Asian Music and Dance

A double bill: Rouh, Spoken Word and Ghazal

Natalia Hildner ‒ a dancer with the nazāka (delicacy, elegance) and adā (grace) of the Lucknow gharana of kathak and yet with a very contemporary feel ‒ performed in a double bill presented by Sama Arts Network in a delightful and evocative afternoon of poetry, music and dance as part of the Mystic Voices Festival at a mehfil-style concert (one in an intimate setting) in Cecil Sharp House.

The concert started with a presentation by Hauz Khas Connection – a world music group – of a sarangi solo by the celebrated Suhail Yusuf Khan accompanied by Vishal Nagar on the tabla. With shawls draped over their knees in the true darbãr (court) style, the duo exhibited a great rapport with each other and the audience. Suhail began with rāg Saugandh in vilambit, madhya and drut laya (slow, medium and fast tempo), followed by a thumri dhun (melody) in rāg Misra Maaru Bihag. A catchy melody beautifully executed drew an involuntary ‘aa-ha’ straight from the heart from the audience. In the final section, Vishal Nagar in his tabla solo recited exciting bols (syllables) of compositions, with their various arrangements and permutations that got the kathak dance artists tapping their hands and feet and exclaiming ‘wah wah’(bravo). 

The audience was then in for a surprise when Arunima Kumar – a talented kuchipudi dancer – took us on a journey into the culture, social etiquette and aesthetics of life in Avadh during the reign of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Avadh. Expressing in dance through spoken word with ghazal and Sufi compositions sung beautifully by Suhail Yusuf Khan, the ambience of Shan-e-Avadh was effectively created.

After a short interval Natalia began her performance. She started with a thumri, Mora Man Liye Jaye, blending nritta (abstract) and nritya (expressional) dance, using the lyrics and adding bols of abstract kathak compositions to interpret and elaborate the lyrics and the mood of the piece with exquisite abhinaya (expressive technique). This technique was pioneered by Lacchu Maharaj – a doyen of the Lucknow gharana who, by placing images on the mnemonic syllables of pure dance, created snippets of visual imagery. It is used freely by kathak dancers nowadays and Natalia’s use of this technique was superb. The performance ended with a joyous tarana choreographed by her guru Pandit BIrju Maharaj in rāga Bhopali and tal Rupak

Between the two recorded items, Natalia presented the experimental piece which incorporated ghazals in four languages: Arabic, Spanish, Farsi and Urdu, taking two shers (couplets) in each language. Love – human and divine – in its complexity and ambiguity makes the common element in all the four ghazals. It was performed with live music by Milad Yusoufi who played an array of instruments – oud, guitar, cajon, rubab and santoor. The piece aimed to transcend diverse languages through the universal language of dance and music. Much of the music was improvised and again Natalia’s expression through lyrics and exploration of rhythm was palpable, her body syncing with the music and responding to the musicality of the various instruments accompanying her. 

However, the piece felt very rushed and somehow unfinished. Natalia moved rather hurriedly from a ghazal in one language to the next, with the result that unfortunately the audience was not given a chance to get into the spirit of the piece as a whole. She needs to develop it further and elaborate each ghazal as a part of the aggregate so that in its entirety it does touch the rouh (soul). Then, as in the words of Parveen Shakir, we will reach our ultimate goal, rouh tak a gai tasir masihai ki – ‘My soul has been reached and healed by this Jesus-like touch.’

Natalia has started this soulful journey and we look forward to its completion.



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