Asian Music and Dance

Dancing to Poetry

Just as translating a poem from one language to another is a challenge, interpreting a ghazal through kathak makes parallel demands of the dancer in terms of understanding and expression. We asked kathak dancers about their favourite ghazals and how and when they may have used them in their performance.

Aditi Mangaldas

Unfortunately I have never worked with the ghazal genre, at least that I can remember. I rarely even listen to ghazals. Till now I have found them too sentimental and somehow this doesn’t quite work for me…

Nahid Siddiqui

Ghazals can be abstract in their nature; when portrayed in kathak they can be difficult to express as they are very subtle and have hidden meanings, which challenge the dancer’s imagination. I have performed ghazals many times and love to express the subtleties and nuances that are purely cultural and learned by living in the rootedness of language and expression of our culture.

Pranav Yajnik

To me, ghazal is a poetic form characterised by a series of couplets with a strict rhyme and refrain scheme; it comprises couplets that can stand alone, but taken with the others, form part of a wider theme. It typically deals with individual preoccupations, occasionally straying into the relationship between the human and the divine. It ranges widely in tone from banal to abstractly philosophical. As with any text, reading and listening to ghazal prompts a response in the audience. It is by examining the threads of one’s thoughts knitting together as we experience the text that we are led into new interpretations of what the text offers. The often multi-layered nature of ghazal means that our minds must work even harder to ‘read’, holding many different meanings simultaneously. That is a valuable exercise.

Can you quote lines (with translation) from a favourite ghazal?

Urdu ghazals suffer in translation because they are very dense, compressing a lot of meaning (and sometimes more than one meaning) into a very compact space, but I will do my best:

Koi dam ka mehmaan hoon, ai ahal-e-mehfil 
charaag-e sahar hoon, bujha chaahta hoon. (Allama Iqbal)

‘O people of the assembly, I am a guest for but a few moments,
Like the candle just before dawn, I long to be put out.’

Have you performed to a ghazal?

Although I’ve worked on developing abhinaya to ghazal, I’ve never performed it. I find myself drawn to ghazals covering subjects at the abstract end of the spectrum and consequently, one needs to have an extremely strong sense of interpretative, narrative and expressional ability to convey successfully to the audience an abstract concept which does not easily translate into the ‘conventional language’ of kathak abhinaya.

Sonia Chandaria

My Guru, Sujata Banerjee, introduced me to performing ghazals as a core part of my abhinaya training while pursuing the ISTD Intermediate Kathak Vocational Dance Exam. The more I expose myself to ghazals and understand the poetic lyrics, engulfed with metaphors, the more I enjoy the multiple layers of meaning I can create and explore how to portray them through my dancing; and I continue to aspire to perform them with more depth and maturity. 

Can you quote lines from a favourite ghazal?

Tere khushboo mein base khat main jalaata kaise
Pyaar mein dube huye khat main jalaata kaise
Tere haathon ke likhe khat main jalaata kaise
Tere khat aaj main ganga mein baha loon
Aag behate huye paani mein lagaaaya hoon…
(sung by the late Jagjit Singh)

A possible translation:

‘Letters steeped in your fragrance, 
how could I ever burn?
Letters drowned in your love, 
how could I ever burn?
Letters scribbled by your hand, 
how could I ever burn?’

Literally, the next line translates as ‘today I set afloat all your letters in the Ganges’ but I think of it as ‘I’ve cried so much, my tears have washed away your (writing on the) letters’. And the final line literally suggests the letters are set afloat in waters blazing in fire. For me, the fire is a metaphor for the love/passion that the protagonist feels. So, while the protagonist might be able to let go of the letters, the love they feel burns like fire (and perhaps eventually, with enough tears, may temper down…). 

Sonia performed a ghazal to the live vocals of Debipriya Sircar as part of Navodit, a platform developed by Akademi for emerging artists.

In the ghazal I portray a woman who revels in how peaceful and tranquil it feels to be alone. Yet she feels restless. Upon further introspection she realises it is the rumbling thunder-clouds outside that seem to be catalysing that feeling. As she enjoys the feeling of the raindrops outside, she sheds a few sneaky tears and it helps to calm her restlessness.

Tanha tanha, tanha ye dil hain
Sawan ki ghata bayshumaar hain
Nanha nahna sa, boond ki pyasa
Aankhon ka paani, jawaab hain!

‘Lonely, my heart is lonely, 
The monsoon (rain) outside is ceaseless
Yet my eyes thirst for a tiny teardrop.’

Kajal Sharma

I have always had a great love for the ghazal, as a practitioner of vocal music, and of kathak, as a performing artist, but I have never been attracted to perform to ghazals in my kathak routines – my own attachment with kathak is to the devotional. When I see people performing on ghazals without realising that a ghazal demands a high level of maturity in abhinaya I feel very uncomfortable. Ghazals cannot be treated in the same way as thumris or bhajans. Ghazal lyrics are often about sharaab (wine) and shabaab (youthfulness). The dancer needs to be comfortable with the lyrics and understand them, otherwise the effect can be coarse. 

These are lines from two favourite ghazals: 

Muzhko deewana samazhte hai
Tere shahar ke log
Mere daaman se ulazhte hai 
Tere shahar ke log.

‘They think I am crazy, the people of your city (i.e. the people around); they are putting hurdles in my way, the people of your city.’ 

(My guruji Pandit Birju Maharaj-ji used to sing this very often, after our classes in Kathak Kendra, Delhi, in the early 1980s.)

Baichaian bahut firna 
Ghabraye huye rahana
Jis shahar mai bhee rahana
Uktaye huye rahana. (Sung by Ghulam Ali)
‘Wherever you are, you are restless,
Wherever you are, you are anxious,
Wherever you go, you are listless.’ 

(The meaning of ‘uktaye’ is literally ‘boredom’ but can be interpreted rather like the French ennui. Trans. Sudipta Roy)

Sonia Sabri

Can you quote some lines from a favourite ghazal?

Shola Tha by Ahmed Faraz
Shola tha jal bujha huun hawaayein mujhe na do
main kab ka ja chuka huun sadaayein mujhe na do.
jo zahar pii chuka huun tumhin ne mujhe diya
ab tum to zindagi ki duaayein mujhe na do
aisa kabhi na ho ke palat kar na aa sakuun
har baar duur ja ke sadaayein mujhe na do.

‘Once a flame I am nothing but a dying ember now, do not try to rekindle me, 
I am long gone, do not call out to me.
The poison I took was given by none other than you,
At least you cannot pray for my life now.
Lest it happens that I cannot return next time,
Don’t call me back after going further away from me.’ (Trans. Jaya Roy)

Have you performed to a ghazal? Tell us something of how you interpreted it.

Yes. I have performed to and still do to a Persian ghazal. Initially it was quite a challenge to interpret because it’s not a language I am familiar with and I do not have the experience of the sadness of separation from a beloved in a season that symbolises new beginnings and joy. I had to do several readings with Sarvar (tabla artist, composer, my hubby and walking resource centre!), who has studied the Persian language, to begin to understand the essence of the composition as well as the cultural contexts, what the poet wished to convey and also the rhythmic structure. Following my researches, numerous hours are spent at the mirror creating, defining and redefining. Abhinaya techniques from kathak and theatre begin to form the depiction of the literal, the metaphorical and the poetic or unsaid. What is exciting for me is that the ghazal is never a fixed choreography for me because I find my personal experiences inform my execution of the ghazal so it can be different each time I dance it in the studio or performance.



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