Contemporary Meaning in Ancient Tradition: Shivani Gupta and Mohiniattam

Shivani Gupta is a Mohiniattam dancer, photographer, philosopher, and an all around artist. Mohiniattam is a classical dance form from southern India that originated in the 16th century. The World Dances spoke with this multifaceted artist about Indian classical dance, her perspective on dance and photography, advice for aspiring dancers, and more. 

How did you become interested in Mohiniattam, and what elements of this art form do you find most challenging and most compelling?

I became interested in Mohiniattam when I saw my teacher, Mandakini Trivedi, perform. At the time I was interested in dance communities and the idea of dancing as a daily ritual. I am very attracted to her teachings as her practice is deeply connected to her philosophy and to the way she expresses the form. Staying true to the philosophy of the form, which is mystical and transcendental, is very challenging and is what attracts me to this dance.

Since this is an art form with hundreds of years of tradition behind it, how can you (or do you) interpret it from a contemporary perspective? How and why does this form remain relevant?

The art form has been carried forward over hundreds of years through practitioners ‘til now, and is being performed, taught, learned and practiced. Each Master does interpret the form through their practice and transformations.  My Guru says, "The tradition is a database of information that is being passed on.” How the dancer/artist will interpret the data is relevant. 

What's it like training in this form? How does a typical class go? And what are the criteria for progressing?

I believe that the training and teaching should never end. Mandakini Trivedi trains you to be a solo dancer so the classes are one on one. The more time you spend with her the more you learn, it is not limited to classes. The criterion for progressing is the amount of time you can spend with the practice and Master. It’s impossible to put in into timelines. It’s infinite. I think that’s true for most art forms.

As a dancer and a photographer, how do your two disciplines inform each other?

As a photographer I’m very interested in performance. I work a lot with contemporary performance art and have lately been working on creating photographic performances as well. I think being a dancer helps you understand body composition as well as time, which are great tools for visual art as well. For the dance I'm more and more interested in the visual space I would like to dance in. I see both my practices are about creating images. 

What are you goals for the next 5 years?

To stay in the moment.

What advice would you offer to young dancers who'd like to follow in your footsteps?

I was introduced to Mohiniattam when I was 21 years old. The training usually starts when you’re a child, so younger dancers could give me advice!  For young artists though, I can say to stay with the practice of whichever form you choose and it will give back to you!