Asian Music and Dance

Dancing to Poetry

Kathak artist Natalia Hildner has been training under Pandit Birju Maharaj for over a decade. The pursuit of her art form took her into the study of Urdu language and literature where she encountered ghazals in their original form. She shares her knowledge and experience of ghazals with Pulse.

What do you understand by the term ‘ghazal’ and what role does ‘ghazal’ play in your dance?

During my fellowship in Lucknow, India, to study Urdu and Farsi poetry, I discovered a plethora of subjects in the ghazal genre spanning mysticism, philosophy, social satire, revolution and many more themes, out of which ishq, or human and/or divine love, often reigned supreme. These past few years I have decided to explore the ghazal further, because I felt it provided kathak dancers with more choices to interpret secular songs with a wider variety of themes without becoming estranged from its original cultural aesthetic. Rather than giving token service to an exoticised impression of a Mughalised era, another motivation for my exploration was to shed light upon and strengthen the common Indo-Persian roots between these two genres. The journey of the ghazal – from its origins in what was Persia, now Iran, then Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally to India from the twelfth century onwards – has given the ghazal its distinct flavour, connecting geographical regions, despite their current socio-political relationships. 

It is a coincidence that the particular training I have undergone in the Lucknow Gharana dance style, originating in Awadh, comes from a region most recognised for its Hindu and Muslim confluence; thus the style I have developed lends itself very naturally to Urdu and Farsi poetry. So much so that I have begun to perceive a dancer’s physicality as poetry in motion: the body as the first material layer to enfold the human spirit from the world, constantly moving between past and future, presence and absence, consciousness and memory. Thus movements, rhythms and emotions in kathak provide rich audio-visual material for interpretations of the ghazal’s most illuminating themes about human nature and society.  

Can you quote lines from a favourite ghazal?

A line of good poetry for me is more precious than gold. I keep them in my mind and heart as nuggets of wisdom to be revealed at the right time. Since according to ghazal culture one must always choose the appropriate sher, or line of poetry, for the coinciding situation spontaneously, I have chosen the following, ‘Mataa e lauh e qalam’, which refers to the power of the word, composed by the revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz when he had been incarcerated for his political activism:

‘So what if you have stolen my iron pen of revolution, where is the sadness in this?
For I have dipped my fingers in the blood of my heart as my ink!
So what if you have sealed and stamped my words, where is the sadness in this?
For every ring on these chains is like a rebel tongue ready to speak!’Have you performed to a ghazal? Tell us something of how you interpreted it.

After the passing of two of the greatest ghazal stalwarts of our times, Ustad Mehdi Hassan (2012) and Jagjit Singh (2011), as an artist within the Hindustani tradition, I began to become concerned about the future of the ghazal genre. Thanks to these ghazal-singing maestros of past generations, the genius of the Urdu and Farsi poetry has been masterfully set to sweet and captivating melodies, making what was otherwise an elite literary pastime of poetry exchange into accessible and even popular collections of songs with educational and enlightening themes across South and Central Asia. Eventually I figured out that a way I could keep this genre’s legacy alive was by composing innovative choreographies to classical ghazals.

In London in 2011 I premièred my first solo traditional choreography (at a concert organised by the Sujata Banerjee Dance Company), in which I interpreted and dedicated a work to Mehdi Hassan based on his ghazal ‘Mohabbat Karne Wale Kum Na Honge, Teri Mehfil me Lekin Hum Na Honge’. Later, at the Lucknow Literary Festival in 2015, I presented an original piece on ‘Main Hawa Hoon Kahan Watan Mera’, a ghazal made popular in the early ‘80s by the Ahmed Hussain–Mohd Hussain duo. Next, in July this year at Cecil Sharp House, the final piece will be a tribute to the genre of ghazal based on the famous tune ‘Bazeecha e Atfal’ or ‘Playground’ by Jagjit Singh.  

Kathak – Rouh, Spoken Word, and Ghazal (part of the Mystic Voices Festival)

Sunday 3 July | 3pm | £17.50

Cecil Sharp House | www.sama.co.uk



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