"Taal is something which is constant but it can have a different coloured angarkha (tunic) on it. It can have a red colour when it is talking about the rhythms of flamenco or it can have a shade of tango in its rhythmic structure," says Kathak danseuse Gauri Sharma Tripathi of the taal, one of the most ubiquitous components in classical dance and music.
While taal is integral to every Indian classical dance form, it is only in Kathak that its mood and character is laid out for the audiences through various compositions such as toda, tukda, tatkaar and paran. On 11 February, a lecture-demonstration titled Taal Prasang, curated by Kathak artiste Keka Sinha, is set to be held as part of the National School of Performing Arts’ (NCPA) Mumbai Dance Season on the treatment of the taal in various dance forms such as Manipuri, Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Sattriya and Odissi. Discussing the nuances and characteristics of the taal as it is showcased in Kathak will be Tripathi, who trained in Kathak's Lucknow gharana under her mother, the Kathak stalwart, Padma Sharma.
Tripathi describes her mother’s training under Pt. Lachhu Maharaj and Pt. Shambhu Maharaj as hours upon hours dedicated to footwork alone, on the strains of teentaal (comprising 16 beats), so much so that its layakari (the speed of the taal) is now second nature to the octogenarian and is reflected when she dances in the jarab (the precise texture and tonality) of her tatkaar.
This expertise in understanding each beats of a taal in Kathak is imperative for its presentation, the layout of which has been codified in the repertoire of the classical dance. During the demonstration at NCPA, Tripathi says that the she "would be addressing different elements of taal, what is a taal, why a taal" and how in spite of having a fixed structure there is enough room for improvisation within its framework.
Numerous taals are a part of the vast literature of classical art forms, some of them comprising a meager seven beats such as the roopak taal, other, more complicated structures such as the shikhar (17 beats) or the matta (18 beats) but Tripathi, for her part favours the teentaal known also as tritaal which is woven in a cycle of 16 beats or the dhamar (14 beats). She says, "Each taal has a different character like the dhamar taal is so grounded and it’s got gambhirta (a serious tone) in it, like an undercurrent which flows so beautifully as opposed to teentaal which has a very easy access for an audience to come in as well."
What is particularly fascinating about Kathak is that a flavour of abhinaya is also to be found in the technical rhythms, formulae and structures of the taal. Just as each composition – such as the thaat (slow rhythmic movements of the wrists and neck) performed only in the vilambit (slow) laya and the paran or tode tukde found in the increasing tempo of the dance – has its own specific place in the taal, so also the gatabhav is integral to a recital and is performed in the drit (fast) laya. A gatabhav is an element that narrates a story or an episode from mythology to the beats of the taal alone.
"It is a very delicious way of looking at the taal structure" Tripathi says where there is a subtext in the form of notes of the lehera (taal played on a harmonium), the theka (rhythmic cycle of the taal) is on the ground, provided by the tabla, which gives a punch to the performance and the dancer navigates and weaves her story through that set up. A gatabhav is, Tripathi notes, "not every dancer’s cup of tea."
The structure of the taal, from a slow speed to a fast has been codified in such a way that it provides points of entry for the audiences into a performance as well. In a similar fashion, Tripathi, who conducts classes in London, has also devised certain entry points for her students into the repertoire of Kathak.
“We have a temple at every corner of the street, so our heads automatically bow down," she explains or "hum logon ko batane ki jaroorat nahi hoti thi ke ye saam hai," (we didn't need anyone teaching us what the first beat of the taal denotes), these are observations and experiences that are part of our culture which are absent there.
To navigate the elements of a panghat ki gaat (a woman fetching water from a well) for instance, is challenging when students have never seen a well, or experienced what it is like to hold an earthen pot over their heads. "So we would practise with books," she says, and would walk with them on top of our heads. She would then ask her students to observe how their walk changes when they carry that weight and how their hips sway delicately as they move.
What she has also observed through her time teaching in India and overseas is the changing relationships between a guru and a shishya.
Today, Tripathi notes, interestingly, girls raise poignant questions about traditional compositions such that phrases alluding to Krishna like, ‘dagar chale dhay ko, chudiya kar kar laage, chodo, chodo, chodo kar more’ (as a nayika walks the street, he holds her wrists so tight that a bangle chips off and she asks him to let go of her hand) in the current social contexts such as the #MeToo movement, are interpreted completely differently.
"We never questioned it because it is part of our repertoire, part of our training of unfolding the character of Krishna jo bhakti bhav mein bhi hai, vatsalya raas mein bhi hai, jo ched-chad bhi karta hai." (Krishna, who is present in devotion, in a familial setting and in romance)
"But in the present moment of social structure and time, it is understood in a different way. So it is fantastic when students come and talk about it."
Then, we have to ask them, she remarks, to understand this concept in a different way, interpret this sensibility that she has inherited in a different light, read and rethink the narrative.
On the contrary, she notes that when her mother would learn under Pt. Lacchu Maharaj, there was awe and complete surrender to her guru as well the conviction that what he taught was the final word. During her own training, she says, her mother would teach her a routine and leave it to Tripathi to search for the nuances, the finer points of the composition before presenting it in front of her. "That is the way I trained with her because we were so eager and hungry."
And today, even as accessibility has made it easier to connect with the art through the internet, she stresses on the idea, that the "relationship you have with your guru, as a teacher, as an acharya, as a mentor is I think the most crucial."
It is a way to romance with the art form and that romance, that wonderment is woven into the exquisite experience of its practice and performance.
Gauri Sharma Tripathi will be a part of the panel discussion Taal Prasang at NCPA's Mumbai Dance Season 2020 on 11 February at Country Club, Veera Desai Road, Andheri West.
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Updated Date: Feb 11, 2020 14:00:15 IST