24 Sep 2006
San Francisco Letter No. 15
Kathak at the Crossroads: Innovation Within Tradition
September 28-30, 2006
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts,
San Franciscom, CA
September 24, 2006
by Rita Felciano
copyright ©2006 by Rita Felciano
For three days, rustling saris and colorful kurtas replaced the customary black-black-black of Yerba Buena’s Forum theater. Dancers, scholars and students gathered for what was announced as the largest gathering of Kathak practitioners outside India. Organized by the Chitresh Das Dance Company, the festival was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India’s national academy of music, dance and drama. At one point its director was even persuaded by the irrepressible Chitresh Das to put down his briefcase, take off his shoes, roll up his sleeves and perform a Kathak solo.
Over fifty, primarily solo artists, performed several times during the daytime sessions and in three (I attended two) evening performances. Each lasted over three hours. The depth and quality of these performances, whether during the day or in the more formal concerts was remarkable. I walked away from them and the conference with a better understanding — and quite frankly a love — for this art which allows so much individual freedom within existing parameters. It also gave me a new appreciation for classicism, the beauty which becomes possible when artistic expression — in this case music and dance — gets distilled itself into pure form. Or at least, as close to it as we can get.
Indian and American scholars addressed the relationship between tradition and innovation — an issue not exactly unique to Kathak — from numerous angles. Not surprisingly everyone seemed to agree that Kathak has always evolved, that it never was a static form. Some changes are not unlike those in other dance forms. Mekhala Devi Natavar’s (Princeton University) paper pointed out that the dancing is faster and more virtuosic, made possible by advanced training but also in response to expectations by audiences who live in fast-paced environments. Exposure to other artistic forms inevitably finds its way into the art. Hand clapping, for instance, did not exist forty years ago. Kathak today is performed to Mozart and to Sufi music. Improvisation, at the heart of Kathak, almost encourages change.
In “Cultural Context of Dance in India & Abroad” Sarah Morelli (University of Denver) addressed Das’ innovations, particularly KathakYoga in which the dancer recites, plays the tabla and does the footwork. Stacey Prickett’s (Roehampton University, London) explained that the Arts Council in Great Britain funds innovation, not tradition. They are primarily interested in diversifying audiences and see this as the way to achieve it. Pallabi Chakravorty (Swarthmore College), the only academic at the conference who also is a practicing dancer, looked at Kathak from a heterodox, global perspective in which tradition is not antithetical to reinterpretation.
In the subsequent discussion Das dancer Charlotte Moraga spoke passionately about not losing Kathak’s essence which, at its core, is a spiritual practice. Innovation and change, everyone agreed was not acceptable unless it grew from a thorough grounding in tradition.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was not something else going on during this conference. All dance is passed on from one dancer to the next. But in Kathak the guru has played an extraordinary role. One of the more remarkable aspects of these three days was the reverence paid to lineage. Every dancer was introduced in terms of his or her guru, and they in turn acknowledged them in addition. They also singled out the elders who had come to the event. Birju Maharaj, the doyen of Kathak, could not enter the room without many getting up to bow and touch his feet. In the theater, the dancers from the stage acknowledged the masters in the front rows both before and after performing.
At the same time it became clear during the conference that the guru’s role has changed. No longer has he — and they are primarily men — total, often lifelong control over the dancer — primarily women though male Kathak dancing has had a renaissance. Dancers today are trained in institutions, in lessons, with curricula and often change teachers. I almost felt that there was a tacit understanding that the role of gurus was going to diminish even further. In that respect the conference seemed tinged with a little nostalgia.
The role of the courtesans — professional entertainers, not prostitutes — was the subject of one fascinating panel. Courtesans can be thought of, though somewhat circuitously, as predecessors of Kathak dance. Margaret Walker (Queens University in Kingston, Canada) showed illustrations of gestural language in Urdu manuscripts; Punima Shah (Duke University) read from early teaching manuals that assigned certain gestures to specific emotions. But the most touching presentations came from Carol Babiracki (Syracuse University) who talked about nacnis, professional entertainers in rural societies, who are on the verge of disappearing; and Amie Maciszewski (Ph.D. University of Texas, Austin) who presented videos on the decline of contemporary courtesans who work in red light districts. Madhuri Devi Singh, a courtesan now retired from the profession, had come to perform. Gentle, with a world weary acceptance that comes with experience, her dance was spare with an exquisite sense of detachment.
A panel discussion about “What is Kathak” had too many participants and was chaotic and poorly moderated. It followed Joan Erdman’s (Columbia College) “Who Can Decide? Kathak Dance in the 21st Century” which was succinct, well organized and made its point eloquently: We all decide on Kathak’s future though some voices should be listened to more carefully than others.
I only managed to catch one of the daytime performances. Sunayana Harizlal, apparently the last practitioner from the Benaras school of Kathak, explained that her guru never allowed her to see any other dance, fearing contamination of her style. Her dancing, with strong focus on the abhinaya part, showed her richly expressive, particularly in the upper part of her torso and with a very individualistic use of the arms. One solo, in which she portrayed the human life cycle from a sitting position, had a beautiful arch to it. It was as close to pantomime as Kathak can get. Bachhanlal Mishra, in white, with a soft smile and an inward-looking gaze, danced at Kathak’s other extreme. With immaculate placement, every gesture, every tiny shiver in the shoulder or wind-kissed fingers, were aspects of timing and rhythm, geometry come alive. Particularly beautiful were his arms bent in front of his chest; they created a horizontal plane to the torso’s verticality. Geetanjali Lal, an older dancer, seemed rather uncomfortable within her performance.
The evening performances brought out the stars. On Friday night Das’ own company performed “Pancha Jati” in which the eight dancers explored “five fixed patterns….within a 16 beat cycle.” Suffice it to say that these were well trained, expressive dancers, disciplined but not browbeaten, who flowed in and out of unisons with the utmost grace and self-assurance. They were led by Moraga, an exceptional dance practitioner, both lyrical and fierce. Prashant Shah’s calm opening stance, in half profile, one arm overhead, reminded me of “Apollo.” A spectacular technician, he unfortunately, chose to focus his presentation on that aspect of Kathak in which the dancer elaborates on specific bols, chosen rhythmic patterns. Watching Shah felt like being impressed by fireworks in which each display, though different in length and color, still has a certain sameness to it. It would be good to see this artist in other aspects of Kathak, wonderful as this competitive, yet playful interchange with the tabla player was.
Madhumita Roy, detailed and nuanced, evoked a story from the life of Krishna. Though I could not always follow the threads of the storytelling, it was clear that each character was carefully delineated. There was a wonderful fluidity to her dancing with strong pirouettes and footwork to match. Friday night’s star, however, was Maharaj whose dancing was serene. The subtly of his expressiveness and the attention to details, the ease of his performance style and the still formidable technique — he is 69 — went a long way to explain why he is so revered. (He is one of Kathak’s “innovators” — he choreographed for ensembles forty years back). Sitting on a carpet — Kathak was often performed sitting down, without footwork — he also spun off variations on a one basic patter, one after the other. It may have had many more at his disposal. It was hard to keep up with him.
The Saturday night performance again alternated between nritta, pure dance (a fabulously handsome virtuoso, Rajendra Gangani) and nritya, expressive dance (Saswati Sen eloquent as Krishna’s mother) but the show piece was “India Jazz Suite” the imaginative, fun, original, playful, elaborate yet simple and ever so musically fascinating collaboration between tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith and Das. Both of them traditionalists, both of them innovators, they brought the house down and a very much worthwhile conference to a rousing end.
Photo (top) and front page of Chitresh Das Dance Company by Marty Sohl.
(Second photo) Chitresh Das, photo by Bonnie Kamin.
Volume 4, No. 35
October 2, 2006
copyright ©2006 Rita Felciano