Mumbai), and various embassies. She also plans to take it to New York in 2024, for the Erasing Borders Dance Festival.
Music, by Attakkalari alum Lional Lishoy, is an important component of the production. Initially, she wanted to dance to the raw sounds of weaving, but as the choreography shaped up, Kallingal realised that music would enhance the visual impact. “It is rhythmic, almost monotonous, and builds up to a crescendo at the end when we do a folksy death dance.” Kerala-based Indie artist 6091 has composed the music for the videos.
Her appetite for creating now whetted, Kallingal wants to do more. An outspoken, socially-aware artiste, and one of the founders of the Women in Cinema Collective, she has advocated for an Internal Complaints Committee in cinema to ensure the safety of women, gender discrimination (in films and elsewhere), and more. She says, “When I use words, people get it wrong. So, maybe I should use art. In the process, I can entertain people. This way works better!”
Neythe – Dance of the Weaves debuts on November 18 at Fine Arts Hall, Kochi.