Kathak's conundrum: Amid appreciation for outward dazzle, is genuine artistry in danger of being overlooked?
In today’s world of many distractions and fast-track achievements, a disciplined, patient learning of the art form such as Kathak becomes rare
Indian classical dance forms offer a vibrant variety. They have evolved on different paths, with very different stylised ways of moving the body, offering widely divergent experiences to the viewer. Costumes range from the simple and resplendent white and gold of Mohiniyattam, to the stunning sun motif in Odissi and the graceful ghaagra of Kathak. The dances themselves stem from different ways of moving the body. Take the basic stance of the dance forms. In Bharatanatyam, it is the araimandi, or half seated posture. The knees are turned sideways and bent with the feet kept almost together and pointing towards the sides so that a neat square is formed by the legs which is filled with the graceful fan of the costume. A rather unnatural stance, ergonomically not best for the knee, say the orthopaedists — yet, the stylised beauty of the dance stems from the stance. Odissi has the same stance; only the feet are kept more widely apart in the mandala stance. Kathak, on the other hand, has the most natural stance: the sama pada or simply standing straight, the natural standing stance.
This, as Prerana Deshpande, reputed dancer and respected guru says, allows the possibility of fast and intricate foot work as well as the chakkars, those spectacular spins which, along with the swirling of the skirt, offer a most spellbinding spectacle.
But Kathak is not about virtuosity or acrobatics, says Deshpande; it offers real scope for improvisation and individual artistry.
Kathak is a well known dance form of the Northern, Hindi belt, evolving from story telling in temples. The origin of the word is “kathakar” or story teller. These were peripatetic story tellers who would enhance their act with song and dance. This art, in due course, was enriched in content by the Radha-Krishna bhakti cults and gained exquisite aesthetics in the Mughal courts. Today it is a refined and sophisticated dance form with its practitioners spread over the globe.
Prerana Deshpande is a senior student of the Kathak maestro, the late Rohini Bhate. Deshpande spent spent 22 years as her student, absorbing her creativity and vision of Kathak as a way of life to be lived, respecting tradition and innovating at the same time. “I was influenced both intellectually and emotionally by the genius of Rohiniji,” she says. A widelly traveled and much feted performer of Kathak, Deshpande’s love and sincerity towards the art is transparent. “Above all, I want to be honest towards my art and not use it to win popularity or success,” she says. A committed teacher, her school in Pune — “Nrityadham” — recently celebrated its silver jubilee.
I sought her out before a workshop she was to conduct in Chennai. I broached the topic of the typical format of a kathak concert. Often classical dances are just a sweet blur of many captivating visuals, and the structure and content are not always decipherable by the lay audience.
In Kathak, the opening piece is a vandana which is a prayer offered to the Gods, an ancient practice that can be traced back to at least the Natya Shastra. It could also be salaami or a salutation to the patrons as in the Moghul courts. Kathak is the only dance form of India which bears the strong impact of Islamic culture.
After the vandana, the dancer begins with thaat, which is nritta or pure dance, sans any abhinaya or miming. This piece is unique to Kathak in that it is essentially the engagement of the dancer with the taal. Thaat is the dancer’s vision of the taal and how she wants to present it. The taal is a structured cycle of a certain number of beats. For example, teentaal, the most popular taal, has 16 beats with a structure of four groups of four beats each, with the third group offering a different soundscape. When the dancer performs thaat, she is essentially feeling the taal, feeling the music and moving in celebration of the taal. It is like making love to the taal. The whole body is involved in this — the hands, the legs, the eyes, the neck, the head, the torso. The swaying of the torso is induced rather by breath than any deliberate movement, such is the subtlety, says Deshpande. This then is where the dancer’s individuality can and should surface. Seasoned dancers improvise here, something that is hard to imagine in most other dance forms.
In today’s world of many distractions and fast-track achievements, a disciplined, patient learning of the art form such as Kathak becomes rare.
This presentation of the taal itself is unique to Kathak. Other dance forms, for example Bharatanatyam, present intricate patterns and movements within the taal cycle — all choreographed to the minutest detail. Here taal is used as a measure. But in Kathak, the taal is explored in dance movement with possibility of improvisation. Slowly, then short compositions follow in aamad, thoras, parans etc. which are more complex and longer compositions. The speed builds up gradually until finally we have the famous footwork of Kathak, with the ghunghroo and tabla conversing with each other.
“Thus it is really a chamber setting performance that can bring out the best of Kathak, with the dancer interacting with the musicians live, and with the audience appreciation encouraging the dancer to do more. It can be a very live and exciting thing. But demands of large concert venues are slowly rendering this aspect of Kathak obsolete. Group performances for example are not conducive to bringing out the individual’s (artistic) flavour, her perception of the taal etc. It is all fully choreographed and is just a spectacle which can be very impressive but individual artistry is the casualty,” observes Deshpande.
The popular image of Kathak is the dazzling footwork, heavy ghungroo, and of course chakkars. But abhinaya is also an important part of Kathak. Deshpande says that her guru, Rohini Bhate, has made original contributions in this field. For example, she would take up a Sanskrit shloka describing Vrindavan and while remaining seated, she would visually and suggestively create Vrindavan on the stage. Such was her artistry.
The abhinaya might be of a thumri or ashtapadi or any other composition of romance or devotion or a bhajan; the recital typically ends with a tarana.
In today’s world of many distractions and fast-track achievements, a disciplined, patient learning of the art form such as Kathak becomes rare. Outward dazzle is quickly absorbed and appreciated, while the more serious aspects that demand genuine artistry are being neglected. Our hope lies with dancers like Prerana Deshpande who, through their own example and their passionate work as teachers and performers, try to do their bit to ensure the survival of these most vital aspects of our performing arts.
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