Stop and notice your thoughts: They race, tease, betray, seduce, and melt away. Sibling collaborators and masterful Indian classical performers Aditya and Mythili Prakash have brought the peculiar rush and seductive snares of the mind’s inner workings to moving, singing life with MARA, a multimedia performance and album.
“We’re trying to unpack the mind,” Mythili explains. “Our jumping off point is to say that the mind is that which allows you to perceive yourself. It’s the things you think, the emotions you feel, the way you define yourself and your environment. It’s a projector that creates the world you experience.”
Based in the highly disciplined but rich vocabularies of South Indian classical (Carnatic) music and dance (Bharata Natyam), Mara embodies metaphysical struggles in lush, multi-faceted sound and dynamic movement. The piece revolves around the demon Mara–who infamously tempted Buddha, attempting to keep him from Enlightenment–and the individual (Jeeva), whose struggles against the coils and toils of her mind (Mara), reflect the journey of every human being.
The sibling duo’s high-octane work has garnered recent praise from The New York Times, which raved that their “music and dance worked together in trance-inducing harmony.” Mara’s album-length soundtrack and a Hollywood performance at the Ford Theatre will give audiences a chance to wrestle with the beauties, torments, and potential release lying in their own minds. Their project celebrated The Ford’s grand re-opening, a reprise of MARA’s sell-out premiere in 2013 at the 1,200-seat amphitheater.
‘Everything is about you and you create it spontaneously’: About MARA–the production by Mythili Prakash, Aditya Prakash Ensemble, and Shakti Dance Company, which premiered at The Ford Amphitheatre, Hollywood on September 21.
Both Aditya and Mythili grew up steeped in South Indian arts. Aditya dedicated himself to singing, studying extensively in the US and India with revered teachers, and eventually touring with such lights as Ravi and Anoushka Shankar, as well as electronic hybridizers like Karsh Kale and MIDIval Punditz. Mythili pursued the strict yet stirring approach of Bharata Natyam, a dance tradition that deploys with a wealth of subtly expressive gestures and powerful, rhythmic movements. They both have performed at top venues in the U.S. and India (Carnegie Hall, Disney Hall) and toured Canada, Europe, and the Middle East.
Both were raised in the States, however, and had cultivated broader interests and influences beyond their core artistic language, everything from Alicia Keys to Snarky Puppy. “There is so much depth to the classical realm that we’ve grown up around,” reflects Aditya. “There are limitations, though. I heard so many different sounds, from hip hop and pop to jazz, growing up. All these sounds were in my head, but I couldn’t incorporate that music in a classical concert. This work gives us an outlet to express these other ideas.”
“We wanted to bring out something universal, yet do it in the languages we speak,” adds Mythili. “Indian dance is very based in Indian stories and myth. You can get so entrenched in the details that the universal aspects can get lost. But the mind is universal–as is the mischief it makes.”
The narrative evolved as the duo painstakingly considered how to ground essentially abstract concepts in real movement and sound. Both committed meditators, they had honed their observation of the mind. When they read a compelling retelling of the Buddha’s resistance to Mara, who usually merits little more than a passing mention in Buddhist lore, they began to see how to make their experiences tangible for an audience. Moving away from traditional plot structures, Mara explores the journey of the individual (Jeeva), as she negotiates the dangerous, dazzling maze that is the human mind (Mara).
Aditya Prakash Ensemble (APE), Mythili Prakash and Shakti Dance Company join forces on MARA: a music/dance theater production inspired from Mara, the demonic character from Buddhist folklore. MARA is a show about the byzantine nature of the human mind.
Mara’s soundtrack is essential to telling this tale and repurposes Indian elements in unexpected ways. Aditya uses intense, repetitive vocal exercises to hint at racing thoughts.(“Racing Thoughts”) The rhythms of Bharata Natyam inform the brass and percussion sections. (“Childhood”)
Yet Mara’s music departs from Carnatic structures in intriguing ways. The short, impactful pieces fold Western harmonic sensibilities into the interpretation of the ragas, coaxing novel moments and defying the rules of South Indian music. Aditya’s soaring voice often layers into resonant chords, with remarkable power and success. “Harmony in Indian classical music is tough,” he notes. “You have to pick the right ragas, the linear less phrase-oriented one. There are a lot of complex ornaments that can’t be harmonized. But it is thrilling to explore the possibilities, even if you have to add some notes that are taboo for that raga.”
The harmonic and rhythmic ideas flow from Aditya’s encounters with jazz and Western classical music, as well as funk, hip hop, and far-flung global influences. (“Web of Addiction”) “I really discovered them at UCLA,” he recalls. There, he dived directly into the deep end, quickly gaining an ear for new styles. He focuses them in his twelve-member ensemble, which brings a saturated sonic palette to Prakash’s compositions.
Promotional video for MARA. Aditya Prakash Ensemble, Mythili Prakash and Shakti Dance Company
It all serves one goal: To illuminate the workings of the mind, and the search for that which lies beyond it. “The inclusion of multimedia projection, created by our collaborator, video artist Kate Johnson, anchors the assumption underlying the production, which is that the world that we experience is a projection of our very own mind,” explains Mythili. “Throughout Jeeva’s journey, she feels a pull inward toward another reality that is radiant, beatific, peaceful, and ever-lasting. However, Mara tries his best to keep her from discovering that world, and in doing so creates for her a world that is whimsical, thrilling, illusive, and addictive. We bring our audience deep into that drama, as they wonder if Jeeva will break free from Mara’s ensnarement that binds her to this world. It’s a drama we all live, every day.”