This article first appeared in Swarajya Magazine on 3rd March 2019.
Dimitrios Mavrokefalos is a visual designer from Greece, and the co-founder of the HangOut Naxos music festival that takes place in the Island of Naxos in Greece. He was first introduced to Bharaketanatyam three years ago, through Lida Shantala, Greece’s first officially recognised Bharatanatyam teacher, and has since immersed himself in the art form. Mavrokefalos is a student of dancing couple and Padma Bhushan winners V P Dhananjayan and Shantha Dhananjayan.
India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power was delighted to host Mavrokefalos at its office in Kotturpuram, Chennai, on 21 February 2019. V P Dhananjayan also joined in the interaction. The interactive discussion was on Mavrokefalos journey from Greece to India. The presentation expressed the inspiration he has derived from Indian culture and his travels to the country to study yoga, Bharatanatyam, mridangam and chanting.
Here are some excerpts of the interview with Pavitra Srinivasan, research fellow at the Center for Soft Power, India Foundation:
What attracted you towards Bharatanatyam, and how do you perceive it beyond physical movements and techniques?
It was my teacher, Lida Shantala — whom I first met in Athens — who encouraged me to start the practice of this dance form. Back then I did not know much about it. The more I followed her teachings, her movements and her expressions, the more I slowly but surely fell in love with it. The Puranic stories she narrated at various moments in her teachings felt magical and touched my heart. Following the roots of tradition of my teacher, I sought to follow her own teachers, the Dhananjayans. This is how my journey from Greece to India began.
What has inspired you about the teaching system of your gurus, the Dhananjayans?
The system is traditional; I spend more time with my fellow students, watch practice sessions and official performances. I have the opportunity to observe many details that I don’t get to see in Athens.
I am honoured to learn from the Dhananjayans, and to witness their teaching. It’s a sacred moment when Shantha akka is directing the movement of the students only with her eyes.
When I see some senior teachers, I appreciate deeply their approach to natya by the moves and the practice they give to the students. I find it hard to perform, but a treat to watch. I appreciate the complexity of the moves and the hard work through sheer repetition of the same element time and again, in order to perfect it.
How long has your training been, both in Greece and in Chennai?
Two years in Greece and four weeks in Chennai.
In Athens, I practise once a week for an hour, while here I practise daily for more than two-three hours. Apart from dance, I practise chanting, music and yoga, and the approach is more holistic towards the subject. They all complement each other in my training here in Bharata Kalanjali, while in Athens I pursue some of the above faculties in different schools.
What differences and similarities do you find between your city Athens and Chennai?
We both have grocery markets and good food! We don’t use chilies at all back in Athens, so it’s hard for me to appreciate chili in the food here. I love the different fruits, fresh guava and coconut from the trees, which I cannot find in my city. Driving here is the craziest experience I ever had; in Athens driving is more structured, and less chaotic. I am curious to know how it would be for a local if there were no horns to sound while driving! (laughs) Here I like to observe all these tiny stores where people work, whereas in my place the stores are bigger. While coal is still used for ironing here, electricity is mainly used there.
Food is less expensive here than in Greece and available almost everywhere! I like idli, masala dosa, samosa and chaat, as well as a good number of colourful sweets, which I normally don’t eat back in my country but indulge in here! (smiles)
Tell us about your trips to Delphi, the spiritual centre in Greece, and Auroville, a spiritual centre near Pondicherry (Puducherry).
This past summer I had the experience of documenting the ‘Dances For The Divine Mother’ workshop organised by Miriam Peretz, that took place in Delphi, Greece. Whenever I am there, the energy I feel is immense. You can see that in nature, in the many bees that fly around one flower and in the power of water that flows out of the rocks. In Auroville, I had the chance to witness beautiful architecture, a nice concept and an egg shaped rock that resembled Omphalos, a sacred ancient rock found in Delphi, believed to be the navel of the earth. In Auroville, I heard that on this egg-shaped rock, many representatives from different parts of the world had laid some mud for the inauguration ceremony. It was funny to observe this similarity that impressed upon my attention the moment I laid my eyes on it.
You seem to enjoy chanting, what does chanting evoke in you?
It evokes a feeling of lightness, when the mind slows down and stops thinking for a while. In the physical aspect, I feel areas of my body being activated depending on where the sound is being directed. After a good chanting session with other people, there is this change in the field that is felt by all and a kind of joy and ease of connection that comes along with it. I also have a sruti box at home, which is a very good companion and helps to guide my voice.
You are a co-organiser of the festival Hona that happens in the island of Naxos in Greece. How long is the festival and what do people get to see in that?
Hona is a four-day music festival that takes place in Naxos Island. It is the first of its kind in my country and I feel it is a blessing to be a part of it. It is a gathering of musicians from all over the world who share the same passion for expression through a musical instrument called Handpan. In this festival, we have a wide number of workshops taking place that explore the connection between sound and movement through art forms like music, instrument playing, dancing, yoga, tai chi and instrument creation.
As a visual artist, how does India inspire you?
Everything my eyes look at here ignites my spirits. From the look of the mother with a baby on her lap sitting inside a small temple shrine on the street, to the mad crazy drivers here moving in all directions swiftly, to the sounds of the crows and dogs, to the colourful hues of the morning sun and the fruits in the street carts, to the shouts and the gazing of pedestrians. All things here seem to be composed in a divine symphony.
What would you like to take back to Greece from Chennai and India?
Silence! In addition, good moments shared in Bharata Kalanjali with my fellow dance students and teachers. Impressions from beautiful Bharatanatyam performances I have watched and other observations from practice.
Who is your mridangam teacher, and how do you find it different from the drums you play?
Ramesh Babu sir is my mridangam teacher. I had a chance to hear him play while practising for a performance at Bharata Kalanjali. This instrument has a great subtlety in its tone system and one can hear very fine details while practising a whole range of different ‘fingering techniques’ on it. So it goes without saying that the moment I listened to it and identified the potential it offers, I wanted to explore it avidly. I would like to take some techniques from mridangam and introduce them to Handpan so that my playing will be more diverse.
Are there any music or dance styles that are codified in Greece like how Natya Shastra is codified here?
To my limited knowledge, there are some parts that are being practised there like polyphonic chanting or ancient drama theatre. But all these are separately practised. There is no unifying art form that brings all together as one unit like Bharatanatyam and Natya Shastra do. There are some schools of theatrical and dance art forms there, which I am not aware about.
What I can say for sure is that there is no such form as Bharatanatyam that I have witnessed coming out of the tradition of my country.
I feel there is a great depth of ancient Greek tradition that has only now started coming out intuitively from the present day generations. For this to develop, it needs a good study of ancient traditional texts and regional practices both of my country and other ancient cultures like that of India, to emerge and make an impact once again on the whole world. It is my belief that art is universal and what once existed in a place was also available elsewhere.
Carnatic music also seems to interest you so much. What draws you to it?
It has been five years since I started playing and practising music — percussive and flute.
But it was only in the last two years that I started experimenting with Indian music.
Having practised percussion for more than five years, I find Carnatic style of playing rather complex and interesting to explore. This whole system of thalamsand jathis that exist in both Bharatanatyam and mridangam enriches my understanding of rhythm and music to a great degree. So my hope is to continue to practise both these art forms and hopefully to expand my understanding of this ancient system of knowledge.
Some years of economic crisis must have been tough on Greece. How were the people able to overcome it?
At the beginning of 2008, it was a bit tough because there was a lot of bad news. So people were getting disappointed easily, but after a period of time, news started becoming obsolete and people started getting back in tune with their real nature, which is joy and laughter! Now if you walk the streets of Greece you might find it hard to identify any crisis in people there. The ancient Chinese saying goes “when there is crisis it is time for new opportunities and for something new to emerge”. So we try to stay open and see what comes.
Would you forget us when you return to Greece?
My experience here has been really strong in multiple layers! Only if I get Alzheimer’s, will there be a chance that I could forget it (laughs). What happens in your heart stays there forever. Therefore, I will never forget you all.
Pavithra Srinivasan is a Research Fellow at the Center for Soft Power, India Foundation