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In Conversation With Neelambaree Prasad And Kripa Iyer On Shoonya

Nirmala Garimella

Shoonya is a creative collaboration of women artists and designers led by Neelambaree Prasad and Kripa Iyer.Watch the world premiere of new climate-themed choreographies, an eco-design showcase and talks by climate experts. Open and free to the public on September 17th and listed under LDF 2022.

Neelambaree Prasad is an alumnus of Oxford University’s Medical Science Division and after being in leadership positions in the Pharmaceutical industry for 15 years, now devotes her energy fully to Madhuriya.She is also a Fellow of Terra.do.

She started her training in Odissi as a 12 year old and has been privileged to have also learnt from the legendary Padmavibhushan Late Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra directly. She has performed in India and in the UK at prestigious venues such as, the Kala Ghoda Festival and the NCPA in Mumbai and The Nehru Centre in London. She started teaching over a decade ago in Mumbai and continues to take small group and one-on-one lessons for adults in the UK. She continues her artistic pursuits in the UK as a student, a teacher and a collaborator and is also being mentored by Guru Pushkala Gopal, MBE.

Kripa Iyer is an Economist and works in the area of public policy in London. During her formative years as a dancer, she had the opportunity to train under the legendary Padmavibhushan Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. She has been deeply influenced by world renowned Odissi dancer and guru – Padmashri Madhavi Mudgal, whose workshops she has attended in the UK.

Kripa has performed extensively in the US and the UK. She is passionate about teaching and passing on what she has learnt from her guru to the next generation of dancers.

Kripa and Neelambaree continue learning from their Guru Debi Basu through regular online dance lessons.

Both have also trained in the initial Navarasa Sadhana actor training module under Sri G Venu.

Here is my conversation with the two artists who are launching a very unique dance production with the underlying theme on Climate Change

Let us start with Madhuriya. When did you begin and why?

It felt like destiny that after having spent formative years learning together in India, we ended up in the same neighbourhood in this melting pot of culture that London is. We formed Madhuriya in 2018 with a vision to co-evolve our art along with the diverse forms of performing arts that the UK has to offer. We knew we had to refine our goals to make our work more relevant and integrate our art into the multicultural scene of London. It took us a few projects since, to allow our vision to evolve and we are now focused on creative climate communication.

We both started learning Odissi from Guru Debi Basu or Debidi to us - while in school in Mumbai. Dancing was always something we kept going alongside our academic/professional commitments for 25 years now.

Under this  banner, what events have you hosted in the past? What has been the response?

 As curators, our biggest event thus far was a virtual dance festival in 2021,  Aprajita - the resilient artist, celebrating the resilience of all artists through the pandemic. It was sponsored by The Nehru Centre London.

This was particularly exciting not only because it was our first after the year of lull due to Covid but also - we got to experiment with some innovative jugalbandis. The virtual format meant we were not restricted by geographical boundaries so we could pair up like-minded artists and commission (e.g. Boston based jazz saxophonist and an Australia based Bharatanatyam dancer) them to create new pieces on the theme of resilience. We also had a good mix of established big names like Kapila Venu with Koodiyattam  and upcoming dancers, and Academics who were on our panel for some engaging discussions. There was something for everybody!

The audience was also global. The livestream and recording was viewed by many - in the thousands. 

An ongoing pet project is our Stepping Stones workshop series for children that we have been running successfully for many years now. It started out as a project for the Mayor of London's funded series across local children's libraries and we have adapted and run many versions and themes to suit our little audiences. We are planning a series of eco-conservation stories next.

The current initiative is very exciting, unique and thoughtful? What is Shoonya all about?

To put it briefly - it is an initiative to use art and creativity for climate communication. Shoonya is what we have named our launch event for our ClimArts program. It is a collaborative presentation of classical dance and contemporary design through the lens of sustainability. It is part of the London design Festival in Sept, as LDF celebrates its 20th anniversary.

As mothers of young children, we want to contribute to building a desirable world for them by taking climate action, not only ourselves, but using art and joining forces for a greater impact. We are dancers and storytellers and believe in the impact of powerful storytelling. It is known that relying on policies and political leadership alone is not going to help us overcome it. A change in attitude is needed to change behaviours and the only way to bring about that is by relating to people on an emotional and not purely rational level. And that is the purpose of Madhuriya's ClimArts program.

We envisage this as a multi-modular program where we will enable and host - performances, conferences, discussions and creative collaborations. 

We will introduce this program through the launch, i.e. Shoonya. Audiences will watch a performance, listen to talks by designers and climate experts and have the opportunity to interact 1:1 with designers and each other. 

This production is very collaborative and brings in diverse persons on one platform? How did you bring them together?

During the early days when we were discussing the concept of ClimArts - We were discussing climate-themed choreographies and compositions with powerful messaging. 

Came across designers who were successful while not compromising on the Sustainability ethos. Also happen to be women of colour. We felt their story was an inspiring one worth sharing with the world and that sowed the seeds of Shoonya.

We are grateful to LDF, whose organizers have the vision to include performing arts in the broader definition of design, so this is the first time ever that they are partnering with performing artists! The more we spoke about it, the more encouraged we were by the overwhelmingly positive response. We got a popular restaurant chain to sponsor us as well. We also got a boost through the involvement of Terra.do.

How do you hope to fund this? 

That is always a challenge! We have gone all out. We sought and secured some corporate sponsorship and to get started have invested our personal funds. We will be launching a kickstarter campaign shortly and would welcome support of any size. Common knowledge that the arts sector has been hit by the pandemic and as women working in climate action - the statistics are loaded against us. But we are determined to make it happen.

How can interested folks reach out to support? 

Our kickstarter campaign has gone live


and we would be very grateful for your readers' support.

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