Mandapa In Paris: The Passion Of Milena Salvini

For all Indian musicians and dancers visiting Paris, a stop at Mandapa — the small pocket-size dance school and theatre of Milena Salvini — is a must. Famous or totally unknown, they all enjoy her hospitality. This remarkable little lady of shy appearance, who has studied Indian dance and who knows India intimately, makes the French people participate in her passion for Indian culture. Correspondent ANJALIJANAKIRAMAN interviewed her and filed the following report, in an English translation of the original French.  

Milena Salvini, please tell us something about yourself.  

My basic training is in classical music and dance. I first studied piano for some time and then music and its techniques which prepared me for the study of composition at the National Conservatory in Paris, where I stayed for six years. Besides, I have studied classical dance. I started learning when I was about six and I started participating in dance companies when I was fifteen. It was, however, only around the age of twenty-six that I began to enlarge my training by studying contemporary dance and mime. A few years later I had an occasion to attend an Indian dance performance and I asked for a scholarship to go to India and study its classical dance. I was twenty-nine then. I have to say that India had attracted me ever since I was a little girl. I used to dress up like the Indian village girls, with large, colourful skirts and plenty of jewels on my forehead and ears. Later, when I saw these girls in India, I had the impression of wandering through my own childhood dreams.

How did you know about India at such a young age?

I had seen some films. One film was called The Tiger of Eshnapur or something like that. Nothing to do with any reality, of course, but I marvelled at the sceneries and costumes.

When you went to India, how long did you stay?

The first time around I stayed two years and after that, I returned nearly every year,' on UNESCO missions, cultural exchange programmes between India and France, and on behalf of the Theatre of Nations. Every year I used to go for three, four or five months.

To different places?

Often to Kerala and several years at a stretch to Bengal to work on Chau dance for a UNESCO report. Later on, I went again for myself, for taking more classes. In 1973, I decided to teach Indian dance in Paris. I started giving classes in Kathakali and Bharatanatyam. For two years I taught in different places and, in 1975, my husband Roger found this hall. One year later I asked Nandakumaran, a Kathakali dancer, to come and take over my classes. Later on Maitreyi, a student of Ellappa and Muthuswamy Pillai, took over the Bharatanatyam classes. Nandakumaran stayed for two years, but not on a regular basis. In 1980 Karunakaran, from Kalamandalam, became our first full-time teacher. It is he who, over a period of about five years, has given a permanent character to our Kathakali department. He left last year and now we have Annette, from the Sadhanam school. Maitreyi was succeeded by the male dancer Kamadev, who brought Pradeep Kar with him. With them both on board, it was possible to enlarge the choice of disciplines. We now have not only classes in Kathakali and Bharatanatyam, but also in Kuchipudi, Chau and Seraikella. Sometimes, we have workshops with visiting teachers as well whenever an important artiste passes through Paris.

And your husband, Roger Filipuzzi, did he share your passion right from the beginning?

I met him in 1974. When we met, he didn't know much about music and dance, but he was fascinated by India and its philosophy. He was practising yoga and had been to India several times, mostly to places of tourist interest and some ashrams. Actually, it was in India that we met.

And Mandapa — when did you get the idea for this theatre?

Mandapa came into existence more due to happenstance than advanced design. A child of serendipity, I might say. Since I was teaching in different places, my husband and I started looking for a suitable hall to open a permanent school. Then we found this place. It had more space than we needed for the school alone and we began to dream.... The hall is big enough for inviting the public, for giving small performances or a lecture. Perhaps once in a while a musician.... And we started constructing things little by little. It is my husband who conceived the hall, its proportions, the acoustics, the stage and the lighting. It is now ten years mat we are here and we have Improved the place quite a lot. We now have a technical cabin with very fine sound equipment for dancers who come with taped music. Soon we are going to have a film projector — a screen is already installed — which would permit us to show documentary films.

Now people say that Mandapa is nice, but too small.

Yes, that is true. We suffer a bit from it. In the beginning, it was too big for just a school and now it is too small for a theatre! We can accommodate between 100 and 150 people, but more than that becomes uncomfortable. Of course, for special types of programmes, like the 24-Hour Raga Concert we had recently, we have the possibility of renting a bigger theatre. But here in Mandapa our way of receiving people is very Indian in its concept. Half of the audience is seated on cushions on the floor and the rest on small stools. The feeling is very close to that portrayed in Satyajit Ray's film The Music Room We do not use any amplifiers, which mutilate the quality and the authenticity of the sound. Here are public likes to watch and listen to the programmes in a way as close to nature as possible. That is why my husband gave such importance to the study of the proportions of the hall. All this permits us to present a certain type of performance, always very intimate. A sort of chamber theatre for music, as well as small dance groups and soloists. Because the hall is very small and there is not really much space between the audience and the stage, the 'message' passes very well and there is very close contact between the artiste and the public. In the intermission we serve masala tea to the audience, free of charge, which adds to the cosiness. In brief, we feel Mandapa is typically Indian in its classical concept. Of course, folk dance groups are excluded here since the place is really too small for that.

Why have you given the theatre the name Mandapa?

Because in India a mandapa is a place dedicated to ritual art. In the temple, it is the building reserved for certain ceremonies, sacred theatre and dance. From the start, whether we present Indian dance and music or theatre forms from other parts of the world with old, traditional cultures, we have remained faithful to the vocation and used the place only for traditional performances and for those which, in essence, are related to worship. Of course, we also like to promote contemporary and experimental performances which have found their inspiration in traditional cultures or in old texts, either sacred, religious or mythological and which are therefore a new expression of traditional culture.  

You started with a Kathakali school. At that time, were there people in France who knew what Kathakali was?

No. Just a few people, who had been in contact with Indian culture before knew about it. Mostly elderly people. The general public had no idea at all, but my initial passion for Indian culture was focused on Kathakali and therefore I wanted to start only a Kathakali centre at first.

What do the French look for in Indian culture? Is it a fashion or is there a real and lasting interest?

In all important cultural currents, there is something of fashion. That is the superficial side of it, but for knowing what has caused this passion for one country for another, we have to search a little deeper. Maybe it all started with yoga.

Yes, but what caused the interest in yoga? Is there no relation between, for instance, the partial disintegration of the Catholic Church and the fact that, after all, human beings need some physical discipline and a form of ceremonial pomp in their worship which had been abolished by the Council of Rome about a quarter of a century ago?

Yes, that surely has played a role, I think. There are cracks appearing in our religious expression and in the way we celebrate our worship. This causes a sentiment of insecurity concerning the base of our own culture and when such things happen, we search elsewhere. But at the same time, I believe that this need for looking eastward goes back very, very far in history. Perhaps because Oriental cultures always appeared to us as something total, where there is no separation between the body and the mind. Perhaps also because the countries of the East represented great wealth and splendour: precious stones and metals, spices, and textiles. What has been happening over a certain number of years in France recently is a continuation of a centuries-old fascination for the East- At the base of it is a spirit of research and discovery towards that which is further than our own stable material comfort.

Is there no risk of polluting Western art by all these 'foreign' cultures?  

I don't think we can speak of pollution. I think it is an enrichment of Western art. What will be leftover when this huge wave of Indianisation has passed, no one can predict, but I believe these cultural fusions will cause a transformation. While it is true that there will be some dilution of identity, such great marriages have often given birth to beautiful children.

Do you also believe Western culture can have a good influence on Indian culture?

About what concerns India, I don't know. I don't really see what Indian culture could gain from it. But I believe there are typical Western qualities which could be definitely profitable to certain aspects of Indian art.

Can you specify which qualities?

For instance, in India, there is a conflict between the spiritual aspect and the form and since the public cares more for the spiritual, the form is too often neglected. Most artists are not motivated enough to reach excellence in the form and to maintain it. Even the standard of basically good artists goes down in course of time, not due to old age, but to lack of discipline. In the West certain ballet dancers have danced till the age of nearly sixty without losing much of their quality. But all ballet dancers, old or young, practise several hours a day, without even a single day's break. Some literally starve all through their lives to maintain their figure. This sort of obstinate respect for the art, as well as the public, is a Western quality from which certain Indian arts could profit by if imbibed.  

How do you see the future of these cultures which are affected by each other's influence?

We are forced to arrive at something different. At present we are certainly in a period of a great revolution. Contact with other cultures has become so easy... When I went to India the first time, I went by ship, which meant a really long voyage. Nowadays there are flights which take us to any place in the world in hardly more than a day. The modem media also contribute to our enlarged knowledge of what happens elsewhere. Cultural fusions have become unavoidable and I believe we are obliged to accept that speaking about the integrity of a culture is something definitely passes. That is why I feel that, more than ever before, an enormous responsibility will be put on the shoulders of the artistes, both of the West and the East. There will be a new sort of discipline demanded from them, related to their art and their own way of proceeding. This is a completely new phenomenon, since they not only have to review themselves in the context of their own culture but also in that of their confrontation with foreign cultures. In the future there are going to be fewer and fewer artistes remaining isolated in their own towns or villages, working only for a small community. This sort of conciousness has to develop in all artistes, I mean in all those who want to really contribute to the development of art in general and to that of their own countries in particular. 

There are people who blame you for not making any selection among the artistes you present at Mandapa.

That's true ... yes, that's true. Mandapa is open to all Indian artists passing through Paris and wanting to perform here. I don't select. I never make them pass an audition. The door is open to all. There have been very good artists — musicians as well as dancers; we have received many really great ones and others who were less good. When the public doesn't receive an artiste well — and unless we are convinced their quality merits another opportunity — we are not obliged to invite them again. But I want to insist on the fact that I want Mandapa to extend hospitality to all Indian artists, without prior selection. This I owe to India which has changed me, not only in the professional field but also in my personal life ... my habits, and my concept of religion. I owe a lot to India.

Perhaps this approach enables you to make some discoveries also?  

Of course, especially since it is very difficult for young artists to find a stage to perform on. On the whole, since the beginning, we haven't made too many mistakes, I think. And in any case, this is not only our problem. This happens in all theatres.

What do you regret in the entire Mandapa experience?

That we don't have more means to enable us to do still better. Since Mitterand became President of France in 1981, we are receiving a substantial subvention which permits us to take more risks. Until then we had to be extremely careful. We could not promote too many unknown artists, since we were generally obliged to fill up the hall to recover the costs. Now we can present people completely unknown. But still, if I could afford two or three employees, I would be able to help more artists perform in cities other than Paris.  

 Is the French press helpful in your endeavour?

The French people have a very chauvinistic side to their character. The critics are mostly people who know everything of French culture, but as soon as it concerns a foreign art form, they don't know much and their ignorance inhibits them from coming to performances at Mandapa. It is not that we don't invite them. All critics are invited and the entire press receives our programme. but only very few dare to come and see a performance, since they don't have the necessary knowledge to write or talk about it in an informed manner.

At least they abstain from writing about a subject they don't know. In India such modesty is rare.

I do not know the situation in India, but here in France we generally feel there are not enough specialists in Indian dance and music.

Is your knowledge of Indian art availed of by any official body? For instance, in regard to the Year of India, has anyone asked you for advice or suggestions?

No, they never asked me anything, but we should not forget that this Festival is organised by the two Governments concerned and therefore the choice of the artists has been left to official bodies. We are a private organisation and not the only one. Perhaps they didn't want to favour one and annoy the others. But Festival or no Festival, I have always followed my own orientation for the promotion of Indian culture in France. I have tried to realise my personal objectives by inviting artists I considered interesting for the French public. Each time I could afford it, I followed my own intuition, even if it meant taking risks, like presenting Kudiyattam and Kalaripayattu, or the recent 24-Hour Raga Concert which was a total success. We heard exceptional raga-s, listened to some artists we didn't know at all, and also instruments never seen or heard of in France before.

It was an exclusively North Indian concert. Was there any reason for that?

Yes, we didn't want to mix North Indian and South Indian music, but we are already thinking of a Carnatic 24-Hour Raga Concert. But, first, we are going to let the India Festival pass and then we will give it further thought.  

What is your best 'souvenir'?

Oh ... [big silence]. I could name certain performances we have had. Kudiyattam was a marvellous souvenir. The first tour was with that old master who recently died.

Who was he?

Guru Rama Chakkiar. There were really two thousand years of culture in him. When I came close to him, he gave me the impression of being someone who was full of wisdom, grandeur, and nobility. A really great artist and a great sage... The relationship he had with his students. The way he made them work, the rehearsals which took place here... It is difficult to explain these things in words. To have known that man is a great souvenir. And I have to admit that this 24-Hour Raga Concert has also counted a lot for me. It is hard to believe, but I never had the feeling of being tired all twenty-four hours. I was absolutely cut off from any notion of time and enjoyed music in a totally different and unique way. Many people told me afterwards they had the same sensation. I wonder whether any type of Western music could have had the same impact. I don't know....

You recently received the Chevalier des Arts et Lett res, a great distinction...

Oh, that is not important!

Don't be so modest! For what achievements did you get this distinction?

The Ministry of Culture gave it to me for services- in the cultural field which was apparently appreciated.

Do you speak any Indian languages?

I tried to learn a little Malayalam and Bengali, but I don't have any talent for languages. What I found just so exceptional in India were all those encounters I had without using a language. To be able to build up a relationship without words, simply by a glance, an intuition, that's something which really changes one's life. It did mine.