25th April 2024

Speaking with Kavya: The Impact of the Sampad Digital Arts Bursary

In July, we were excited to announce Sampad’s Digital Arts Bursary, an opportunity for a South Asian artist from any field interested in exploring and using creative digital technology in producing new work. The bursary aimed to support artists to foster innovation in South Asian arts.

One of the winners was Kavya, who we spoke to about her use of the bursary. What began as a question of the expressive potential of Bharatanatyam unfolded into an exploration of identity, symbolism, and movement within the folds of the iconic saree.

1) At the beginning of this project, how did you envision this opportunity would impact your artistic journey? And was this different to the actual outcome?
At the beginning of the project, I hoped that the bursary would serve as a starting point to test out my ideas involving dance and motion capture. I hoped it would give me the confidence to start creating digital dance work in the South Asian context, which could lead to bigger projects in the future. I also saw this as an opportunity to bring to the forefront the stories and voices of those that we may not always hear about, and a chance to work with new kinds of creative professionals. The outcomes have been quite aligned to my vision! Clemence Debaig, the motion capture technologist I worked with, played a key role shaping and guiding the journey. My learnings from and interactions with her were beyond my initial expectations and I hope to continue working with her in growing this project.

2) How did you incorporate digital technology into your Bharatanatyam practice? Could you share insights into the specific aspects or elements you explored?  
My proposal was based on something that I’ve seen growing up, everyday around me – the saree. While it might be just another piece of clothing to some, the saree is much more than that – it is a reflection of class, caste, gender and ethnic identities. It has also become a global harbinger of South Asian heritage, culture and fashion, and has carved out an identity of its own. How can the saree then tell the stories of the women (and anyone else for that matter) who wear them? What stories can be narrated? Do the sarees have a life and symbolism of their own? What if the saree, stripped of its ‘wearer’ could immerse viewers in a different experience — take them to a world without boundaries and judgements?  
The core idea was thus to explore movements in, and of the saree in different contexts. I took three different kinds of sarees – one worn at a wedding by the bride, one worn by a person who goes to work and one worn by someone everyday at home. Using elements of storytelling, yoga and angika abhinaya, I tried to represent movements for each saree that one might consider “normal” versus what could be seen as “radical”. For example, juxtaposing the fast paced life of a working woman against her tiredness/restfulness. Or discovering how the “woman at home” could also have multiple personalities — a carefree nature amidst all her other responsibilities. 
The biggest challenge was the fact that the saree models don’t allow for hand gestures or facial expressions to be used, which are crucial elements in many Indian dance forms! It was super exciting to navigate how the saree-clad body can depict the narrative sans mudras and facial expressions.

3) How do you perceive the role of digital technology in reshaping or preserving traditional art forms while fostering innovation?
I am, in general, a bit weary of using tech in/with art. Firstly, it is not my forte! And secondly, with the increasing role of AI in our lives, it seems almost scary to advocate for it. However, this experience has taught me that one does not necessarily compete with/replace another’s value, but they can very much be complementary to each other. For example, audiences who may not be familiar with South Asian narratives could be interested in knowing about it through a digital lens, and similarly, those who might be coming from the world of dance, could view dance through a new medium.   

4) Could you elaborate on how you utilised the £1500 bursary to experiment with new mediums or technologies in your artistic practice?
The majority of the bursary was used to work with the motion capture technologist. Their fees included the equipment, the studio space and the final video editing and output. The remainder was used as a choreographer’s fee for myself, for conducting research on the topic and for creating a proof of concept for application to further grants to develop the work. 

5) Looking back, how do you envision the impact of this bursary on your artistic growth and the broader South Asian arts landscape?
The bursary has allowed me to confidently experiment and create work outside of my comfort zone. Not only did it encourage me to rethink the kind of work I can create as a thinking dancer, but it also gave me a springboard to bring digital technology to the South Asian arts landscape. It allowed me to delve into aspects of creating and adapting movements for a new medium, choreographing “animations” (motion capture outputs) rather than actual dancing bodies, and weaving story boards that work for a screen rather than a stage! 

6) What do you feel you achieved or contributed as a result of this opportunity?
As a result of this opportunity, I achieved a deeper understanding of the intersection between tradition and digital technology. The application of tech to South Asian dance is still not a field that has been very widely explored. So it was quite exciting to see how even the simplest of concepts and ideas can become so much richer with the use of motion capture. The opportunity has shown me that there’s always room for fresh ideas and new collaborations. And that there is a lot to be learnt and done! While more time and resources are needed to further the project to realise its full potential, this first step was vital in showing me a new world of possibilities.

Photo Clemence Debaig (L) and Kavya