Akram Khan, one of Britain’s favourite and finest contemporary dancers, is back on stage at Sadler’s Wells, in London, after a prolonged period of inactivity due to a severe injury to his Achilles tendon in January. He was fit enough to appear with his eponymous dance company, which he formed in 2000, at the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony in July, and then set himself what was probably a greater challenge – a six-city tour of India as part of the Park’s New Festival.
Khan, who was born in Wimbledon to a Bangladeshi family, is acclaimed for his dynamic mixture of western contemporary styles with the north Indian kathak tradition, which he studied from the age of seven. But despite his international reputation, he is nervous about performing in India. Indian dance audiences are famously resistant to change and hugely protective of their traditions. There is a clear differentiation between the various regional styles of dance and little crossover.
“It is terrifying to perform kathak in India because people keep taal here [a rhythmic clap to keep time in Indian classical music],” says Khan. “I can’t fool them because they know the music, they know the stories.”
I met him on a warm sunny day in September, by the poolside restaurant of the Park Hotel in Bangalore, when he had just delivered a bravura performance of Gnosis at the city’s Chowdiah Memorial Hall the previous night. Journalists and photographers waited in line as young kathak dancers came up to pay their respects.
But it has taken some time to gain this respect in India, and Khan is still tending the old wounds sustained after being ostracised by London’s Indian dance community when he switched from kathak to contemporary dance in the early 1990s.
“They made me feel like what I do is less than what the masters in India are doing,” he says.
“When I switched to contemporary, when I shaved my head, there was a huge backlash. They stopped coming to my shows.”
The same thing happened when Khan came to India with his company in 2003 to perform Kaash, his first full-length work. Mumbai’s dance critics tore into him, calling his work pretentious and stilted. “It was unbelievable, what they were saying,” says Khan. “They think they know everything about contemporary dance but they don’t know shit.”
Things couldn’t have been more different during last month’s Indian tour of Gnosis. A mostly solo work, except for a section in which acclaimed Taiwanese dancer Fang-Yi Sheu performs wearing a blindfold, it earned rapturous responses in all six Indian cities. Khan’s opening show in Chennai brought a standing ovation.
“Chennai was a very important place for me because if you can touch those people, who are hardcore classical [dance] people, with your contemporary work, then the work is not superficial.”
His performance in Mumbai earned him two curtain calls from a fawning audience, even though some among the well-travelled crowd had already seen Gnosis at Sadler’s Wells. “Indian audiences can no longer be taken for granted with respect to contemporary dance,” says Ranvir Shah, artistic director of the Park’s New Festival. “We travel abroad and see the shows. That said, Gnosis speaks to Indians because it is rooted in the [Sanskrit epic] Mahabharata.”
The Indian tour was almost like a homecoming for Khan. He got off the aeroplane in Calcutta and began speaking to the limousine driver in Bengali. “I am home,” he said. In Bangalore, his performance was like a rock concert, with young kathak dancers whooping and whistling every time he came on stage. One of that audience, Meghna Acharya, a 23-year-old kathak dancer who studies with Maya Rao, a leading teacher in Bangalore, said afterwards that she felt that “Akram Khan is amazing because he shows us what is possible with kathak and how to take tradition forward.”
Khan is in a good place. His company is touring the world; he is working with Slumdog Millionaire star Freida Pinto on an Iranian film called Desert Dancer; talks are afoot to incorporate his dance with a world-class circus; he wants to make his latest work, Desh, into a movie.
After his tendon injury earlier this year rendered him essentially immobile, he says that “It took me four weeks to learn how to walk again. It was humiliating. But because my body stopped dancing, my mind was dancing. I want to work more and more with my mind as I get older.”
Khan also intends to perform more in Asia, particularly in India, spurred by a desire to prove himself in the birthplace of the kathak style that is so important to him. “When I am in London I feel Indian, but when I am in India or Bangladesh I feel like a foreigner because I am not doing kathak in the way that they do … I keep telling myself that it is the craft that is important and the craft will transcend everything, but you are never entirely sure.”
While in India, he met other dancers, visited schools, conducted workshops, and caught up with the trends. Indian contemporary dance has a long way to go, he says, because the pieces “are created from the surface; they are not embodied”.
More interesting to him are the Indian dancers he admires, such as Aditi Mangaldas and Priyadarshini Govind. “In order to transform [it], you have to go deeply into the centre of a tradition,” he says. “When a kathak dancer comes on stage, the audience knows the whole repertoire, starting with the invocation. That’s why someone like Aditi Mangaldas is so important, because she is transforming the kathak tradition from within.”
No matter how much fame Khan has achieved, it is easy to sense that kathak remains both his strength and his weakness. “I hope people consider me a kathak dancer even though the recognition is for the contemporary work,” he says. “Kathak is always there – mathematically, rhythmically, narratively, gesturally – but I am not interested in transforming it from within. That’s Aditi’s role. Maybe later I will do it, but right now I am fascinated by lots of other things. All I can do is remind people that there is so much advantage to holding on to tradition.”
Identity and migration are important themes in his work and coming to the land of his ancestors has sparked many ideas for future projects, he says.
“Here, I have to work really hard with the classical, while in London I have to work hard with the contemporary,” he comments.
Does he consider himself an Indian-Bangladeshi or a British dancer? In response, Khan quotes Kumudini Lakhia, who taught many of today’s leading lights: “I hold no flags for any country. I need both hands free to dance.”
‘Desh’ is at Sadler’s Wells, London, until October 9