Renowned Kathak artiste Nalini Asthana on Benaras gharana's aesthetic, why the classical form has endured

  • According to Nalini Asthana, dance is always influenced by style, personal approach and the landscape of the region in which it is most practised

  • It is the stylistic differences, the aesthetics of performance of the Benaras gharana and the nuances of its movement and abhinaya that the duo will be discussing at their lecture-demonstration in Mumbai

  • Asthana also says that if the artist accepts the art for what it is, she will be able to cater to her audience better, perform in a way that suits their liking

The artists and dancers who gave birth to Kathak had a very vast, futuristic vision, says dancer extraordinaire Nalini Asthana, adding that the tode, tukde created in those days are so fashioned that they are complete in themselves. In a world pressed for time, it is this succinct, fast-paced choreography that assures the enduring relevance of this classical dance.

The renowned Kathak duo from Delhi, Nalini and Kamalini Asthana will be speaking about the nuances of Kathak and its Benaras gharana in a lecture-demonstration on 11 October, 2019 as part of the Utkarsh series set-up by the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai.

"We do not have too many artists of the Benaras gharana in Mumbai so we do not get to see this particular gharana that much, hence we thought it would be very interesting to know in some more detail about their work," says Swapnakalpa Dasgupta, head of programming — Dance, NCPA.

 Renowned Kathak artiste Nalini Asthana on Benaras gharanas aesthetic, why the classical form has endured

Dancers extraordinaire, Nalini and Kamalini Asthana.

Since its inception two years ago, the focus of the Utkarsh series has been to get more insight into Indian classical dances, a concept which cannot be dealt with in a performance set-up, Dasgupta explains. The bi-monthly event is the only lecture-demonstration dance series at the NCPA, she adds, curated in an attempt to explore the background and nuances of different styles and learn from the maestros of the various disciplines of classical dance.

Katha kahe so kathak kehelaye (Narrate a story, and that will be Kathak). This definition of the dance has its roots in the tradition of kirtan practiced in temples across the country in which the kirtankaar or kathakar (storyteller) would make use of gestures, expressions and movements to bring forth the characters and emotions of the story. When this practice evolved into a dance form replete with its own taal kriya, laya and abhinaya, some features of performance remained similar across all the territories. Yet, Asthana explains, dance is always influenced by style, personal approach and the landscape of the region in which it is most practised.

One can find traces of the Mughal durbar culture in the Lucknow gharana, while the pharmaish of the Jaipur artists are telling of the rajwadas in which they sought refuge.

The Benaras gharana, she notes, is one of the more spiritual, pure forms of Kathak, for the artists of this style continued performing in temples and refused to seek asylum in the palaces of monarchs and rulers.

It is these stylistic differences, the aesthetics of performance of the Benaras gharana and the nuances of its movement and abhinaya that the duo will be discussing at their lecture-demonstration in Mumbai.

The sisters, Kamalini Asthana, who is currently the Chairperson of the Kathak Kendra in Delhi and Nalini, Director, Sangeetka Institute of Performing Arts, began their training at a young age under Guru Jitendra Maharaj of the Benaras gharana. Asthana notes that it was her guru's spiritual leanings towards Kathak that drew her to the art form. "If you are soaked in art, give it your everything," she says.

As children, the sisters would always practice together, go home together and converse about Kathak for hours on end. "When guruji saw how we were always in each others' company," Asthana says, "he encouraged us to also perform together."

"Back then, there was a great demand for duets and seeing as how our style was well liked by the audiences we were further motivated to perform together, so much so that we came to be known simply as 'Nalini-Kamalini.'"

The danseuse notes however, that over the last few years, Kathak performances have undergone many changes, more so in the time accorded to each recital. She remarks that nearly three decades ago, when she was sent on a tour of 15 European countries including Spain, France and United Kingdom among others, she would give lecture-demonstrations, performances and recitals that would last for hours, often even going over the time limit and the audience would watch, enraptured as she presented her style. She recalls that at certain events, the duo would accompany their guru for a performance that would commence at 10 pm and continue to be on stage until the wee hours of the morning. Today, however, the audience is reluctant to spend as much time on a recital, she notes, but if the artist accepts the art for what it is, she will be able to cater to her audience better, perform in a way that suits their liking. "This is a quality that we instill in our students as well," Asthana adds.

Kathak has continued to be one of the most well-known classical dance forms in India and Asthana attributes this to the style's relevance and adaptability. The songs composed by poets for Kathak, the abhinaya which is seldom restricted to mudra alone and the art of performance that produces a wonderful effect when speed is introduced into the form can simply enthrall the audience. So also, even as a Kathak artiste relies on the bol of the tabla and pakhawaj, it is the performer's command over the choreography and the sound produced by the ghungroos that lead the recital to its climax.

The audience then responds, enthralled at the swiftness and agility and the applause, she adds, does not wait for the artist to conclude the performance, it is a natural reaction in tandem with the rhythm of the performance.

NCPA's Utkarsh series, a Lecture-Demonstration by Kathak duo, Nalini-Kamalini will be held at the Godrej Dance Theatre, Mumbai on 11 October 2019.

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Updated Date: Oct 11, 2019 13:41:46 IST