LAST MONTH, the Sangeet Natak Akademi selected me for their National Award for Creative and Experimental Dance. I have utmost respect for the Akademi, and it is their prerogative who they choose to confer their awards upon and what category they choose. But as a performer, I also have a prerogative on how my work is classified, and the tag of “creative and experimental” was slightly problematic. After much reflection, I decided it would not be appropriate for me to accept it.
I am a Kathak dancer. I had the privilege of being trained by two of India’s greatest gurus, Smt Kumudini Lakhia and Pt Birju Maharaj. Eighty percent of my work can be classified as Kathak in the ‘traditional’ sense — another problematic word — while the rest could be called ‘contemporary dance based on Kathak’. To call my work creative and experimental would be to classify me with people like Astad Deboo and Daksha Sheth, who’ve created their own language and grammar of dance. I still have a long way to go in this regard.
Kathak is a living tradition that has had a very challenging and dynamic journey. As a performer, I am persevering to enhance and evolve this multifaceted, flowing river of Kathak. The Kathak Kendra, the national institute for the dance form and a constituent of the Akademi, seems not to subscribe to this view. Instead of a greater debate on distinguishing between what is essential and what is extraneous to Kathak, as is necessary, they choose to escape by deeming all that challenges their narrow definition of Kathak to be ‘not Kathak’. This allows them to avoid taking a position on the merits of the offending dance, to condescendingly dismiss such attempts with “But that’s not Kathak.”
The question of tradition is central to this debate. The arbiters of propriety base their judgements on what they see as traditional. Recently, a young dancer was asked to provide them with a publicity photograph for a show in Varanasi. She was then asked to change it because the one she gave did not have her in proper Kathak attire: she wasn’t wearing a dupatta! When I questioned the decision in my letter declining the award, the gurus responded, saying, “Kathak Kendra is an institution to teach the tradition of the age-old Kathak form and costume also is a part of it, which all the students has (sic) to learn.” But going by their definition of ‘tradition’, female Kathak performers should request the Sangeet Natak Akademi to institute a separate award for us, as women traditionally never danced Kathak!
My guru, Smt Kumudini Lakhia, had removed the dupatta in the early 1970s. Is a dupatta the hallmark of Kathak? Is the “traditional attire” an evolving aspect or a fixed notion prescribed by Kathak Kendra? The aaharya of some of the leading female Kathak exponents like Sitaraji, Kumudiniji, Rohiniji, Roshan Kumariji and Damayantiji reflected their own aesthetics, but fell within the broader vision of Kathak. All of them adopted the aaharya to suit the context of their times and of the performance, which is what many dancers do today and so do I.
There has been a dynamic change in the very aang (body movement structure) of the dance. The presentation, the literature, the accompanying musical instruments and the very music itself have undergone a major transformation with time.
Two years ago, the Kalakshetra Foundation depicted Shakespeare’s Othello through Kathakali, to great critical acclaim. Yet, it was no less Kathakali than it was Shakespeare. A brilliant Mohiniyattam production was set to Tchaikovsky’s music. The dancers still maintained their classical identity, did they not? Dismissing the very notion of modifications in the canon of a dance form hurts it by hindering its growth. The gurus of the Kathak Kendra like to believe that they are reinforcing tradition. But to ‘reinforce’ invokes the image of concrete reinforcing a brick wall. I prefer the metaphor of a plant that needs nurturing.
As told to Ajachi Chakrabarti