New vocabulary for Kathak
Because Kathak is no longer confined to durbars or temples, dancers need to rework the presentation format to suit modern performance contexts, says Kumudini Lakhia. Excerpts from an interview…
This is a world of ideas. No mechanical dancing disassociated from the mind will do. Kathak has the body. Give it the mind it needs.
Photo: S. Subramanium
Changing aesthetics of movement: Kumudini Lakhia (below) and members of Kadamb performing “What next?”.
Ever forthright in expressing her views, dancer-choreographer Kumudini Lakhia is one of those determined persons whose approach to life has little room for “buts” and “ifs”. With her Kathak school Kadamb based in Ahmedabad hav
ing earned a name for training the best of students, her choreography and slick productions, ranging from conventional Kathak treated with a different perspective like “Variation in Thumri” (1969), “Venu Nad” (1970), “Bhajan” (1985) , “Hori” (1970) to works like “Kolaahal” (1971), “Duvidha” (1971), “Dhabkar” (1973), “Atah Kim” (1982), “Okha Haran” (1990), “Hun- Nari” (1993), “Golden Chains” (for Neena Gupt, London), “Sam Samvedan” (1993), “Samanvay” (2003), “Bhav Krida” (1999), “Feathered Cloth – Hagoromo” (2006), “Mushti” (2005) to mention a few, have revolutionised Kathak presentation. From making just the “Na Dhin Dhin Na” footwork sound like the heart beat of a man, or turning a mere recitation of the Bols (parhant) into a conversation between two groups, or having a production built round a blind character, where abhinaya flouts all the eyes-following-the hand Sastric theory, Kumudini has always dared with new ideas. With a long list of awards and recognitions to her credit, along with the SNA award (she is currently serving as a member of the SNA Executive Board), Kumudini has little to prove to anybody. In an eventful journey of over 60 years in Kathak, Kumudini recollects how half a century ago solo dancing was restricted to the odd slot in music conferences in towns like Dehradun, Allahabad and Lucknow. There were very few theatres presenting formal shows of dance.
Need to adapt
“Kathak today has a considerable presence in large cities like Delhi but unfortunately that mehfil baggage will not be easily shed and has stuck in the mind and attitude of the Kathak dancer who demands professional fees, but has not always understood that professional expertise means taking into account the presentation format needed for a very changed situation, where the Durbar no longer exists and there is no dance in the temple. Dancers need to question themselves about the what, the when, the why and the for whom of the dance.”
Known for liberating Kathak from the deja vu of conventional mythological themes, and for exploring a rich abstract dance vocabulary in new contextual formats, Kumudini admits that not being a gharanedhar like Pandit Birju Maharaj gives her a relative freedom that a torch bearer of a tradition, who has to faithfully transmit the inherited legacy to another generation, cannot have. “There are limits beyond which Maharaji cannot go as custodian of a great legacy, while I can.” Having been trained under legendary figures like Shambhu Maharaj, Kumudini struck a new road “instead of following everybody doing what everybody else is doing,” as she puts it. After marriage, she took Kathak to the dusty town of Ahmedabad. “All that it had was a radio station with a very old man in attendance and an even older clock going ‘tick tok tick tok’ all the time. There was no tabla player, nor any music.” A far cry from today when Kadamb has musicians and a full time composer in the great Atul Desai who has composed all the music for Kumudini’s productions during a 40-year association.
A working relationship
Just mention how great it is that she has found another artiste with whom she agrees so perfectly and with whom she has worked for 40 years and pat comes the reply, “We fight every day and rarely see eye to eye and are constantly at logger heads. But we have learnt over the years to agree to disagree on issues, and have found out a working relationship. Actually we become sounding boards for each other. I don’t like what he does always and he has scant respect for some of my ideas. But over so many years, each knows the art of the other and therein, despite differences, comes the alchemy.” She adds, “Today, there is some form of music heard all the time at Kadamb. Dancers must know and understand music. Movement without the musical sense is dry and we see that often today.”
That is the beauty of Kumudini who is totally unlike olden-day gurus who “more often than not insulted the student, making fun of his ignorance and shortcomings. And a gharanedhar is not willing to teach everything to every student. It has happened to me ever so often as a child. Our teaching today has to be different — based on mutual respect between student and teacher. When I ask a student to do a particular movement, I ask the other students about how they feel about what was done. Do they feel they can improve upon it and if so how? So I respect their mind and also slowly develop the student’s critical faculty. Dancers must think and observe life around them. They must read a lot. Look at the great Kathak institutions with grand libraries stacked with books which are never read. How many students go to the library?”
“I don’t want my students to sit at my feet and worship me. I want them to think and do their work. I want Kathak to get a great image and personality. When I recruit a student I see what kind of atmosphere the child comes from, how observant she/he is and the body build.” She recollects how Daksha Sheth, one of the finest dancers of Kathak today, was brought to her as a child. “I noticed how the soles of her shoes were worn out on one side only and realised the child had a faulty stance and at once began to concentrate on making her balance body weight equally on both the full feet. See her today! We must teach our dancers to respect their bodies. To have dignity in their own bodies is something old teachers never taught us. So the female dancers were almost furtive in the way they held their bodies.”
Indeed, the queenly carriage and wonderfully straight back and regal movements of beautifully trained students, with perfect geometry of movement lines, and breathtaking aesthetic group formations and use of space on stage, have become the leitmotif of the Kumudini touch. Doing away with the fussy veils and over-ornamented look with jewels and flowers being shed all over the stage while dancing, Kumudini throws the entire onus on the perfectly trained body in tastefully clad, well-fitting and elegantly simple costumes to create visual aesthetics. One has only to look at dancers like Aditi Mangaldas, Prashant Shah, Maulik Shah and Ishira, Vaishali Trivedi, Daksha, Nirupama and Rajendra and now Sanjukta among others, to realise the contribution of Kumudini’s teaching.
Kumudini sums up what Kathak of the future needs. “You can’t leave persons on an open field and say dance. Everything needs programming. Why have the IT and Science industry been doing so well in India today? Because these are in the hands of thinking minds. Kathak needs serious thought. Just using the best of dancers in a balancing act each time is not the right attitude. Area, Space, money — Yes, all these are needed. But these are not going to produce great art. We cannot have thousands of mindless dancers just mechanically dancing in mind-blowing virtuosity create anything for Kathak. We need a commander who takes charge with his mind. Yes, Birju Maharaj is a God. But why should the God have to go touring to every gully of a city to teach and conduct workshops? No. He should have a grand place where he stays and others should go to him. Anybody who is really serious about Kathak should benefit from his teaching. Just think how much he can give to Kathak if he can be made to cut out needless running around! And don’t allow students to just sit on their haunches. They must think and create. This is a world of ideas. No mechanical dancing disassociated from the mind will do. Kathak has the body. Give it the mind it needs. That is the future.”
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