Sonia Chandaria Tillu: The Soul of Sona Lisa Dance

Sunetra Senior Monday 13th May 2019 19:48 EDT

Sonia is a soulful, contemporary Kathak dancer, who reinvents Indian classical dance through her joyous, personal depth. Founder and Artistic Director of Sona Lisa Dance Company, based in buzzing Birmingham, the mesmerising mover commented: “I do not use the descriptor ‘old’ for the art of Kathak dance. Rather, it is ‘classical’, and in that sense timeless, open to all generations.” This is epitomised in the Company’s latest vibrant piece, [“Mango” – working title], commissioned by Sampad, the British Council and Arts Council England: “The piece challenges a one-dimensional idea of British-Asian identity where what is considered cultural baggage is actually a reinforcement of heritage.”

 Sonia draws from her multi-cultural background; to create this ode to new-fangled subjectivity: “I use the mango tree as a metaphor for migration. It is able to adapt to new environments to thrive. Just as this native plant can continue to grow, humans constantly evolve their identity whatever their background; they are still themselves, but perhaps more current and alluring versions.” Indeed, the ambitious dancer hopes to diversify the demographic for the UK’s theatre-going audience by not only appealing to more South-Asians and opening up the nuances of the culture to British eyes, but also imploring people to embrace the shared societal space as an exciting experience. This is beautifully reflected through the physical movement of the classical Kathak dance which carries “an inherent power” perfect for delivering the social messages of its dancers: “In our dance training, we at Sona Lisa, practice the techniques of the north Indian dance, as traditionally deployed to tell the tales of Hindu mythology. Our choreography/performances challenge the possibilities of the rich movement vocabulary to tell stories and explore subject matter relevant to our society today at a time of cosmopolitanism, while staying true to the Kathak form.” 

Indeed, true cultural strength comes from the blessing to be able to express oneself colourfully rather than feeling inhibited. One’s background should always be a natural extension of the self. “This applies to everyone,” Sonia stated, who dazzlingly won the European Regional category at the Kalashram Kathak Competition in 2017. “My diasporic heritage is beautiful, and has made me individualistic and creatively strong. It could get limiting for audiences if work is structured by rigid cultural and religious parameters. We are all one, multicultural society with distinct yet relatable perspectives to give. I hope the boundlessness in my work can keep moving different audiences, from all age groups and cultural backgrounds to inspire self-exploration.”

 Sonia will perform a particularly pertinent piece soon, called War of Hearts and Minds at Asian Voice’s Charity Awards, this Friday. Fittingly she will be performing in collaboration with her husband, who is also a progressive spoken word artist, composing and performing poetry. The piece is a comment on the state of international politics. “Many people died across the World Wars and people have experienced extreme trauma. However, it seems the biggest battle is yet to be won. This is the war to win over each other’s hearts and minds, where people bury not their children, but their enmity and mistrust. Ultimately, we all want to be able to live in a society where we have love and respect for one another. One of the lines as part of the spoken performance reads: ‘not a bullet need be fired in the war of hearts and minds…" 

In such a verbally wrought climate then, the emotive Sonia and her invigorating, intricate dance form are a much-needed mental salve: appealing to constructive intuition over divisive speech. “We need to find new ways for the British to enjoy life,” she concluded. “They must rediscover their identity. It has been fractious. If we can conjure purer empathy and love, a lot of problems would resolve themselves. Dance, especially the practice of Kathak, can go beyond words to that elusive place of feeling: it can capture what language can’t.” Watching the dynamic Sonia radiate both poetry and precision with equal force, such gentler exchanges seem exactly right. War of Hearts and Minds will also be performed at Oxford’s Offbeat Festival as part of Sona Lisa Dance’s new show ‘Eleven, twelve, thirteen.’

Tell us a little more about the inspiration for [Mango]?

The work explores dual migration inspired by my family story. More specifically, my grandmother hailed from a Gujarati village on the outskirts of Jamnagar and later travelled to Kenya where my mother was born and brought up. I experienced a significant flux and evolution of Swahili and Gujarati cultures, which became an entity in itself. I arrived in Britain in 2004 so there was yet more complexity (and confusion!) in the experience.

Can anyone dance?

Yes, and it is quite contagious too – you can get hooked on classical dance because it’s so enrapturing. Everyone’s journey is different, but we all manage to find our own connection. It’s very healthy too! Regular movement really helps joints and keeps the mind in a healthy, happy place. Personally, I also think it slows down the aging process.

What have been some of your favourite dance moves?

There are two aspects of Kathak that I really enjoy: firstly, footwork as I am passionate about rhythm and the beautiful intricacies achievable. Wearing bells around ankles, about 100 on each foot, overlays the music with our own rhythms. Kathak is part dance and part music, which is a core part of the classical repertoire. I always make sure to ask for a foot mic! Secondly: the ‘chakkar’/ pirouette. I love the freedom and grace with which we spin in Kathak and you just forget what is around you: it’s a buzz!

And do you enjoy precision as much as the artistic aspect?

Absolutely! It’s so satisfying drawing lines in the air and creating movements and energy all around you: often you’re able to reach audiences in a way that they don’t expect.What was the inspiration for starting up the dance company?I wanted to create new audiences for the arts that transcend age and culture. I really feel there is a cultural gap where people can’t identify with the work: what if you don’t want to watch ballet, traditional Indian classical, or commercial forms like Bollywood? There is very little out there for audiences to work with.

Finally, who are some influences on your work?

Aditi Mangaldas, an awe-inspiring world class Kathak dancer & choreographer. As well as my Guru, Sujata Banerjee who helps to keep me grounded: she says just focus on improving each day i.e. strive for progress not perfection. You’ll be 365 times an improved version of oneself by the end of the year.


F: @sonia_sonalisaT: @sonia_sonalisaW:

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