Maha Akhtar will never forget October 28, 2005. On that date, the woman who has been studying and performing the khatak dance of her native India since the age of six discovered she is the granddaughter of Anita Delgado, legendary flamenco dancer from Malaga who was wooed at 17 and then whisked off to India by the maharajah of Kapurthala, where she lived in opulence and scandal. Her husband’s many trysts notwithstanding, Delagdo’s iniquitous affair with her stepson brought irreparable disgrace. It’s a story seemingly written for film, so it’s no surprise that Penelope Cruz, herself a former dancer, has bought the film rights to Pasion India, Javier Moro’s novel based on Delgado’s story.
Five years before that, Akhtar had begun to explore fl amenco on her own, studying in New York and Seville and feeling somehow compelled to connect the two idioms. She began choreographing crossover works with master dancer Juan Polvillo.
The bridge was easy to build, as flamenco’s gypsy roots are well-documented. Gypsies, or Roma, are perhaps the most romanticized and scorned people on our planet, ostracized because of the very stereotypes that inspire our envy: their fiery spirit and refusal to conform to “civilized” norms. Their mystique has been immortalized and universally celebrated over the centuries through their music, which has left deep imprints wherever these wanderers touched down, but especially in Spain, where flamenco rules supreme. The spicy, Roma-dominated mix of ingredients that make up flamenco is being revitalized today, as players and singers reclaim their Indian legacy.
Recent interest in the history of the Roma people has located their origins in Rajistan, in northwestern India. They were driven out, possibly as early as the 10th century, by the Mogul rulers, under whom Roma music, once purely devotional and restricted to the temple, out into the world of secular art. After leaving India, the Roma traveled as one as far as Persia, then split into two strains, one that traversed the Balkan countries, the other trekking through North Africa before reuniting in Spain. (Research on the origins of the Roma language has shown the term “gypsy” to be a misnomer, applied by European hosts who believed these new people to have been Egyptians).
By the time the Roma arrived on Spanish soil in the early 15th century, that country had already absorbed the fiery rhythms of North Africa. Spain would provide fertile ground for the development of Roma music the Gypsies gave a definitive new identity to the traditional sounds, and dance, of Andalucia, and ultimately the entire country. Now AKHTAR and others are driven by the desire to “revitalize flamenco by taking the music back to its original roots,” by, for example, re-emphasizing the drama of arm and hand movements, still crucial to the narrative of classical Indian dance but downplayed in today’s flamenco, which favors lightning-fast limbs. “Arms now,” she laments, “it’s all about speed, and not about the story or the feeling.” Performances by the Akhtar/Polvillo ensemble are trenchant and intense, enhanced by South Asian and Spanish instruments and searing vocals. The addition of Nicasio Morena’s sublime cello helps bridge the two musical strains, and adds immediacy and mystery to the work.
Thanks to a major new work currently being performed in Madrid, the Spanish people are now able to see and hear their cultural heritage being celebrated. Choreographed by Manuela Carrasco, whom Akhtar describes as “the torchbearer of pure flamenco,” the piece reenacts the odyssey that brought the Roma to Spain. Akhtar herself choreographed the dances for the Indian segment.
Another musical homage to this epic cross-cultural journey is presented by Singer/dancer La Conja, baharata natyam Indian dancer Rajika Puri and their musical director, Romany guitarist/composer, Pedro Cortés. Cortés was pulled towards the origin of his people’s music, and travel