Interview :: Lata Pada & Lisa Ray on the dance-drama TAJ

Interview :: Lata Pada & Lisa Ray on the dance-drama TAJ

by Habiba Ahmad

Sampradaya Dance Creations presents John Murrell's TAJ on October 19th at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga. 

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The dance-drama is presented by Founder, Director, and Principal Teacher of SAMPRADAYA Dance Academy, Lata Pada and also stars Bollywood actor Kabir Bedi alongside Canadian actress Lisa Ray. The play follows Jahan Ara (Lisa Ray), the daughter of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (Kabir Bedi) and brings to life the historic story behind the Taj Mahal.

MyBindi's Habiba Ahmad caught up with Lata Pada & Lisa Ray to discuss what it was like working on this epic story in TAJ.

Lata Pada – In a past statement, you have referred to TAJ as your ‘dream project’. What is it about this production that is such an aspiration for you?

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TAJ has been a project that I have been dreaming of and visioning since 2009. Around that time, I was reading several books on Mughal history at that time and I was fascinated by Indu Sundaresan’s book – The Shadow Princess. Jahanara, the indomitable daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan is the protagonist in this book. She lives her life amidst royal splendor and court intrigue in the historical backdrop of the love story of her parents which led to the creation of this architectural masterpiece.

When I proposed it to Janice Price, CEO of the Luminato Festival, her response was positive and enthusiastic and that conversation led to Luminato Festival commissioning TAJ for their 2011 festival. Such an opportunity comes but rarely and it put the wind in our sails!

For me, TAJ is a dream project as it truly epitomizes a Canada-India collaboration bringing the best of Canadian and Indian artists and designers in a production that is unprecdented in theme, scale and talent. Written by Canada’s Governor General’s award winning playwright, John Murrell, directed by award winning director- Tom Diamond, I have a dream team of actors Kabir Bedi and Lisa Ray who have given so generously and wholeheartedly to this creation. Enhancing the production is a stunning ensemble of eleven dancers, and stellar creative team of choreographer- Padmubhushan Kumudini Lakhia, Composer- Praveen Rao, Set and Lighting Designer – Phillip Silver, Projection Design – Jacques Collin, Costume Designer – Rashmi Varma.

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Ray – You play Jahan Ara, the daughter of Shah Jahan, the 17th century Mughal emperor. How did you prepare for such a historic role?

Jahanara is a fascinating historical character. She was so ahead of her time. At 17 she took the place of her mother, Mumtaz as first lady of the Empire and took on many responsibilities normally reserved for men during that period of time. She never married and after her father was imprisoned by his own son, she became his caretaker. They had a special bond. I can relate to her free and unconventional spirit, while at the same time she was tutored in the ways of the court. My career started in Bombay in 1991 and I was thrown into a world- the entertainment industry in Bombay- which is very similar to a Mughal court. The intrigue, the loyalties, the manner in which you conduct yourself…and yet, remaining true to your calling and spirit is the key to surviving and thriving. I also use personal circumstances to relate to the character. 

Since I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a blood cancer, in 2009, my life has changed. I can’t travel as much and I’m spending more time in Toronto. See, I just moved back to Toronto 4 years ago. When you’ve been a life long traveller as I’ve been, it is a huge adjustment not to be able to journey spontaneously. In the same way, circumstances in Jahanara’s life essentially conspired to ‘trap’ her in a single location with her father. While it’s not the same, the psychology is similar- I used to be able to move around freely, and now I can’t. It’s fascinating. I trained in theatre in drama school in London, so working with our director Tom, Kabir and the entire team behind TAJ is a dream come true.

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Lata Pada – Several of the flashback scenes in TAJ are conveyed through Kathak, a classical Indian Dance. How did the classical dance form of Kathak contribute to the understanding of the story?

The production is set in the epic Mughal era and therefore Kathak, which was performed in the royal courts, was for me the most appropriate dance form. I am a trained bharatanatyam artist and knew that there was one choreographer, Kumudini Lakhia to whom I would turn to. Kathak speaks to a particular ethos of the culture of that time and with Kumiben, as we respectfully call her, remarkable choreography, dance becomes another visceral medium through which the story is portrayed.

Ray – Have you had previous experience with dancing – were you nervous at the thought of performing in a dance-drama?

I studied Kathak when I lived in London during the early 2000s as I’ve always admired the dance form- however I’m far from a ‘dancer’. I don’t dance in the play- we have amazingly talented performers who enact the dance portion of the story-telling on stage. That’s what makes this project so special- all the elements combine, to create an epic viewing experience, in my opinion.

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Lata Pada – What was the most challenging part in bringing your artistic vision to life in TAJ? 

The production was of a scale I had not ever imagined possible for our company; we are a small scale professional dance company; but I had a vision that I dared to dream and even now I sometimes look back and find it hard to believe that my dream came true; and how! Bringing together theatre, dance, visual design in an integrated work is complex; each medium has its own particularities and creating a harmonic whole can be overwhelming. How to create an integrated work where no one medium overshadows the other was one of ongoing pre-occupations. As well, I worried about telling a story of another time and place; how can we make TAJ resonate and connect to Canadian audiences?

Truly, there were so innumerable blessings – starting with Luminato taking the leap of faith in commissioning us. And then one by one, as if destiny played a hand in the gathering of great minds and genius, every collaborator had a history of great work and gave so freely and enthusiastically of their time, creativity and wisdom.

Lata Pada – What would you like your audience to take away from this production?

That the story in TAJ is a universal one and human emotions and ambitions are timeless. I would love them to know more about the human story behind the creation of one of the seven wonders of the world were created.

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Ray – What do you like the most about playing Jahan Ara & what did you find the most challenging?

I love playing a strong, female character on stage. Again- I trained for theatre but most of my career has been in front of the camera. Getting on stage is a pure hit of creativity with its own challenges. I love the entire team, I love John Murrel’ls words and I guess my only challenge is not missing my cues. Or tripping. The thing about stage is you can get away with anything if you make it part of your performance.

Lata Pada – You’re an influential figure in South Asian-styled dancing. However, is there a particular Western style of dance you would like to study/teach?

Well, I have always wanted to learn the Tango!! Tango music is so alluring! Someday I want to take Tango classes- just for fun! I am fascinated by the many diverse traditions of world dance, many of which I have had a chance to take some lessons. My students and those who perform in my company regularly take part in workshops and master classes in many dance styles; this cross training is other non-bhartanatyam movement systems is essential to their training and becoming versatile dancers.

Ray – How was it like working with Bollywood legend Kabir Bedi & the highly acclaimed Lata Pada?

I’ve always been a fan of Kabir’s and Lata’s. I have hung out at Kabir’s Juhu apartment in the nineties as I was good friends with his second wife, Nikki. I also appreciate Kabir’s global sensibility and adventurous spirit. His mother is the first white Tibetan Buddhist nun and I have a strong connection with Tibetan culture having spent a lot of time in Dharamsala. Kabir has travelled around the world and yet his heart and essence is so Indian. Lata is an icon and her spirit is so inspiring. She is the soul behind the play.

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Lata Pada & Ray – What future projects are you two working on?

Ray – A lot- some I can’t talk about at the moment. I’m the on going host of Top Chef Canada which I love and which is the top rated show on Food Network. #LisaRay4SatyaPaul, the cocktail sari line I co-designed with Satya Paul in Delhi is available. I’m so proud of the saris which express universal qualities like ‘Hope’ and ‘Faith’. They are available at the SP boutique in Brampton, Delhi and Mumbai and online. I’m working on my book and a blog and sharing my health journey and raising awareness and funds for Multiple Myeloma research through public talks. Since I’m ‘Living with Cancer’ I feel its important to share my message that no matter what the obstacle, one can live a full life. Creativity and story-telling can take many forms and I’m exploring many of them over the next while, while also trying to be a good wife!

Lata Pada – I think I will take a sabbatical and go into research mode. I am currently on a two-year fellowship from the Chalmers Foundation of the Ontario Arts Council researching the performance traditions of the Ramayana in Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodian.This will take me back to a part of the world I absolutely love. Who knows, something might trigger a new idea, a new collaborator, a new journey! For 2015, when Sampradaya Dance Creations celebrates its 25th Anniversary, another unique collaboration project is being plan for that year. Keep tuned!

For event details to TAJ please click HERE.

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