To say that bharatanatyam guru Janak Khendry is an ambitious choreographer is an understatement. In his latest work, the Indian-born Khendry has undertaken to translate John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost into dance.
The magnum opus, published in 1667, is considered by many to be the greatest work of English literature. With 10 books totalling over 10,000 lines of poetry, Milton’s blank-verse epic swirls around Satan’s rebellion against God, the creation of Original Sin by Adam and Eve’s tasting of the Forbidden Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and the couple’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Weighty stuff indeed for a dance drama.
Now 75, Khendry prepared himself for tackling the grandeur of Paradise Lost by creating such philosophical dance pieces as Upanishad (2004), Ganga (2009) and Kaal-Time (2012). The first explores the sacred Hindu book’s reflection on the cosmos. The second deals with the mythology surrounding the revered Ganges River, while the third takes on the various concepts of time, both religious and secular.
Khendry approached Paradise Lost by creating 23 short scenes with titles such as “Satan Whispers in Eve’s Ear” and “Eve Eats the Fruit and Earth is Shaken.” With his background in bharatanatyam, the ancient dance style from South India, Khendry is well-versed in storytelling through mime and movement. The mime work here is so precise, the biblical subtext is always clear. The effect overall of this direct approach, however, is a dance drama that, without the context of Milton’s words, seems naive.
Khendry’s movement is anchored in bharatanatyam, but infused with contemporary dance. The cast of Paradise Lost is made up of 17 dancers from both Eastern and Western disciplines, including Khendry, who performs the role of God in a white flowing robe.
The scene in which archangels Michael, Rafael, Uriel and Gabriel claim victory over Satan, for example, is almost pure bharatanatyam. Interestingly, the dancers – Austin Fagan, Tyler Gledhill, Mateo Galindo Torres and Daniel McArthur, respectively – are all contemporary dancers, and so the Indian style is subtly changed.
The biggest applause of the evening went to charismatic Allen Kaeja as Satan. Kaeja is credited with helping create his own choreography, which transforms Satan into pure evil, whether as the sensuous, conniving serpent or the imperious commander of the rebel angel army. As always, the bad guy gets the best part.
In contrast, Adam (Eddie Kastrau) and Eve (Kala Vageesan) are playfully innocent and Khendry has given them childlike games to perform. The shame that they feel once they have tasted the Forbidden Fruit is graphically portrayed by their arms and hands attempting to cover their bodies. They rush off and return, wearing fig leaves.
The production values of the piece are gorgeous. Khendry is a visual artist who designs his own costumes. The archangels are clothed in beautiful Indian silks, each in his own vibrant colour, which are modified versions of bharatanatyam garb. In contrast, Adam and Eve wear flesh-tone body suits to create the illusion of nakedness. Particularly effective are the whirling draperies worn by Sin (Sinthuja Jeyarajah), Death (Divya Divakaran) and Violence (Harinnya Rajasekeran).
Bradley Trenaman’s projections are taken from French graphic artist Gustave Doré’s famous 1866 illustrations for Milton’s poem. Khendry cunningly has inserted a live recreation of Doré’s prints into most scenes. For example, when Raphael comes to warn Adam about Satan, for a brief moment Doré’s image is mirrored on stage. Composers Eric Cadesky (Canada) and Ashit and Alap Desai (India) have given Khendry an evocative score that moves between electronic soundscapes and traditional bharatanatyam rhythmic songs.
It may be impossible to incorporate all of Milton’s philosophical and psychological musings in Paradise Lost into movement. But Khendry has created an entertaining dance drama, if a little on the simplistic side.