TWO is better than one

Raghav-Handa-and-Maharshi-Raval-in-TWO-photo-by-Joseph-MayersRaghav Handa flexes each muscle meticulously preparing for his performance. I watch closely as he stretches his body. He rolls across the stage, he stretches his calves, he twists into the most awkward angles to stretch his back, shoulders, and legs.

Brown’s Mart theatre is small and cosy and there is a sense of intimacy between the already seated audience and this dancer warming up pre-show. Occasionally, he looks over and smiles at the audience while doing his stretches.

Then, Maharshi Raval, Raghav’s co-performer and maestro tabla musician strolls in. He walks onstage with shoes on. Raghav says, “No shoes, I just swept the floor!” Maharshi grunts and walks offstage to remove his shoes.

The two of them then set up the dais for Maharshi’s tabla. Raghav insists that Maharshi makes neat hospital corners when tucking in the black sheet that covers the dais.

There is a gentle sense of teasing and camaraderie in the way these two interact. Maharshi is the staid white shirted and black trousered strict looking Tabla master and Raghav is the younger, more playful and definitely more athletic contemporary dancer. The show begins.

Maharshi makes Raghav keep time to the rhythm that he taps on his tabla. First the pace is slow, then it gets faster, faster, and faster. Raghav listens intently first to each melody that Maharshi taps out on the tabla, tapping his feet along to the rhythm.

Then he leaps across the stage his body transforming Maharshi’s tabla rhythm into electrifying contemporary dance. The pace gets quicker and quicker and Raghav dances faster and faster until he can no longer keep up.

There is a trancelike quality to this performance – the dancer and the tabla player are one engrossed in their passion for the Indian Kathak dance tradition. Kathak is one of the main genres of ancient Indian classical dance and traditionally regarded to have originated from the travelling bards of North India referred as Kathakars or storytellers.

It has several genres and disciplines but one of its precepts is the concept of guru and student. Raghav is the student who dances to Maharshi his guru’s rhythm. But is it so? The next act changes this perspective.

In the authentic Kathak dance tradition there is a clear boundary between guru and student. You cannot tease your guru. Raghav however, gets Maharshi to dance along with him to a rousing rendition of an English pop song halfway through the show. And Maharshi has some pretty neat dance moves of his own that has the audience in hysterics.

Raghav and Maharshi bop around the strobe-lit stage to a surreal backdrop of a portrait of them done by a Bollywood artist in Bangalore. They give a great backstory on how that portrait was commissioned to the audience, but you must attend the show to hear that. At one point, Maharshi walks out of the theatre abruptly.

Raghav tells us, “You’ll have to wait till he comes back, he’s gone to his car.” Maharshi’s car park time ran out. Meanwhile, Raghav shares that Maharshi works as an accountant for his day job. I love the level of informality and intimacy in this performance. It brings the audience so much closer to the performers and their everyday lives.

After this light-hearted act, the duo returns to a more traditional performance of tabla player and contemporary dancer. This time the vibe is more intense and urgent. Maharshi thumps out a powerful rhythm and Raghav swirls and twirls across the stage in ever increasing elegant circles.

The momentum builds and builds and the two of them go into a trancelike mood engrossed in embodying the Kathak dance tradition. They seem oblivious even of the audience – it is just the two of them in their world of rhythm and dance.

The show ends in a crescendo and the audience applauds and encores the two men. TWO is a must see for anyone wanting to see Kathak dance transformed into a mesmerising and witty contemporary performance.

Brown’s Mart Theatre, 12 Smith Street, Darwin
Season: 5 – 7 August 2022 (ended)

Image: Raghav Handa and Maharshi Raval in TWO – photo by Joseph Mayers

Review: Varunika Ruwanpura