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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

dancing - across the broder - indu mitha

(i have posted another article on general mitha by khaled ahmed - indu is his daughter - t)
Dancing across the border

Indu Mitha

It has been a long time since any organisation has invited, or been able to invite, a classical dancer from India. I will never forget the late Indrani Rahman’s presentation of Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi with her male dance-partner back in the ’60s. The amphitheatre in Lahore’s Bagh-e-Jinnah was overflowing with people, even though it was a ticketed show for the public. I remember our high commissioner of the time, Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan, who had arranged the dancers’ visit, towering over the diminutive lady and thanking her with a bear hug at the end. Which public figure would dare to do so now?

There have been occasional performances from Indian artists, but these are rarely open to the public. Kiran Sehgal danced for invited audiences at the Goethe Institute while on a private visits to her family divided across borders, and there have surely been other such performances, but for years now they have been few and far between. Fortunately, the All Pakistan Music Conference has broken new ground by arranging for Uma Sharma to dance Kathak in Lahore and Islamabad, and have been rewarded by the encouragement they received. There is now the promise of more such concerts.

Uma Sharma’s performance was a lecture-demonstration, with demonstration dominant (as it should be). The movements were complemented by snippets of history, theory, explanations of items, and reminiscences of her guru Shambhu Maharaj of the Lucknow gharana. The audience applauded every rhythmic passage, though she never ended with the perfect chakkars which we are used to. We in the audience were moved to see her ability to recite Urdu poetry with mime and appropriate dance gestures. Mirza Ghalib is a favourite of hers – she was instrumental in converting his Delhi house into a museum, and she recited some of his couplets. On her second performance in Islamabad she also recited one from Allama Iqbal, perhaps it went unnoticed that she did not interpret this last in dance. She only danced two complete poems, one by the Indian prime minister Vajpayee (‘The love and peace in my heart overflows national boundaries’), and the other by a young compatriot whose verses are based on a passage from Nehru’s The discovery of India. This was an excerpt from her longer work entitled “Sthree” (‘Woman’), which describes how the Creator made that amalgam of inconsistencies. Of special interest in this were the changes in taal. Starting in rupak, it moved into a lyrical dadra when describing woman’s romantic and compassionate nature; it changed again for jealousy, fury and justified anger. Each passage was probably too short for similar changes in raag.

Uma Sharma has been involved in efforts to promote the ras lila, the pastoral celebration of Krishna’s life. In Pakistan she spoke of Krishna, the hero and role model of the people of Brindaban, and danced a light-hearted item on the Holi festival (which the god celebrated with his gopis, or cow-herdesses). Here she likened its mood to that of Basant, which she has heard we celebrate with playful zeal. Another piece showed a mother’s understanding and forgiveness after rebuking, even slapping, a child caught red-handed in a prank. She danced to a bhajan by Mira Bai, wherein feminine pique is overcome by the devotion of bhakti – the same emotion expressed in her presentation of Bulleh Shah’s dohas. Though her performance was heavily rooted in Hindu myths and stories, and her movements explicated their themes, at no time did she proselytise, at no time did she seem the least bit foreign. Her programme was indeed beautifully and wisely thought out, as one would expect from a recipient of the Padmabhushan, one of India’s highest decorations.

Uma Sharma started her performance by indicating some differences between the Jaipur and Lucknow gharana (schools) of Kathak, saying the former was more vigorous and the latter lyrical. This she demonstrated with a tandava (masculine) piece showing Krishna dancing victoriously on the hood of the King Cobra, a symbol of evil.

Strangely, she ignored two fundamentals of dance. One is a universal: that two flat feet planted firmly at a distance from each other militate against grace. The other is peculiar to Kathak dance alone, and states that the feet should not be lifted unduly in technical passages. Students of Kathak sprinkled among the audience immediately noticed these two violations, and were much confused. I have known senior students of Achhan Maharaj, elder brother of Umaji’s beloved guru Shambhu, and the acknowledged doyen of the Jaipur gharana in his lifetime, complain how they felt the sting of his charri (‘cane’) on their ankles if they raised their feet more than four inches. I have seen Birju Maharaj use an uplifted foot where this is allowed in expressive passages to delineate violent characters or moods, but her use of this in technical passages is, in my experience, unprecedented. They were not noticeable when I saw her dance in Delhi in her youth.

But perhaps Dr Sharma’s stature as a researcher and performer allow her these personal departures in style. Certainly her use of the uplifted foot to tease and confuse her excellent tabla-nawaz, Mubarak Ali Sahib, in the sawaal jawaab (‘question answer’) sections was justified by the audience’s immediate understanding and appreciation of this little joke, and by her uninhibited verve and joy in this section. Many stars exhibit a similar climactic mood in the finale to an evening of Kathak. It is now the only part of Naheed Siddiqui’s repertoire in which she too allows her unrestrained joy to shine through. Unfortunately Naheed seems to have given up thumri, in which her subtle expressions were much appreciated.

But Umaji’s facial expressions through the nine rasas (classical emotions), and especially her eyes, in stories with a myriad fluctuating moods are a real beacon to our young students of dance, who find it difficult to lose their self-consciousness. Constantly buffeted by leers in the bazaar and jostled on the buses, they find it hard to shed the protective shell they are forced to develop, if they are ever even permitted on the stage. Truly, as Uma Sharma said, and showed, an artiste needs to let the satt and russ (‘truth’ and ‘essence’) of the poetry and character extinguish one’s own person. For two hours she held the stage alone, ably assisted by her accompanists. The singer was appreciated by many and the tabla player frequently applauded. She herself sang a few phrases with panache in clear and melodious tones. Her humility and respect for her guru, her years of dedication to her art and to its inner meaning, shone through it all. It was quite a performance, and, one hopes, the first of a flood of such visits.

Words of the dance

Chakkar: A perfect circle. In Kathak chakkars must be performed on one spot and end with a clearly sounded foot-beat, whether each is completed using several rhythmic steps or as a pirouette (a whirl, on one heel, with only one beat). Rhythmic passages usually climax with 3 chakkars, or a multiple of 3, eg 9, 27 or 81.

Taal: A rhythmic cycle with a set pattern of strong and weak beats.

Rupak: A taal with 7 beats – 1 2 3 / 4 5 / 6 7, where 1, 4 and 6 are strong.

Dadra: A taal which sounds like a waltz since it is accented in threes, and a complete cycle has twelve beats. Dadra in a different context refers to music in this rhythm which is thematically similar to thumri.

Thumri: This and dadra are semi-classical musical forms created by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh, where romantic verses are set to semi-classical music to be danced with expressive movement, gesture and mime.

Taandav and Lasya: Masculine and feminine moods and movements respectively. Classical dance recognises both and expects every dancer to be able to express both.

Nav Russ: Nine basic emotions were classified in ancient times: Sorrow (for oneself or others), Fury, Courage, Fear, Romance, Disgust, Surprise, Humour and Bliss (as peace or contentment). When young dance students are asked to make their own list, amusingly, it invariably begins and ends with Frustration.


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