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Dancing kathak on stage: Why this has been my biggest high in years!

I am slowly beginning to realize just how traumatic urban living is getting to be. Oh, we would not give up this life easily, those of us who have lived in a city for long. We value our ‘freedom’ just as we bemoan the lack of safety. We love the anonymity, but worry about loneliness. We wonder how long the water will last, just after we’ve taken that refreshing shower!

I am certainly very much the strange urban creature, a powerhouse of contrast and confusion. I notice that we all find our own survival strategies to endure the strange confused nature of our city lives. Social networks have certainly begun to close some gaps for those of us who find it hard to have the energy to keep up with a ‘real’ social life; or we combine the two in some way to remain afloat on the tide of anonymous humanity that surrounds us. But this wasn’t enough for me and I found myself turning towards cultural stimulation to fulfill some of the void inside.

I took up kathak a year and a half ago and entered the world of the classical arts, slowly slipping into it and letting it seep into me. Soon after, I resumed training in Hindustani classical vocal music. My life- work, family, home, friends- all the things that I think and do find anchor in these two weekend time slots-one for dance and another for music.

The weekend gone by, it felt like one branch of me was bearing fruit when my friend Shruti and me performed on stage at Epicentre, Gurgaon. Minutes before the show, standing in the wings, I found myself calm and eager, and completely satisfied. A short while earlier, I had spontaneously touched my guruji’s feet, probably surprising her a bit, but really needing her to put her faith in me. I think the transfer of energy worked some little magic. I told myself that a few months of intense riyaaz and real desire to do well should be enough. And it was!

Shruti and me taking a pose as the alaap starts... photo credit: Nupur

Shruti and me taking a pose as the alaap starts… photo credit: Nupur

After completing our piece, a superbly choreographed Shiv Stuti ‘Damroo har kar baaje…‘ set in Raag Gunakali, Taal Roopak, I felt a level of achievement I do not remember reaching in the past few years through my many other pursuits. This had been a hard, personal battle. A battle to re-prioritize, to push myself, a test of self-confidence, a desire to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a classical dancer….all of that!

Of course, the credit goes largely to our guru Jayashree Acharya, for reposing her faith in us. For not questioning us, but simply taking our decisions for us at a time when we did not know what our own capabilities were. To offer us the experience of preparing a stage-ready dance piece, to learn to dance to live music of high caliber (Shiv Shankar Ray on the tabla, vocals by Anirban Bhattacharya and Pritam Ghoshal on the Sarod), to learn to focus, take criticism and be graceful about it. To be a student of an able guru, a hugely valuable experience. I have written about this before (on my experiences as a student, and as an observer), but in the past year and a half I have been gladly re-acquainted with the best aspects of the guru-shishya parampara, where the relationship between teacher and disciple is a continuously evolving one, bringing in aspects of spirituality, respect, devotion and commitment and moving beyond mere instruction and obedience.

This sort of training has a lot to do with why I feel a greater sense of satisfaction after this performance as compared to the many times I danced on stage through the past few years, as a student with Shiamak Davar’s group. That also involved practise and dedication, a lot of technical training too. But this involved a spiritual awakening that only the classical arts can invoke. It’s something I will remember all my life. Of course, there is much more to learn and it is an endless journey, but I’m grateful and proud to be able to be in this place, at this time…..

Shiv and Pravati pose

Shiv and Parvati pose

In motion...

In motion..

Shiv ki aradhana...

Shiv ki aradhana…

Really enjoying this bit...Shruti and me

Really enjoying this bit…Shruti and me

An evening of kathak in baithak format, a profound experience: ‘Milestones’ by Aakriti Foundation, Gurgaon

Mastering a classical art form is not for the faint hearted. That was amply demonstrated during Saturday evening’s baithak at the home of my kathak guru Jayashree Acharya and her husband Shiv Shankar Ray, who is an accomplished and well known tabla exponent.

Before a mixed audience of rasiks, curious neighbors and parents of children who were already under the tutelage of one of the several accomplished gurus present, Aakriti Foundation had laid out ‘Milestones’, a clever program designed to seduce, educate and enthrall. The foundation is driven by three artists passionate about the power of the arts, the duo of Jayashreeji and Shiv Shankarji as well as danseuse Sushmita Ghosh.

A beautiful invocation to the Gods performed in kathak and Odissi set the tone for an evening that was educational and enthralling at the same time

A beautiful invocation to the Gods performed in Kathak (by Anandi Ray) and Odissi (by Lahari Nanda) set the tone for an evening that was educational and enthralling at the same time

Anchored by Sushmitaji, the program attempted to unravel the complexity and beauty involved in the apparent effortlessness that the audience sees in a performance of kathak. Through a demonstration by beginner-level students, little adorable children, she set out the basic pattern of the dance, the ta-thei-thei-tat aa-thei-thei-tat footwork based on the 16-beat teen taal rhythm. With the help of Anandi, a more senior student, Sushmitaji demonstrated how this simple pattern can attain more complex variations and how the dancer can improvise within the confines of the beat cycle. Making the audience count along with her and a small demonstration by Shiv Shankarji on the tabla helped cement the lesson and bond us onlookers deeper with the art form!

The self assurance of the little ones was so endearing!

The self assurance of the little ones was so endearing!

An impromptu demonstration by my guru Jayashree Acharya

An impromptu demonstration by my guru Jayashree Acharya

What followed was an impressive recital by Mahika Nair, a young disciple of Jayashreeji who has been under her tutelage for a little over four years. Not yet a teenager, Mahika’s poise and confidence combined with her technical prowess and abhinaya showed a maturity far beyond her years. Through her performance, I could see not just the talent but also the sheer hard work of her and her guru yield fruit on stage. Their closeness and shared sense of excitement was evident and added an extra flavor to the show.

Mahika's confidence and technical prowess belied her youth. Impressive!

Mahika’s confidence and technical prowess belied her youth. Impressive!

The guest artist for the evening Shikha Khare is an exponent of the Lucknow gharana of kathak and a guru at the Kathak Kendra, New Delhi. I felt a twinge of regret for those few who had left the program before Shikhaji came on, for they had surely missed a treat! Eloquently, Shikhaji’s excitement at the opportunity to perform in the baithak format was obvious. Before she started, she explained the benefits of viewing a performance in this ‘mehfil’ style of performing that was prevalent during the time of the royal patrons, how you can see the minute details, relate closely with the dance form, really internalize many trivial aspects that can otherwise be missed in a stage show and how the artist and the audience can enjoy an interactive session this way. Her short performance exemplified all these aspects. I particularly enjoyed watching her eyes and expressions, which kept us all absolutely glued!

I’ve been learning kathak from Jayashreeji for a year now and I am intrigued by how much individuality the dancer brings to the her art. I am aware, of course, that a lot of that stylization comes from the taleem that a dancer receives from her guru, or gurus. And here too, Shikhaji’s performance was an education as she was able to pinpoint what aspects of her dance were imbibed from which of her gurus. Once again, it struck me that beyond talent, it is the dedication and complete submission to one’s guru that makes for true classical artist, in the Indian tradition.

Shikha Khare enthralled us with her knowledge, her distinct style and her range of effortless expressions!

Shikha Khare enthralled us with her knowledge, her distinct style and her range of effortless expressions!

Shikhaji's performance was interactive. The stories she told, the context she set were as vital as the performance itself.

Shikhaji’s performance was interactive. The stories she told, the context she set were as vital as the performance itself.

I made it a point to take both my kids, Udai and Aadyaa to see the show. For Aadyaa, the highlight was when Shikhaji assumed the role of Radha and pleaded with Kanha to let her go home. My little one is a Krishna Bhakt, and she absolutely loved that piece. Udai was captivated by the jugalbandi between Shikhaji and the tabla. Both of them were reciting snatches of bols and whirling around the carpet for a long time after we got home! That, after all, is the entire point of the baithak format, in which art is not far away but accessible; not seen, but imbibed; not enjoyed but savored. The evening had a profound impact on me, and my children. These are the experiences that make life more meaningful, beautiful; that motivate me to be a better artist myself and dream the dreams I have for my children!

Mesmerized by the alternate world of the classical arts- May 2, 2012

“This is what Shaji wanted to say when he talked about opening the world of math to children (with reference to post on teaching math),” I thought, listening to the countless permutations and combinations, several tempos and meters of Pandit Sarathi Chatterjee’s rendering of Raag Yaman today. The renowned musician sat a few feet from me in a wonderful baithak setting, once again created in the home (with reference to a post on a kathak event) of my kathak guruji Jaishree Acharya and her husband tabla maestro Shiv Shankar Rayji, who was accompanying Sarathiji today.

Masterji taught me well indeed, to be able to appreciate and also understand what the singer did, the method he used to render the alaap, climbing up slowly one note at a time, while teasing the audience with a hint of the note yet to appear; what orders of notes he combined to achieve his taans; the dialogue he had with the tabalchi while playing with the beat cycle in myriad different ways! By masterji, I mean my music guruji in Lucknow, Milon Debnath, who often had to deal with a sulky adolescent me, unwilling to sing Raag Yaman for the 1500th time and yet happy to eventually get cajoled into doing so after a 15-minute diversion into something like Bageshri!

Ah! Those were the days! The alternate world of music; the world in which I, as a child, could effortlessly slip in and out of. Today, when I listen to good Hindustani vocal music, especially at close quarters, I regret feeling like an outsider to that inner sanctum that once had a place for me.

And yet, I truly appreciate masterji’s effort now, so many years later when I am finally learning to listen well. I cannot thank him enough. The magical evening started with an 80-minute recital of Raag Yaman, and moved on to renditions in Raag Hamir and Raag Anandi, concluding with a thumri in Raag Pilu.  In the end, there was silence and lots of happiness in the room!

I want to be able to give my children a window into this beautiful world, not just as rasiks (those who listen, appreciate), but as practitioners of these classical arts that have a timeless beauty, even as I want to reclaim a bit of it for myself.

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