AKAAR 2021 by Anujeet Panesar
The buzz, the adrenaline, the melodic sound of multiple sets of ghungroo, the chatter, the microscopic particles of hairspray lingering in the air, the kaleidoscope of makeup palettes. These are the elements of pre-performance dressing room prep to which I have become accustomed over the time I have been learning kathak. Then, the quiet that starts to come over the dancers as we make our way backstage, eyes frantically adjusting to the dark whilst also trying to keep centred, becoming acutely aware of the presence of the audience waiting just beyond. What happens to the experience of performance when these components are removed? What becomes of the performer who cannot see their audience, whose stage can be their garden, living room, kitchen, and whose audience may be watching any time of day, anywhere in the world, in their pyjamas?
Personally, whilst preparing for the Akaar online dance festival during the pandemic in 2021, my performative instincts were heightened. I could not rely on the usual rituals, comforting in their familiarity. After a year of living in leggings and hoodies, seeing myself in the mirror with all the accoutrements felt like seeing an old friend, to whom I gave a massive metaphorical hug. However the nerves remained intense despite the familiar environment of my conservatory. Who would see this, was I doing justice to my teacher and my art in presenting something which would be digitally preserved with flaws intact, forevermore? Why could I not find the right camera angle, when was the light streaming in going to be of the right quality for the recording? I became technician, sound engineer, video editor, dance critic.
At some point, my anxieties were quelled once I realised I may not be alone with this jumble of concerns, feelings and questions. When I watched others’ recordings of their own contribution to the festival, I could see unbridled joy at reclaiming the spaces which had trapped us, by turning them into stages. I could see faces excited to perform with the thrill of a virtual audience. For a few moments, the daily challenges and imperfections of our lockdown lives did not matter any more. My dance reached people who know of my longstanding relationship with kathak but have never seen me perform before, including family in India. Their comments and feedback surprised and uplifted me, reaffirming why kathak has been an anchor throughout my life. Ironically, the physical detachment left me feeling more connected to my audience than ever. Alongside the manifold benefits of dance, this was the year it helped an analogue loving, digital technophobe to find and create new meaning amidst uncertainty.