Celebrated choreographer Raghav Handa is a warm, engaging person with a cheeky grin, who weaves a comfortably precise, rapid-fire narrative around each question… all traits which in essence present themselves throughout his dance works. We caught up at the Arts Centre café between final rehearsals for The Assembly: bastard of a place, a multifaceted performance presented by Campbelltown Arts Centre from 7 – 9 March.

About the work, a blurb on the flyer reads, “Familial narratives are seamlessly woven into abstract realm where the past and the future meet. Raghav Handa’s grandfather’s regimental legacy serves as a compelling lens through which Queer culture is vividly expressed.”

Tell us about your grandpa. What sort of a person was he?

I think every person thinks their grandparents are remarkable and I think the same. My grandfather was quite a remarkable man. He was a jeweller and diamond cutter by trade, but he was good at many things. He knew how to sniff out the best whiskey. He knew how to make a really good chai. He knew how to cook. He knew how to dress. And he also taught us army drills and target practice in case there was a terrorist attack.

He lived in Amritsar in Punjab (India), which is traditionally a hotbed of conflict and truth. So a lot of how they lived, how they looked at the world, was shaped by that in terms of say, how much food you should not waste, you should be thankful for each day that you’re together, you should be respectful of all elders – actually great lessons for everyone. But as kids you do not understand that because you don’t see the world that way.

The Assembly was born out of the idea of brotherhood, camaraderie, competition that came from my childhood. And it straddles different aspects of masculinity. How do we become men? How do we engage with each other? How do we behave? But as it develops, it becomes more of a universal thing than just an autobiographical work. And of course I start with my grandfather’s memory.

Do you see yourself as a storyteller or a narrator or a commentator?

That’s a really interesting question, because you know, I think I don’t see myself as one thing. And I think being an artist is never one thing. As artists we’re expected to have a degree in marketing, a degree in accounting, in set making, we are expected to be our own producers from get-go. Look at my peers and they are just wonderful: the knowledge bank that they hold and the sheer ability to adapt I’ve never seen anywhere else. We all train to be everything and so when it comes to looking at our concepts and how we create works, we don’t think of one thing, but about the sum of all things.

A work could start simply with how you perceive a different aspect of society or how you look at the language, how you look at storytelling. But it’s your unique perspective. When the works are made, they are a result of your fascination with something or lack of something or addition to something. And so it’s about sitting with the work and letting go. It’s about what the work is asking, what the process is asking, and so it’s derived from that and I think if you trust the process then it will provide. Your process is going to make you brave. Yeah, it’s about bravery for me.

I’m a big believer in entertaining people and I love being entertained. I don’t want to sit in a room where I’m just told this is how you should feel. I’m very fond of using imagery in my work, so The Assembly is no different. There’s a lot of surrealistic imagery, but never at the expense of movement.

What exactly attracted you to movement, to dance, as an artistic practice?

As a kid, I learnt Bhangra from my parents like every other kid in Punjab. I did Kathak training but it didn’t really last for that long. But I had fallen in love with the expression of movement. After that, it was just a matter of me deciding that’s what I wanted to do in life. And I wanted to choose art over everything else. This wasn’t an easy decision for I’m sure you understand that from modern Indian family perspective, the idea of dancing professionally isn’t something you do. You become a doctor or lawyer. It’s not a reflection on our parents, it’s the culture.

The way elements of Kathak still creep into your works, it’s almost as if it’s in your DNA…

I’m not a classically trained dancer. My foray into contemporary dance has been quite an interesting one because I didn’t start dancing until I was in my late teens. A lot of my dance and my training has come from contemporary yes, but through indigenous contemporary dance. So in some ways I feel quite fortunate that I have this perspective on dance. It’s not just that I am from Indian heritage but I can look at dance from a black fella perspective as well.

And I think when I make works, those experiences and that training comes out and how I look at and approach a concept, for example Kathak, how I create score with James Brown (who I’m working with at the moment and I’ve worked with him for fast past few projects).  It’s about creating a language not just of contemporary dance, but also how you look at the sonography, how you place the dancers in space, how you create bigger compositions. So Kathak and my training doesn’t stop at creating a dance, but it’s continuous, it’s evolving throughout the work.

How do you work with a music composer? Do you create together? Does the score grow with you as you develop the work?

It’s a sort of collaborative process, it’s actually quite open. I’m going to be honest right because I’m not an autocratic choreographer-director where I just kind of go, well, listen, you know, THIS is what we’re doing. I feel everybody has a language that they bring to the work and that may be how they create a costume for example, that’s a language. Or the way they draw a curtain on something, that’s a language. The way they work, that’s a language. You’ve just got to allow space for those perspectives to seep in and I think only then the work becomes successful. Then the work becomes a voice and not just a project. And so for me, having collaborators like James Brown who’s a sound designer, having a dramaturge like Vicky Van Hout who’s the indigenous choreographer I’ve worked with over 15 years, is exciting.

What prompted you to take up a residency at Attakkalari in Bengaluru, India in 2019?

I had met Attakkalari’s artistic director Jayachandran (Palazhy) when he did a workshop in Sydney which I enjoyed. My residency, funded by the Australian Council for the Arts, was quite self-prescribed and as far as the experimentation of the art goes, no question was sacred, we were both really generous in offering to the process, and I think what that does is it allows for a different perspective to shift in, especially for me coming from an Indian heritage. I hadn’t had that perspective before. I’d travelled everywhere and I’d worked everywhere but in India.

(Though COVID restrictions put a damper on showcasing a new creation in 2019, Raghav has bagged a Maitri grant to return to Attakkalari this April with two Australian dancers and together with three Indian dancers, a fresh work is definitely in the offing.)