Dance as medium of storytelling has been around for many years. Ballet in Europe and Russia, Kabuki in Japan, Khon in Thailand, Koodiyattam in India–every culture has a dance to tell the stories of their people. Typically, the narrative flows through the movements and the expressions of the dancer. Most of these traditional dance performances often revolve around a popular myth, retold in a myriad new ways.
I catch up with Payal Gupta, an engineer-turned-dancer and one of India’s most prominent and sought-after master teachers. Payal’s passion for dance began when she was seven and started training in various dance forms. In 2010, after discovering her love for Oriental Dance, she started Payal’s Dance Academy to share this passion with others. She has trained with some of the world’s leading dancers like Sadie Marquartd, Aziza, Issam Houshan and Mercedes Nieto. She was a winner at the Oriental Belly Dance Festival in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Payal and I have a chat about what went on behind-the-scenes as the Legends of Beledia was reimagined in a new form.
Vandana: Bellydance is not particularly known as a medium for telling stories. What inspired you to try out a dance musical?
Payal: I have spent over a decade performing and teaching the Oriental style of dancing, and I felt like I was a bit saturated with the doing the same thing again. An artiste always tries to create something unique and experiment with new concepts. Also, there is a lot competition out there when it comes to getting audiences captivated, and I felt like a musical or a dance-drama would pique their interest. I knew this would be a challenge for me, as a dancer and I wanted to give it a try. And that’s how the musical was born.
‘The Legend of Beledia’ is a story of how nine Goddesses – Aphrodite, Parvati, Isis, Kali, Sekhmet, Enyo, Nut, Durga, Persephone – reach out and guide a land in distress. It is a tale that is woven out old myths and new ideas.
Vandana: In this tale, you chose the part of Kali and gave us a really powerful performance. How did you go about choreographing for this piece?
Payal: For me, the central piece for a choreography is in choosing the right song. Once I choose the song, the moves come to me automatically. So, I spent a lot of time looking for the perfect song to fit the script. In the ‘Legends of Beledia’, Kali comes to help the people of Beledia destroy their enemies. I looked for music that was dynamic and energetic, which would fit the depiction of Kali as the destroyer of evil. I picked a drum solo piece that was passionate and had a powerful ending.
My biggest block for this piece was my expressions. I have no training in Classical Indian dance, so I find it hard to show emotions on stage. To get my expressions right, I kept in mind the image of the idol of Kali, and the stories I had heard of her.
We also had a lot of dancers for this piece which, I believe, made the dance impactful.
Vandana: Tell us about your connection with Goddess Kali.
Payal: When the script was written, I was immediately intrigued by the part of Goddess Kali. My mother is a Bengali. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by a lot of my maternal relatives and I love everything Bengali – be it the food, the festivals, the strong bonding between women. The worship of Durga and Kali are a big part of Bengali Hindu traditions. Durga Puja at the end of Navaratri is one of Bengal’s biggest festivals. Kali Puja is done during Diwali. Even today, witnessing the Sindoor Khela at Durga Puja gives me goose bumps.
More than any specific story that stayed in my mind, it was the description of Kali that has stuck with me. She is fierce, aggressive and a destroyer of evil. I felt connected to her because I am an aggressive and dynamic dancer and I felt like I would be able to do justice to that part.
The Dance of Kali
The Goddess Kali invokes mixed emotions amongst Hindus. She is sometimes feared and sometimes loved with complete abandon. But every devotee knows that if you call her to protect you, she will come.
Why do you lie there, beaten?
Does the night scare you? Do demons terrorize you.
Why do you believe in the story of your own helplessness?
You have been frightened into selling your life away. You have been deceived into thinking that you are alone and powerless.
I am here with you, like I have always been.
Dig deep inside you and you will find freedom. Freedom from the fear that paralyzes you. Freedom from the despair that hides your future from you.
I gave you life with my breath and as long as my breath stays with you, you are indestructible. When your heart fails, look for the part of you that is me, and you will find your courage.
Does the night scare you? I am the night.
Do demons terrorize you? I am the destroyer of demons.
I am Kali, the Fierce One, the Dark One.
I am your Strength. I am your Power.
About the Author