"We'd like it to be a reminder of how fragile life is"
Trailblazing dancer Amina Khayyam is sharing the stories of local women through her new project Kantha Katha-K.
Kantha Katha-K is a mesmerising and unique dance performance that narrates the experiences of South Asian women.
Exploring issues of domestic violence, loneliness and mental health, this choreography stems from Kantha, a form of South Asian embroidery.
Engaging with local women from Birmingham, the Amina Khayyam Dance Company called upon artists Bhajan Hundal and Abeda Begum.
Together, they reached out to these ladies through WhatsApp and Zoom to help them through the Covid-19 lockdowns.
In those tough times, a lot of these individuals were facing grief, fear, sadness and pain. But, Amina wanted to give them an outlet to express themselves.
The storyboard embroideries are now being formed into a magical piece of dance, choreographed by Amina herself.
She wanted to use Kathak, a traditional style of South Asian dance that is known for its storytelling qualities.
Having danced for over two decades, Amina Khayyam is one of the piledriving forces for South Asian dancers.
Her intense choreography, vivid movements, and dynamic footwork are all elements that make her work so unique. And, Kantha Katha-K will be no different.
Not to mention, Jonathan Mayer has specially adapted Borodin’s ‘Nocturne’ with vibrant Indian instrumentation for the music score.
So, we caught up with Amina Khayyam to talk about the project, its importance and how women’s stories need highlighting.
What motivated you to start Kantha Katha-K?
Our company continually engages in creative outreach activities on a weekly basis with women’s groups throughout the year in various locations.
When lockdown hit, we had to find a different way to continue this engagement.
So, we developed WhatsApp groups and got participants to talk to each other through their stories and experiences of the lockdown.
We introduced a number of activities and Kantha (embroidery) became the most popular.
We got Kantha specialist artists Abeda Begum and Bhajan Hundal to work with these women.
They helped them to acquire stitching skills as well as encouraged and inspired them to construct their experiences into stories that they creatively told through embroidery.
Many of our participants live in difficult circumstances such as domestic violence, poverty, mental health, and small restricted housing with extended families.
They found the project rewarding. It allowed them to keep occupied, busy and connected during the lockdown.
Vitally, it connected them with other women, where they could share, get to know each other, learn new techniques and values, communicate, and respect one another.
The project was delivered regionally to Birmingham, Woking, Leeds, Luton, London, and Brighton.
As well as other subgroups but they were unable to join the main group due to their safety.
Why did you think embroidery was a good creative tool for this project?
Embroidery is a common artistic activity enjoyed by many, not only Asian communities.
Traditionally, women in Asian communities would meet up to make Kanthas.
They’d use the time to catch up and chat about the happenings in their daily lives whilst embroidering their stories of love, loss, and desires.
All the while, engaging in some harmless gossip.
This gathering of activities made something that had longevity. It was a creative process that helped with mental health well-being, communication skills, and expressing freely.
In our project, WhatsApp groups replaced in-person sessions/meetings that women enjoyed.
With the help of modern technology, we were able to film short video clips, each giving step-by-step instructions about the project and how to achieve the task.
“Both the artists and the participants were able to take part from the comfort of their own homes.”
The women watched the videos to learn the technique and posted their own thoughts and the progress of their Kantha on the group chat.
The feedback from each other also motivated and encouraged them into taking an active part from beginning to end of the project.
What type of memories/feelings did the women stitch?
The task for the women was to express their emotional response to the lockdown, something that they are feeling at the time, at the moment, and what the emotion evoked.
They were encouraged to draw this feeling on a blank piece of paper.
Once they are happy with it then transfer the drawing into the fabric ready to be embroidered.
The response was striking and not to mention very creative!
Through the embroidery, they expressed their fear of the unknown that covid brought, the experience of losing a loved one, suffering from Covid, mental health and isolation.
As well as bringing the family together under one roof and hope. Faith played an important part to get through this unprecedented time.
There were also humour and light-hearted response to Covid and the shortage of toilet rolls etc, as well as hope to find a cure for the virus!
Interestingly with the current fears of the cost of living, these expressions and stories are still relevant.
How did you manage to choreograph these Kanthas into dance?
The power of dance is to tell stories without the use of words.
I always made work based on the stories shared by women through extensive workshopping.
Using rhythm, movement, and storytelling techniques, it was very important that I narrate the stories they embroidered onto the fabric.
Firstly, it was clear that there were some common themes that came out of all the groups.
Such as loss of freedom, loneliness, death, and anxiety.
“Yet some felt harmony, hope and peace as a result of having to to pace our lives.”
It was not really challenging to put these experiences into dance because dancing is all based on real-life experiences anyway.
All our work, inspiration and creativity are formed from what we see, feel and touch.
How powerful do you think Kathak is to showcase these feelings?
The power lies with good storytelling.
To be able to reach the hearts and minds of the audience is the strive for any dance maker.
Kathak also lends itself to telling stories using its many tools and techniques.
The use of rhythm and music further enhances the storytelling more effectively.
Can you tell us more about the show itself?
As with all our productions, the aim always is to bring women’s stories to the forefront of the work.
In the past, we’ve used thousands of rag dolls made by women and also asked them to make costumes for dancers.
In Kantha Katha-K we will be incorporating their Kanthas as part of the performance.
“It’s a unique sharing of their work and the stories through movements and live music.”
We use a set made of scaffolding from which these Kanthas are hung for display – and in between these spaces, we have created performance spaces.
The work will also feature specially commissioned music by composer Jonathan Mayer to adapt the western classical music of ‘Borodin’ to Indian instrumentation.
What more can be done to highlight the struggles of South Asian women?
Firstly, to acknowledge and understand that they are individuals.
Value their worth and empower them through the creative activities we deliver – which are listed on our website.
But creative mediums can absolutely be important in highlighting taboo topics like abuse/violence.
Its impacts are therapeutic and allow women to express and act as cathartic.
Achievements through creative activity can increase self-esteem/give them an open and outward perspective on life.
What type of reaction would you like viewers to feel?
For the women participants – we hope to have done justice to their stories and were able to give them a voice.
We hope we are able to transform their work through movement and have done justice to their thoughts and emotions felt during the pandemic.
And for the general audience, we’d like it to be a reminder of how fragile life is.
“Overall, we want to share the lockdown experience of each one who took part and enjoy the showcase.”
For many women, from all backgrounds, Kantha Katha-K will highlight the universal emotions felt during the pandemic lockdowns.
However, Amina Khayyam has done exceptionally well to shine a light on the experiences of South Asian women specifically.
The underlying motivation is due to the stigma around discussing such topics in the open. Especially within Desi communities.
However, bringing such journeys to the forefront, especially using dance, is ingenious and engaging.
Not only does Kantha Katha-K promise to be a dynamic spectacle oozing with vivid movements, but it’ll also encapsulate a wide range of interactions and feelings.
Find out more about Amina Khayyam and the Kantha Katha-K project here.