Asian Music and Dance

Geetanjali Lal

Suyogya Shishya Hi Se Hai, 
Guru Ka Naam!

Abhay Shankar Mishra shares rare material from his research project into kathak gharanas. The second in the series features Geetanjali Lal, performer and teacher at the top of her game, for three decades. She has also been on the Faculty of the Kathak Kendra for half that time. A product of kathak gurus Shrimati Roshan Kumari, Gopi Krishna, Mohan Rav Kalyanpurkar and her husband, the late Devi Lal ji, Geetanjali carries forward their names and reputations. Here she shares her early learning experiences and reflects on how dancers can take the best from different paramparas, giving her own example.

You have witnessed two generations of kathak, what difference do you make of the kathak you used to learn and the kathak you are teaching today?

I will tell you the difference in two ways – firstly the way Gurus used to teach back then when I was learning and I would like to share one experience with you, that will be with me always. 

My dance training started with Roshan Kumari ji and this incident occurred on the auspicious day of Ganesh Chaturthi. In Maharashtra, this day is celebrated in every home, and there is no comparison of the level of festivity in Mumbai! There was a celebration at my neighbour’s house to which my father was invited. There I was asked to present my dance and I couldn’t refuse. I didn’t even know who would play the tabla and who was singing! My father told me to go with him, and that’s it, I was ready. 

 I performed and the programme went well. By coincidence, the next day, Roshan didi visited my house along with one other artist who was by chance at the programme the previous day and had seen my dance. There he then started complimenting me, saying Wow! What a performance, how well you have taught this girl, she presented such a prepared dance, my heart was very happy. Roshan didi asked me, yesterday? Where? And that was the end of that conversation. 

That same evening I went to my dance class and started tying my dancing bells, when Roshan didi’s father came and told me to untie my bells and go home. I couldn’t understand as I was very young. I was only 8 or 9. I reached home and started crying and I remember my family also got very upset. I told them they didn’t allow me to dance today and sent me home. 

The next day my father took me to Roshan didi. Didi said very clearly that if you want her to learn dance, then she has to strictly adhere to the rules of parampara, (the succession from Guru to disciple). Didi said, whatever the reason, without prior permission and blessings of Guru, nothing can be allowed. That’s it. That one line that I heard and learnt that day has never left my mind. After that, I never went anywhere without her permission until I arrived in Delhi, and neither did I expect to perform at any programmes. I decided that it is more important to learn first and in one sense, this is my Guru’s mantra (prayer) for me. 

You learnt the Jaipur style from Roshan ji, from Gopi Krishna ji you learnt the Banaras style and you also learnt from Devi Lal ji, and then you continued to work for Kathak Kendra’s productions under Pandit Birju Mahraj ji in which you presented many roles. You currently hold the post of a Guru at Kathak Kendra and also work in the production unit. Did you plan your progression or did it happen in its own way?

There has always been music in my family from the start but there were no dancers. Let me tell you that my father was a well-known artist, and there were always crowds of artists at our house. Whether it be morning or night, there was always a musical atmosphere. In our apartment block in Mumbai, there were artists such as Nikhil Bannerjee, Ustad Ali Akbar ji and Omkarnath ji living there. We were always socialising with them and I always counted myself very lucky to have these opportunities. My heart was always in dance but my father wanted me to be a singer. Even today my mother jokes that I learnt to walk later and dance first, that too when I wasn’t even learning from anybody – maybe that continued from my past life. First I used to learn singing and then started learning dance too, and slowly my mind and heart were getting more attached to dance and I was going deeper in that.

On the one hand, we can see elements of Banaras gharana in your dance, and Jaipur gharana’s openness, with prepared rhythmic sense and on the other hand we also get to see expression and grace. Is this something you have developed in yourself or is it due to being linked to both gharanas?

Here I believe that it depends on the artist, because one can learn the expression and the technique of the rhythmic cycle, but if they lack something special from within then how much can be taught to them? Here it is irrelevant what each gharana’s characteristic is, as Lucknow is known for its graceful and elegant use of the minor limbs yet it does not mean it lacks a rhythmic cycle, or is weak when it comes to preparation. Similarly an artist from the Jaipur gharana is the same. They will come prepared in both a good discipline of the rhythmic cycle as well as good expression and then they will sketch their performance. If you consider other gharanas then after learning Banaras and Jaipur, I started working under Pandit Birju Maharaj ji and there I learnt many things which added the grace in my movements which was not there before. Basically I have never left the habit of continuously developing, not even today. 

Do you believe that these things you just mentioned are only believed by open-minded people and generally people only support their own gharana and aren’t interested in others? 

Yes, that is the case. But I believe that if everyone only supports and develops their interest in their own gharana then a lot of valuable things can get lost. That is why I believe that it is the vital role of every dancer to not only follow and learn their gharana but to also enquire into other gharanas too. 

You have learnt under the Guru-Shishya parampara and today you are also teaching under that parampara. Do you notice any changes?

The main change I have noticed is that in the previous era, everyone had plenty of time, and in today’s generation no one has any time. Life is moving very fast and today the trends are of fast food and fast music. Today even a Guru does not have enough time for so many disciples and if the Guru has time then the disciple doesn’t. Today education is important, and so is playing, painting, and also computer training as well as watching the match. Hence there have been changes in the level of mental concentration and although this may not necessarily affect the limit to which they can learn, however, it will affect the artist’s grounding and basic grasp of the dance.

You were not born into a gharana-based family, but after marrying Pandit Devi Lal ji, you are linked to Jaipur gharana. However, after the sudden and tragic death of both brothers Pandit Devi Lal and Pandit Durga Lal ji, how do you manage to maintain this parampara’s responsibility on your shoulders?

I do. I definitely do. And if I do only then can something continue, so I will try as much and as long as I can to do justice to their name and their work to a high standard so their parampara can continue for so long and that way the parampara’s name will get recognition and more people will continue to follow.

What is better, Vansh parampara or Shishya parampara?

It is difficult to maintain a Vansh (familial line) parampara as if at any point in a generation, one drops out then the parampara will not continue; however, a good shishya (disciple) can promote and preserve their Guru’s name, irrelevant 



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