Navtej Singh Johar is a dancer and choreographer, scholar, a yoga- exponent, and an urban activist. A recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (The President of India’s Award) for Contemporary Choreography, 2014, his work—within all fields of his varied interests—remains consistently body-centric! It twines practice with critical theory and social action, traverses freely between the traditional and the contemporary, and rigorously engages both the philosophical and the sociological discourses of the body. Delving equally into the pre-modern Indian and Western discourses, he has been examining the “idea of the body”, the “Indian body”, in particular, and how this may influence the practice, presentation, and the history of both Yoga and Indian dance, as well as the envisioning and (un)making of the body-insensitive Indian cities.
Dance Training: Johar’s foray into the performing arts was through political street-theatre in his hometown, Chandigarh, in the late 70’s. While still in college, he became the principle performer in G S Chani’s Community Theatre Workshop which opened him to experimentation in theatre. During this period, he had the opportunity to work with avantgarde theatre director, Badal Sircar, who pointed him towards dance. In 1980, Johar moved to Madras to train in Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra, India’s premier institute of dance, founded by Rukmini Devi Arundale. It was here, within the ashram like settings of the institute, that he, apart from gaining a command over the classical form, also developed a deep appreciation for Carnatic music and the fine art of abhinaya that he studied under the fine mentorship of Anandi Ramachandran. While still in training, he joined the legendry choreographer, Chandralekha, who had singularly both politicised and radicalised Indian dance. Her bold vision offered Navtej the licence to reflect upon and examine the “precious fundamentals” of his classical form. He stayed in close touch with Chandra throughout and on occasion continued to perform in her ground-breaking choreographies. He also trained at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, New Delhi, with the leading exponent of Bharatanatyam, Leela Samson, who deeply influenced his performance style and aesthetics. In 1985, Johar migrated to the US and at the encouragement of Richard Schechner, joined the graduate program at The Department of Performance Studies, NYU. This marked his entry into dance scholarship, and the introduction to critical theories as well as post-colonial studies, all of which began to slowly influence and inform his creative work over time. At NYU, he studied with Phillip Zarrilli, who later went on to devise a distilled methodology of psychophysical acting. Deeply inspired by this very fine method that subtly builds upon the “interaction between body and mind,” Johar remained in close contact with his professor over three decades and continues to work with him to date.
Performer/Choreographer: Navtej Johar’s choreography draws on plural vocabularies: Classical Bharatanatyam, Yoga, Physical Theatre and Somatics.
While for his classical dance aficionados he is a “purist’s delight” who “triumphs, in form alone”, the critics describe him as a “veritable flying messenger from Heaven. . . who is not afraid of listening to the voice of silence”. Within the world of Contemporary dance, he is seen as a “maverick” who finely treads the line “between madness and genius”, and “yields a crisp attack with the precision of a surgeon’s knife.” They call his dance “beatific”, “viscerally explosive”, “other-worldly”, “sublime”, “charismatic”, and the kind that can build “bridges between the East and the West”.
Today, Johar is recognised as a cutting-edge choreographer who brings the traditional form of Bharatanatyam to a “queer” edge through his measured choreography that is “sensuous” “fierce”, “smouldering”, “pensive”, “hypnotic”, and “honest”. His choreography is meticulously designed to transgress the constructs of gender, race and class boundaries. At the core of his works stands the “poetic” body armed with its inherently-transgressive “amorous” voice. Averse to identity politics, he considers bolstering of any identity-constructions as intrinsically antithetical to art-making. Thus, his work is not strident, but intrepidly self-reflexive, erotically ambivalent, and poetically charged with a searing autonomy with which he attempts to challenge and demolish “difference”.
Apart from classical Bharatanatyam, his Contemporary performance pieces both include solos and ensemble works. Johar, has several full-length productions to his credit which have won critical acclaim in both India and abroad, some of them being Sheer Fall (2004), Fana’a: Ranjha Revisited (2005), Dravya Kaya (2008), Undoubtedly Real (2009), Grey is Also a Colour (2010), Charumathi Claire Singh (2012), Frenemies (2014).
Collaborations: Considering that classical Indian dance falls within the purview of cultural heritage, it is both governed and strictly prescribed by the nationalistic “idea” of India, a post-colonial construct, that is carefully calibrated in direct response to the West, its values, morals, and projections. Over three decades now, Johar has been attempting to break-open a creative dialogue through a series of choreographic-collaborations with the hope to undo the problematic mode of cultural exhibitionism within which classical Indian dance has been placed. Some of his international collaborations have been with Stephen Rush (USA/1993), Justin McCarthy (USA/India 1994, 1999, 2001), Jemina Hoadley (UK, 2000), Hiroshi Miyamoto (Japan/Canada, 2009), and Ben J Reipe (Germany 2012). Johar has also extensively lectured and written about the problematics of Cultural Exhibitionism.
An artist of international repute, he has performed at prestigious venues both nationally and internationally. He has worked with several prominent companies and choreographers in India, US and Europe. Before entering the dance scene in India in the late 90’s, Johar had already enjoyed a successful career as a dancer in the US for over a decade and a half. During this time, he worked with The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company (NY), New York City Opera, The School of Sacred Arts (NY), The Asian American Arts Centre (NY), The Detroit Art Institute (MI), The Telluride Academy (CO), Center for Indian Studies, USF (FL), The Center for World Performance Studies, UM (MI), The Asis Society (NY), The Performance Network (MI), The Walk and Squawk Project, (MI), The Himalayan International Institute (PA), The Sanskriti Institute of Indian Culture (NY); and had danced in the works of Bill T Jones, Peter Sparling, Yoshiko Chuma, Alan Lommasson, John Shack, Janet Lilly, Joseph Houseal and several others.
In India, Johar has worked with The Chandralekha Group, Leela Samson's Group: Spanda, The KHOJ Workshop, The Gati Dance Forum, he has collaborated with Shubha Mudgal, Justin McCarthy, Sheeba Chachi, Ravinder Reddy, and received several commissions: The Gandhi Memorial Museum, the Commonwealth Games, the Govt of Kerala, Lalit Kala Akademi, the India Foundation for the Arts, being some of them. He has also worked with Hiroshi Miyamoto, The Sampradaya Dance Academy, The Menaka Thakkar Dance Company in Canada; with Keith Khan, Phillip Zarrilli, The Alchemy Festival, The South Bank Centre, The Akademi, The Sampad Team, Anna Birch, Jemima Hoadly in the UK; Ben J Riepe and Kompanie, the Nordland Teater, The Montpellier Festival, the Frankfurt Book Fair, The Bozar Festival, Brussels, BITIE: Festivalul International Al Artelor Scenice, Moldova; The Montpellier Dance Festival, France in Europe; along with TPAM in Yokohama, Sutra Dance Theatre, Malaysia, the Singapore International Festival of Arts, and many others.
Films: He has also acted in a couple of films: Earth (1947), by Deepa Mehta, and the award winning, Khamosh Pani/Silent Waters, by Sabiha Sumar.
Yoga Exponent: A long-time student and practitioner of yoga, Johar trained in yoga at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai, under the guidance of Sri. T.K.V Desikachar. A yoga teacher since 1985, his approach is fluid and adaptable as he freely merges asana, pranayama, visualisation, mediation, and Vedic chanting. Apart from practice, Johar is also committed to rigorous research and cross-disciplinary inquiry. Considering that Modern Yoga is a) informed by three distinct schools of Indian thought, i.e. Samkhya, Tantra and Hatha, and b) because the embodied practice of yoga also incorporates breath work, meditation, mantra, chanting, and visualisation, Johar finds it imperative to equally delves into the fields of Linguistics, Poetics and Aesthetics. The main reason for these varied interests being the fact that Yoga intrinsically involves the twining of not only the body/mind/breath but also inherent to the practice is the “word” as well as the “poetic image”. It is this that has necessitated for him the study of Linguists and Poetics as they closely inform all the schools of Yoga.
Original Methods of Practice: In 2016, Johar patented the BARPS Method that he devised to facilitate and deepen the practice of asana practice. BARPS, acronymically indicates the succession of processes to be applied in asana, namely: bracing, aligning, rotating of joints, poising of breath and finally stretching. In the same year, he also started an original somatic practice, which he calls by the name of Abhyas Somatics. This practice seeks to meticulously map the body, instil a deep listening of the subtle sensory responses of the body, and garner the after-effects of mindful movement in order to immerse the body-mind into a deep experience of both sukha and rasa that are integral to Yoga and Bharatanatyam respectively.
Scholarship: Johar is a recipient of the Times of India Fellowship 1995, Charles Wallace Fellowship 1997, and has been a research fellow at the “Interweaving Performance Cultures”, International Research Centre, Freie University, Berlin, from 2013-17. He is also currently invited as Guest Faculty to both teach and design the “Performance Arts Programs” at Ashoka University, and the Gati Dance Forum, at New Delhi, India.
Studio Abhyas: Since 2006, Johar is the artistic director of Studio Abhyas, a non-profit organization dedicated to yoga, dance, urban activism, and the care of stray animals. The Abhyas Trust, apart from offering classes in yoga and somatics, runs regular workshops and retreats and hosts monthly public lectures on a host of subjects related to Yoga, Aesthetics and Cultural Politics. It offers a Somatics Training Course that apart from instruction in practice also includes the study of dance history, critical theory and philosophy. Johar also directs a humane-urbanism project, called the “The Power of Seeing Project” at various schools and colleges. On the anvil at Abhyas are a Retreat Centre in Rai, Haryana.
Navtej Johar is currently in the process of setting up a yoga and somatics center in the USA, at Ann Arbor, MI, by the name of Poorna: Center of Embodied Practices, to be opened in June 2018, to mark the birth anniversary of his yoga guru, TKV Desikachar.
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