Eshna Kutty and her trusty hula hoop caught everyone’s attention last year when the 24-year-old’s ‘Genda Phool’ video went viral. Dressed in a saree and sneakers, the Delhi-based dancer conjured lovely shapes out of thin air and performed perfectly-timed twirls to the sounds of ‘Dilli-6’, leaving lakhs of people awestruck. Since then, the young dancer and movement practitioner has continued to challenge the hula hoop’s perception as a plaything – with more viral videos, a hoop-ing course for beginners, and joyous experiments in sound and style.
In this conversation with Art Beat, Eshna talks about her love affair with the arts, the ever-evolving nature of genres, and the future of dance in India.
Art Beat (AB): Can you walk us through your artistic process?
Eshna Kutty (EK): I binge everything, including practice. Sometimes, I practice for seven or eight hours daily, for a week or so, and then I get so mentally exhausted that I hate it and don’t feel like picking the hula hoop up for a whole month. I think this is a counterproductive way of practicing and finding creativity because you’re restricting yourself to just a few days when you spend all of it (inspiration). So I’m trying to find a balance. To learn to be regular with my practice, even if it’s just five minutes a day. It’s only in the last year that I have been able to put in place a routine but it’s already helped me improve so much.
In addition to being regular—and more importantly—the artistic process I engage with is that when I’m not hooping (or practicing my main art form), I’m indulging in all other kinds of art forms. That’s where I find my inspiration. My artistic process is to just absorb and imbibe different kinds of art forms and, very involuntarily, I get so inspired by them that hints of them come into my own work.
AB: What do you wish people talked about more in India’s dance industry?
EK: I wish people would normalise having a career in dance. I remember that being a dancer and dancing was such a big deal in school. Dancers were the popular kids, they had great bodies and were very fit. Everyone wanted to be a part of the annual day function or the assembly performances, to be a part of the dance, as opposed to the music choir or whatever else. But that changes the minute school’s done. It’s so weird that when and if these people decide to pursue dance full-time, others are surprised by their decision. As opposed to, for instance, if someone good at math became a chartered accountant. That’s not surprising. So I think I would love for it to be normalised and the only way to do that is by talking about it. Dancers don’t talk about it which is probably why this is happening. I mean even I didn’t talk about it. I would just take the easy way out and say something like, “I like to dance, but I’m into therapy work.” I’ve seen so many of my dancer friends do the same thing. Now I want to try and consciously and mindfully accept that I love dancing and that I’m going to pursue it. That I’m going to tell people about it. And if they don’t understand, then either it’s not worth explaining or I want to take my time to explain it so that I can help shift one person’s perspective. If hundreds and thousands of dancers do the same thing, then people will realise how much body movement can change your life.
Now I want to try and consciously and mindfully accept that I love dancing and that I’m going to pursue it. That I’m going to tell people about it. And if they don’t understand, then either it’s not worth explaining or I want to take my time to explain it so that I can help shift one person’s perspective.
AB: What’s missing in the arts space/industry?
EK: Authenticity. I think it does exist but it’s not enough. Platforms like reality shows, corporate functions, weddings and big budget events want glamour and other things that don’t necessarily come authentically to artists. I have a lot of friends—dancers and actors—who end up doing a lot of corporate work just because it pays. That just makes art like any other corporate job. You chose the art field; you chose to be a dancer because you love dancing but you ended up doing performances that you don’t enjoy because those pay the bills. As a result, you couldn’t do stuff that you deeply believe in, soulful stuff, because then you would truly be a struggling artist. I think if a safe, non-judgemental space can be created for artists in India, then they can express themselves completely. They can expand and create something so unique that the community would have something new to offer to the world, rather than us imitating the West. This is, of course, the general view. There are people who are doing things in their own niche way. But then again, it becomes a niche. Authenticity becomes a niche thing; I think we can normalise that.
AB: What has your journey been like?
EK: It’s been a whole adventure! Back in school, I never would have imagined that I would be giving an interview about my journey as a hula hoop artist or advising others who want to pick up the hoop professionally. It’s crazy because this toy right here (showing the hula hoop), is something that has been with me for almost a decade but what it means today is so different from what it meant back then. It is now a way for me to explore the world. I think right after I got into hooping, I also got into a dance society and was exposed to dancing. Hooping led me to capoeira which I was, dedicatedly, in to for three years. That took me towards juggling and Levi (Levitation Wands), poi (swinging tethered weights through different rhythmical and geometric patterns), slack-lining, surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding! All kinds of adventures, really, and now I see myself hopping from one adventure to the other – all because I hula hoop. Hula hooping has also become a bridge between my love for adventure and anything related to the social work that a movement therapy practitioner does. Like conducting hoop workshops for inmates in Tihar jail, for instance. I’m so grateful for that.
I can never talk about my journey with hoops in isolation from the other things that have influenced me to do it as well. Even in my practice, I work on other kinds of movements around 80% of the time and on hooping in the balance 20%. These other movements enrich my practice as a hoop artist. The kind of balance needed for slack-lining, the focus you get with acro-yoga, the perseverance you get with surfing, the pointed feet you get with gymnastics…it’s all helped my hooping practice. I love it when art forms just mingle, I think it’s the best.
AB: How have you dealt with the stigma that comes with doing what you do?
EK: I think the stigma I have encountered is a bit different from other dancers or creatives in the space who might face body image issues and things like that. In fact, I think it was the other way round for me because (with hooping) the body becomes the last thing that people look at and that’s why I picked it up. As someone with a perpetual hunch, poor body image and low self esteem, I used to always feel very conscious. I found comfort in the fact that hooping takes the focus off my body and onto the ring instead. Initially, it was my way of not being looked at. I would feel less shy with a hoop in my hand.
The stigma I have faced is more to do with my art form being treated as something that five-year-olds do. People have said things like “Don’t you have better things to do?” or “Isn’t this something that’s done in circuses?” or “Isn’t this something they do at cabaret shows?” I think the worst thing you can do is believe what other people say because that makes it true to you. It’s only recently that I’ve realised that the fact that I persevered with this ‘toy’ is proof that it means a lot more to me than what it would to a 5-year-old. I think the stigma slowly goes away if you stop believing in it.
AB: What does it take to build or develop new genres or art forms?
EK: Imagination and a lot of hit-and-trial – especially for the hooping industry because hooping is so new, and there are so few people who do it that you could honestly be the creator of a move. It’s possible because it’s just two decades old. I think collaborations go a very, very long way. When I was exploring acro-yoga or slack-lining or different dance forms, I was putting my knowledge of these art forms and sports into hula hooping. As a result, my movement would turn out a certain way and it would be very unique, as opposed to something that I would’ve learned or practised in isolation. Do that enough, and you have a whole new style. That’s how a lot of art forms evolved as well. For instance, jazz was born out of rebellion against classical ballet and hula hooping has had its own journey as well. Women used to do it on the beaches in the 50s. From there, it went into rhythmic gymnastics. Now it’s become hoop dancing. They don’t even call it hula hooping anymore! I’ve started calling it the hoop flow because I just flow with it, wherever it takes me. So it is evolving while also involving new ideas and imagination. The idea is to not stop that imagination, to let it flow through you. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to practicing an art form, and that’s the best part. You can just experiment with it!
When I was exploring acro-yoga or slack-lining or different dance forms, I was putting my knowledge of these art forms and sports into hula hooping. As a result, my movement would turn out a certain way and it would be very unique, as opposed to something that I would’ve learned or practiced in isolation. Do that enough, and you have a whole new style.
AB: How do you hope India’s dance industry will evolve in the future?
EK: I believe that dance and music have the power to bring people together. They foster a sense of community and belonging. And we’ve always known this. Centuries-old cave paintings depict folk dances, people holding hands and moving together. There’s an undeniable, constant happiness that comes from it. With the way things are right now, including the political scenario and COVID-19, I think everyone can do with a little more dancing! I think we also need to collectively change the way we perceive dance, and careers in dance, in India. I don’t think it’s been given the kind of respect it deserves. When you think of folk dances, classical styles, even Bollywood dancing, everything is about coming together. If we keep that essence of dance, then it takes away all these preconceived judgements. I think dance has the power to revolutionise, and I do wish that the industry would move towards that collective consciousness and awareness, as opposed to minting money in a very individualistic, capitalistic kind of way.
(This interview was conducted virtually in June 2020, and it has been edited for length and clarity.)