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Kathak at the Crossroads: Innovation within Tradition

International Festival & Symposium

by Mary Ellen Hunt

September 28-30, 2006 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

For three days at the end of September, San Francisco played host to one of the biggest gathering of Indian dance gurus in the country. The brainchild of the Bay Area’s resident kathak guru Pandit Chitresh Das, this symposium cum festival brought a roster of kathak experts whose names might not be familiar to the casual dance-goer, but who, in Indian dance circles, represent the legends of this classical form.

The evening performances, held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, were long – running, at least three to three and a half hours – more Indian dance than I had ever seen put together in one space in my life. But the sum of it made for a fascinating primer on the form, as well as a heartening look at an age-old genre of dance that is undergoing conscious reinvention at the hands of its own preservers.

For many kathak fans, without doubt, the highlight was the appearance on Friday night of the legendary Pandit Birju Maharaj, descendant of the famous Maharaj family whose influence on modern kathak cannot be underestimated. Credited with bringing the element of choreographed theater into the world of kathak, Maharaj was in his own time a modernizer and innovator. Perhaps he still is, if the busy schedule on his website (http://birjumaharaj-kalashram.com) is anything to go by.

True to the Lucknow gharana’s style, (Maharaj is considered this school of kathak’s leading exponent) his invocation to Govinda had an expressively elegant and subtle character. Clad simply in white with a gold and saffron belt, Maharaj gave us a slow burn of twining arms and hands along with the occasional whimsical quirk of a brow.

Is it because of the nature of the dance’s structure, or because of the gurus’ natural pedagogical leanings, that each performance became a bit of a lesson? Whatever the reason, for those of us who have had little exposure to the form, it was a welcome part of the performance. It was during this point that I realized that something on the order of 80% of this audience lived and breathed these dauntingly complex rhythms – they clapped along with the musicians easily and were delighted by the challenge of a nine and a half beat metric. I’m lucky if I can discern the difference between 3/4 time and 6/8 time, so unraveling the complex rhythms and bols of kathak and learning the tihais had become a little like trying to learn the game of chess simply by watching. I was fine up to a point, and then inevitably someone castled.

Maharaj, though, interjected small nuggets into his performance. “We see that there are different views, different ways,” he said, speaking of the symposium’s focus on the modernization of kathak, “but always, it’s dhaa-dhin-dhin-dhaa,” – the simplest start to the rhythmic 16 beat cycle that kathak dancers call the “teental.” “The teental is symmetrical,” he continued, “but it always reaches to ‘1,’ to Krishna, to home.”

Maharaj, at 68, is a charming raconteur as well and probably could have danced an entire evening of stories by himself. In one segment, he does what the jazz musicians call “trading fours” with the tabla player, using the rhythms of his ankle bells and the rolls of the tabla to depict a heroine (bells) being playfully chased through the forest by a hero (the tabla). And a padhant or recitation of rhythms, sketching out various kinds of birds, including a chicken running down the street with her chicks scurrying after her, was both dazzling and amusing.

Sharing the stage that evening with Maharaj was an accomplished group of musicians, including the renowned sarangi player, Pandit Ramesh Mishra.

Notable performances from the other dancers included that of Maharaj’s student Madhumita Roy, who has trained in both the Jaipur and Lucknow gharanas. Her explanation of the tukara as a rhythm that to her feels like a person trying to move forward even as someone else pulls her back from behind emerged compellingly in her composition depicting the childish impulses of Krishna, held back by his sense of duty as a king. A technically brilliant Prashant Shah also startled the audience with unusually secure turns and lightning fast footwork, as did Charlotte Moraga’s whirlwind manege of fast turns around the stage in Chitresh Das’ “Pancha Jati.”

Kathak, especially the Jaipur gharana brand, lends itself to a kind of rock star, virtuoso performance and it’s that side of kathak that comes forward most forcefully in Das’ recent collaboration with tapper Jason Samuels Smith in “India Jazz Suites.” Less a “fusion” per se, and more of an East-shakes-hands-with-West, this showstopper piece – which features both Das’ Indian musicians as well as the jazz compositions of Marcus Shelby – brought down the house on Saturday night.

It was an evening that started at a high level of energy with the wild and hot-blooded Rajendra Gangani, and moved to a more delicate, but equally intense, performance by Saswati Sen (also a disciple of Birju Maharaj). Sen’s compositions to a time cycle of nine and a half beats – a gift to her from Maharaj – was both seductive and a challenge intellectually. Everywhere in that rhythmically savvy crowd, we were visibly trying to keep up with the beat. In the dark, I could even see Gangani, who slipped into an empty seat after the break, keeping time along with her.

The man of the hour though, was Das himself, who offered a tour de force solo performance before “India Jazz Suites.” In the wings, we could just make out Smith who was watching intently and keeping time with his tap shoes. Before embarking on a story taken from the Ramayana, Das, ever the teacher, elucidated on the improvisational aspects of the dance. “I’m taking my chances with him,” he said, indicating the table player, “in kathak, this is called…’risk-taking.’ That is the beautiful thing in kathak.”

Calculated risk-taking in fact is the hallmark of Jason Samuel Smith’s style of tap, which pays explicit tribute to such gurus of tap as Jimmy Slyde and Peg Leg Bates. The immensely likeable and accomplished Smith has the relaxed, unassuming air of a guy in love with dance, and with the ability to jam and play that his considerable skills gives him. As Das once said to me, “That is aananta – the ultimate happiness – the joy of dance.”

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