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Mateship and Forbearance: Raghav Handa Shares the Power of TWO

What happens when a classical form of Indian dance is reimagined in Australia in 2023?

Raghav Handa, is a performer and choreographer who has cultivated a profound partnership with Tabla player Maharshi Raval over the past decade, transcending the traditional confines of Kathak, an Indian dance form with strict hierarchical separation between dancer and musician.

Their latest work TWO transcends conventional boundaries, cleverly narrating their story through improvisation, remarkable physicality, and evocative music. Together Raghav and Maharshi have embraced a spirit of experimentation and exploration, each taking turns at being the follower and leader within their performance space. 

I spoke with Raghav, ahead of their Perth shows at PICA (Sept 20-23), where we delved into the genesis of TWO, its artistic challenges and rewards, and what audiences can draw from it.

Raghav Handa, TWO, performed as part of FORM Dance’s Dance Bites, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, 2021. Photography by Joseph Mayers.

Tell me about the origins of your friendship and artistic collaboration with Maharshi begin?

In the work we talk about our relationship and how we met about thirteen years ago. You know how you do corporate gigs when you’re an artist for extra money? He was playing the drums and I thought, “Oh my god he’s amazing!” I kind of had a creative crush on him!

From there on if he was playing, I would say yes to the gig. When somebody plays well, dancing along to it is just magical.

So, you met him within the performance realm?

Yes, he’s a master at what he does but he’s also an accountant! All of that is part of the show. It’s quite casual in its approach. We’re sharing how we met, what he does, what I do.

But there’s a precise and mathematical structure that’s underlying this work and it will creep up on you! [The show] is quite jolly and it’s quite comical at times but the physicality and the virtuosity in the music and dance is essentially what underpins the work.

That’s interesting to have the mathematical structure combined with the improvisation. How do you balance those two things?

When a dancer and musician get into a room sometimes an hour isn’t long enough. We’ve had to give it a structure because if not people will be locked in the room for a couple of hours at least, listening to us dance and play. In order to give it a traditional work cycle we’ve had to develop a structure to allow improvisation and bring it in a way that gives audiences a narrative.

Mararhsi plays different rhythms each night and sometimes I have to catch him on the 75th of the beat and sometimes I can’t. We do a call and response section where it goes for over 20 minutes, and we know the larger structure of it but we don’t know what is going to play or how I’m going to respond.

Raghav Handa & Maharshi Raval, TWO, performed as part of FORM Dance’s Dance Bites, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, 2021. Photography Joseph Mayers.

 Do you enjoy performing those improvised and call and response sections?

I do but I don’t at the same time because they are really tough! You have to be on point each night. The entire thing is live and no one person can play the same thing twice. Maharshi is dependent on his hands and fingers, it’s mesmerising watching him play and how fast his fingers can move and legs can’t [move that fast]!

So, there’s a tension within that and that’s what I enjoy. It’s a physical work so there is no room to hide.

You say that you can’t move your legs as fast as Maharshi can move his fingers but do you think there are any challenges that Maharshi has with your dancing at any point?

Because I’m a contemporary dancer, the rhythm I interpret is going to be very different to how a Kathak dancer, which is a North Indian classical form, would move. Kathak is a vertical form and a dancer would wear bells on their feet and it’s quite dynamic in its structure and rhythmic format. The beats are translated through the feet, it’s almost like tap dance, you can see tap dancers interpreting a rhythm structure. A contemporary dancer will do it with different accents, they will leave and gain some rhythms. In that alone Maharshi has to be on point as well to see how I have interpreted the rhythm.

Raghav Handa and Maharshi Raval, TWO, 2023. Photography by Clare Hawley.

How has Kathak informed this work?

This work came out of the principles and context of Kathak, it’s a theatrical form that encompasses theatre, dance and music as one element. They are not different genres, they are one element. In Kathak the spaces are quite regulated. A dancer can’t just come and sit on the platform with the musicians and would never touch the Tabla and start playing. The rhythm cycles in Kathak finish on one instead of twelve. I learned Kathak when I was young but I’m not classically trained, I’m a contemporary dancer and choreographer. But Kathak is in my body and in this work I’m reimaging what that form is in 2023 Australia. I’m not deconstructing it, I’m not trying to pull it apart. It’s a reimagination through the idea of mateship and forbearance with Maharshi. 

Do you find that there’s an element of the performance that audiences particularly resonate with and respond to?

It’s quite a physical work and there’s an intimacy between the performance and the audience. It’s right there. The feedback I’ve gotten so far is that it makes you want to get up and dances. That’s the surface of it but if you scratch underneath the surface, I feel TWO is inspired by the shifting power dynamics in any relationship. It’s a work that questions what is it like to make space for others and what is it like to share, what is it like to give up your power and collaborate?

The viewer sees [the collaboration] through the point difference, because although Maharshi and I are from India we’re from two different parts, English is our common language, our food is different, we’re actually quite different. I’d love for the viewer to really experience what difference is and respect that.

They’re simple ideas and yet they are some of the most highly politicised ideas in our current global context. It’s about embracing differences and celebrating that difference.

TWO is on in the PICA Performance Space from September 20 to 23.