Total Masala Slammer/ Heartbreak No. 5: A Review

A case of mistaken identity for the Indian classical dancer?

Preethi  Athreya

This review (also available online here) was first published in Dance Research Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Winter, 2004), pp. 139-143. It is being re-presented here with the permission of the author, in addition to a few performance photos and a short excerpt of the performance (uploaded by the director). Photo courtesy – Michel Laub ( and photographer Monica Rittershaus. We would be happy to remove the review/ video/photos if we are notified of any copyrights rule violation.

Total Masal Slammer/ Heartbreak no. 5, conceived and directed by Belgian director Michel Laub and visual artist Marina Abramovic [1], has been described as a European American Indian multimedia theater project combining dance, theater, video projection, art installation, and music. Laub and Abramovic draw on vastly mixed references to deal with themes of race and multiculturalism. A recurrent theme is women and their abuse in different cultural perspectives. Laub and Abramovic are fascinated by two extremes of Indian culture: on the one side the purity of classical Indian dance and art, kathak; on the other, the triviality of soap operas and kitschy TV serials produced by Bollywood (Archa Theatre 2001). Laub’s theater is said to play with the conventions of theatrical representation, constantly bringing the rehearsal process onto the stage. Less interested in trained actors than in forceful personalities, Laub looks for a fusion of the autobiographical details of his performers with fictional situations. So, what happens when Michel Laub, a postmodernist with a tendency to parody order, system, and signification, collaborates with Kumudini Lakhia, a traditional reformist for whom art is about poetry, wonder, simplicity, and dignity?

In Total Masal Slammer, unrequited love is “performed” in different performance traditions of kathak and Bharatanatyam, Bollywood soap opera, and German theater. Actors, sometimes wearing period costumes, read out excerpts from a book with exaggerated melodrama or affected irreverence. Audition videos are screened, and there is much dancing– contemporary dance, cabaret, kathak, and bharatanatyam. It has a deliberately fragmented piece-by-piece approach with actors seated on stage, taking turns to perform their acts. Goethe’s text. “The sorrows of Young Werther,” appears and disappears between numerous unconnected episodes. It concerns a young man stricken by unrequited love to the point of taking his life.

The French Kiss Scene

The set is minimal with a cinema screen on a raised platform upstage center, a wooden platform downstage center and chairs on either side. A backdrop of billowy cloth tumbles down dramatically with some scene changes. Among the characters are three contemporary dancers, seven kathak dancers, and two bharatanatyam dancers chosen from the auditions in Bombay, Ahmedabad, and Chennai. Woman as sex object is a recurring motif. A dancer in a sequined dress wriggles and sways as she recounts the mischievous story of her Caribbean-European origin while a European dancer in a clinging red sari listens to her Walkman, giggles, and imitates an Indian accent; she returns later in the nude and joins a group of female kathak dancers, mimicking their delivery of bols [2] .

A male kathak dancer sings a song about love while a frantic woman repeatedly runs across the stage. Two male Bharatanatyam dancers begin dancing a traditional fast-paced rhythmic piece while the traditional accompaniment suddenly changes to an electronic techno beat. Excerpts of films are projected on the screen from time to time, including a clip in which a Bollywood dancer with her thrusts and covert glances fills up the screen and is followed by a eunuch. Renowned choreographer Kumudini Lakhia demonstrates sorrow in the classical tradition. During intermission, a kathak dancer performs a complicated rhythmic piece in front of the curtained stage. The last scene brings all the characters on stage at the same time, each doing their routine in a frenzied pace.

From viewing a videotape (from a private collection) of the performance at the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin in 2001, one is forced to consider the role of the Indian contingent in the production, especially as it ropes in personalities of the stature of Kumudini Lakhia, a pioneer in the field of kathak. Credited with redefining kathak in the last forty years, Lakhia is said to have worked with the form to restore its artistic value and dignity, which had given way to mere gimmickry. In Total Masal Slammer, Lakhia is acknowledged to have choreographed the kathak sections, which have then been treated visually by Laub. For those familiar with Kumudini Lakhia’s work, the aesthetic that emerges from this cross-fertilization appears uncharacteristic and leaves the viewer in doubt regarding the extent of her involvement in the project.

A prime example of postmodern expression, Indian cinema serves up sex, violence, satire, and kitch on its Bollywood platter. Indian postmodern expression, if it chooses to, could take shape without any assistance or co-productions from Western cutting-edge contemporary artists. However, the conspicuous absence of postmodernity as a genre of creative expression among classical dancers and audiences in India would seem to indicate a lack of interest. The classically trained Indian dancer, whether in India or elsewhere in the world, is standing with one foot in the amalgam of myth-history and the other foot in stark modernity. Any attempt to bridge the gap is an attempt to articulate gaps in the foundations of one’s beliefs– to be aware of the implications of one’s work at the aesthetic, social, and political levels.

The performers of a work like Total Masal Slammer cannot know in advance emotional core and then “express” it. Rather, the whole emerges through the action, through the action, through the repetition of action, and sometimes even through the mistakes made on stage. A work like this places tremendous responsibility on the actor who is oscillating between relatively unstructured interaction (which makes room from surprise revelations) and formalized expression. It demands reflexive interpretation.

This being the case, should one assume that the classical Indian dancer, having been trained in a noncritical and uncriticized dance form and clinging to its sense of religiosity, understand his or her role in a production like Michel Laub’s Total Masal Slammer? In this work, all except the Indian classical dancers can be seen “flaunting” their characters while performing them. They are always slightly quoting their character, remaining unavoidably just outside their role, while the Indian dancers seem oblivious to this dimension of awareness. Rather than being a disadvantage, this lack of awareness is used remarkably well in the production.

When Laub chooses to work with Indian dancers and actors, his style is somewhat different. He takes great care to cast a “bitchy hairdresser” as his leading lady in the Bollywood soap opera, although he admits that many talented actresses had auditioned (Laub 2002). Again, he chooses to work with some kathak dancers who are into only two months of kathak lessons and others who cannot wait to show off their technical prowess as they are made to spin around endlessly. This is all the more unfortunate when the choreography involves Kumudini Lakhia, who has been working to rid kathak of the very same virtuosic tendencies [3]. What is common in both the amateur and the experienced dancer is that it is made impossible under the circumstances for either to transcend the form. As they appear in their pristine white robes (or sensually bare-chested as the Bharatanatyam dancers were), one is stuck by the jarring imbalance in their entrances and exit (to which they have given no thought) when compared to their dancing, with its supercilious attitude– especially so when they are side by side with contemporary dancers whose attitudes are consistent whether they are entering, exiting, or performing.

Michel Laub said:

The kathak you’re going to see is the purest you’re going to get. It’s kathak you can show in Bombay or New Delhi in front of the most learned people, and if they don’t like that kathak, it means they don’t like Kumudini Lakhia. And if they don’t like Kumuduni Lakhia, then their taste really sucks. (2002)

Sure enough, in Bombay, or New Delhi or anywhere where classical Indian dance has taken root, it is likely that virtuosity is everything. In a production like this one, the director asks such a dancer to pound away with her feet on a wooden board during intermission, if you please. It only amplifies the futility of technique as the be-all and end-all performance– not to mention the video projection of Kumudini Lakhia (whom Laub describes as “one of the greatest living kathak masters”) explaining the concept of abhinaya, or mime, in the classical tradition, while the audience giggles uncontrollably because of the context in performance. The point of it is to carry to perfection the perverse potential of the medium, which by its nature preserves the audience against belief.

The same kind of theater might ask the question: Can art ever deliver itself from empathy? (if empathy means a willingness to think and feel in tune with the work). The question is answered when the actor makes a mistake or when the acting is bad or when an accident happens. The beauty disappears and the audience comes back to itself a little before time. This happens when one of the kathak dancers toward the end loses her balance and accidentally giggles and the audience laughs. One kind of empathy is destroyed to admit anothe – empathy cleansed of flattery. What makes it so defeaning is that it makes no emotional self-reference but speaks for itself only in the context in which it is places.

When Laub says, “I have a rather perverse approach to my material. I would rather work with things that I hate than with things that I love” (Hebbel Theater, 2001), it is evident that he is not really “fascinated” by Bollywood and kathak, but rather he categorically tears apart what he sees as the hypocrisy of a culture with two such extreme that pretend to have nothing to do with each other. Something undoubtedly rea leaks out of the illusion.

The important question is whether the classical Indian dancers in this production are aware of having been used. For Bharatanatyam dancer Prateesh Kizhakkan, a participant in Total Masala Slammer, the answer is yet to come, as Laub tells him, “Boy, just go and do it– I’ll tell you later” (Kizhakkan 2003) [4]. Perhaps it is time for everyone to jump onto the global bandwagon anyway.



[1] Since 1981, director Michel Laub has headed the Swedish theater company Remote Control. His collaborations with visual artist Marina Abramovic go back to the 1980s. Abramovic designed the set for Laub’s productions of Planet Lulu and Frankula. In 2001 they collaborated again on the theater-installation project called Total Masala Slammer, which was developed in the Indian Bollywood Studios and Rotterdam in co-production with the Hebbel Theater, Germany.

Laub’s theater is said to play with the conventions of theatrical representation, constantly bringing the rehearsal process onto the stage. Says Gerald Siegmund (Hebbel Theater 2001), “Laub’s productions consist of scraps of splatter, horror and porno films, citations from pop culture, cinemascope music, and narratives about the making of plays which are never produced.” Less interested in trained actors than in forceful personalities, Laub looks for a fusion of the autobiographical details of his performers with fictional situations.

[2] Verbal mnemonic that is rendered as a complement to the rhythms performed by the dancer in kathak. Kathak dancers are trained to deliver bols in relation to the percussive accompaniment, thus establishing a dialogue between the dancer and the table player.

[3] Forty years ago, as a young dancer on the threshold of popularity, Kumudini Lakhia dared ti defy die-hard traditionalists by regarding solo kathak performances as mere gimmickry and devoid of artistic values and dignity. She began redefining the dance style by reinventing its movements, music, makeup, and attire. Kumudini pioneered choreographic productions in kathak, which stood out for their visual beauty. Her maiden performance in 1942 was followed by several solo recitals. “But at one point I couldn’t relate to the dance form or my guru’s mindset. The inner turbulence made me restless” (Swaminathan 2001). She was eager to free kathak of its pirouettes and fast footwork routine and wanted her art “to evoke wonder and soothe the soul” (Swaminathan 2001). With this eclectic and non-dogmatic approach Kumudini added musical expression to the vocalized percussive rhythm and made changes I nthe patterns of presentation. Not content with the Radha-Krishna repertory, the mainstay of kathak, she began taking up the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, Niranjan Bhagat, Sarveshwar Dayal, and Uma Shankar Joshi. Clarity in communication and simplicity of thought being the aim of her artistic endeavors, Kumudini even changed the costumes, doing away with the cumbersome attire, heavy jewelry, and gaudy makeup and colors. “I hated anything overshadowing the natural beauty of the movements” (Swaminathan 2001). Her reformist approach includes her dance school, Kadamb, in existence since 1061 at Ahmedabad.

[4] Personal communication with author, 2003.


Works sited:

Archa Theatre. 2001. Accessed on September 1, 2003.

Hebbel Theatere. 2001. Accessed on September 1, 2003.

Laub, Michel. 2002. Interview by Michael Dwyer on Total Masala Slammer/ Heartbreak No. 5, Bollywood Blitz. Accessed on September 1, 2003.

Swaminathan, Chitra. 2001. “Redefining Kathak.” The Hindu. Accessed April 20, 2004.


Additional Reading:

Benjamin, Walter. 1969. “The work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations. Edited by Hannah Arendt, 217-252. Reprint, Schocken Books.

Bharucha, Rustom. 1995. Chandralekha: Woman, Dance, Resistance.  New Delhi: Harper Collins, India.

Bullock, Alan and Stephen Trombley, 1999. The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, 3rd ed. London: Harper Collins.

Menon, Sadanand. 2003. “Tripping up on Tradition.” The Hindu. Accessed September 1. 2003.

States, Bert O. 1985. Great Reckoning in Little Rooms; On the Phenomenology of Theatre. Berkeley: University of California Press.



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