Asian Music and Dance

In Conversation – Urja Desai Thakore

2015 has been a milestone year for kathak dancer and choreographer Urja Desai Thakore. Perhaps her finest hour was on the evening of 7 May as the 1,500-strong audience at the BBC Young Dancer Finals held at Sadler’s Wells broke into spontaneous applause following Vidya Patel’s solo. Urja was the choreographer responsible for creating the dramatic and dynamic dance piece which dance critic Sanjoy Roy noted liberated the dancer by the choreographer’s ‘freeform treatment of kathak’. The solo, executed flawlessly by Vidya Patel, brought the house down.

Urja’s selection as choreographer for BBC Young Dancer was one of the many distinctions that have come her way recently. In 2014 Urja received a commission from Kadam/Pulse to create a new work based on Tagore; from Akademi came the Utkarsh award to make a work in the classical canon; and then as a teacher the accolades received by her student Parbati Chaudhury, selected as the winner of Yuva award (Akademi) and Nritya Ratna prize from Milapfest for the most promising young dancer under 30. A remarkable year indeed.

It has been the culmination of a journey that began for Urja Desai more than three decades ago in Ahmedabad, the capital of the state of Gujarat in Western India. Born into a middle-class home of progressive parents and a mother who had a great love of the arts, Urja exhibited her affinity for dance from a young age.

When did you start dancing?

My mother took me to a bharatanatyam class when I was 4, but I did not enjoy the class, she tells me, although I loved dancing. At 6 she tried me at a kathak class at Kadamb (with internationally-renowned kathak guru Kumidini Lakhia) and as I was very young, Kumiben (as she is affectionately known by students and colleagues) suggested that I should merely observe the class till I was older. I used to not sit still and instead dance at the back of the class. My mother would make the journey from our home in the north to South Ahmedabad religiously every week until Kumiben said one day that I had proved my interest and may as well start!

(The Kadamb Centre for Dance and Music was set up in 1967 by Kumudini Lakhia and musician Atul Desai. Kumiben is reputed to have brought a refined sensibility in systematising the kathak fundamentals which has won her the respect of even legendary upholders of the form such as Birju Maharaj. She emphasises clean lines and deep body bends. The artistic output of Kadamb has been a steady stream of productions, mostly of group choreographies on abstract themes.)

Did you learn with Kumiben throughout?

Kumiben was always around at the institute. Of course when I started it was with Sandhyaben (Sandhya Desai) and later with Mullick bhai (Mullick Shah), until it came to the performance group which was mostly taken by Kumiben. She had a habit of dropping into classes unannounced, which sent a ripple of excitement through the class and it still does. For the next twelve years, the regime was school plus evening classes at Kadamb. But between that there were also singing classes and many community performances, especially during festivals such as Navratri.

So basically from the age of 6 until you came to the UK, you were attached to Kadamb in some form?

I had to take a break from Kadamb and dancing after high school for my education. I am a civil engineer and interior designer by profession. I had to leave Ahmedabad to join an engineering college in Broach (on the borders of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh), and returned after graduating. My interior design degree I did in Ahmedabad. I realised then that I could not live without dance. So I started working for a civil engineering firm that allowed me time to attend my dance class at Kadamb before coming into work.

My mother had a company called Pagrav formed in 1983 that organised folk dance shows around Navratri. I asked my mother if we could revive the name and in 1997 I created a show to which we invited Kumiben as the chief guest. After the show Kumiben asked me how much I was earning as a civil engineer and then said that she would match that if I came to teach at Kadamb. I was thrilled and that same year I started teaching at Kadamb. From 1997 until March 2003, when I came to the UK, I taught at Kadamb.

Could I ask about your mother and her influence on you as a dancer?

My mother was a bharatanatyam dancer, theatre actress and singer. After her marriage, she decided against taking up a full-time career on stage to bring up her family. But she would perform as a professional singer and also run a factory, a manufacturing unit of my grandfather. My father was very supportive of her.

So you too must have looked for a husband who would support your work?

I can’t remember discussing this aspect with Nehal, my husband-to-be. We had a relationship via e-mail, writing to each other sometimes five to six times a day. I never felt that I hadn’t seen Nehal (the couple were introduced to each other online); I felt that I knew him so well. I was honestly not very keen to leave Ahmedabad, where I was well settled and performed music concerts regularly. It was mainly light classical music, ghazals and geet that I trained in with my mother. This aspect of my work was separate from my involvement with Kadamb. 

So how did your life change on coming over to England?

I am a very emotional person, I love being around people. Yet I can say that coming to England, I missed my family, but did not cry once. There were certain events between my engagement and marriage that made me very strong. I lost four members of my family during this period, including my grandmother a week before my wedding. They had all deeply desired to see me married, so had left the world with unfulfilled wishes. I resolved that in my lifetime I would try consciously to satisfy my wishes.

I arrived in Milton Keynes in March 2003 and started a class there in May and in London in September. Nehal made me so comfortable here. From the time I landed I felt that I belonged here. I never believed in janma bhoomi (place of birth) and karma bhoomi (place you earn through your deeds), but so it is.

Since 2003 I have been running classes in London, firstly through Shishu Kunj, a cultural organisation whose head Jagdeep Shah knew Mullick bhai and the weight of Kadamb training and invited me on board.

You then decided to do a Masters at Roehampton. How did that come about?

I was introduced to Roehampton by Ann David. I was always keen to do a Masters in dance, having done my Visharad (Bachelor’s degree) in India. Moreover I was keen to understand the theory of how dance is in the Western world. I struggle to understand contemporary dance because I relate more to emotion. Since choreography was my main interest, I negotiated a one-year course in which I did two units of South Asian dance studies and two in choreography. Going into the studio with a blank page and being in the company of highly intelligent peers who questioned and challenged changed the way I look at dance. In place of a thousand movements, I learned that one could be even more powerful. At the end of the year, I was given a Masters in South Asian dance with choreography as major. But more than that, I achieved my objective of furthering my understanding of dance.

Let’s look at the trajectory of your creative output. 

The first piece I created, following Bells for Akademi (a site-specific piece for kathak and aerial dancers), was Baharan (‘Seasons’). It was my response to coming to England. I came to the UK in March and the shock of the first winter was the inspiration for Baharan (2007). In preparation for that I went to India and spent two weeks with Kumiben in Ahmedabad. Kumiben approaches choreography mostly through patterns. I had the benefit of her experience and for the music I used her long-term collaborator Atul Desai. 

My next piece was Hats which was showcased at Resolutions (Place platform for new artists) in 2008/9. Hats is about the conflicts of a working mother and wife. Between the two pieces I could detect the shift in my thought processes. In 2011 I was one of a group of South Asian artists who received choreographic mentorship from South East Dance. This led to Detox in which I work with contemporary-trained bodies and from their movements bring out emotion. Although I don’t have the full range of vocabulary for contemporary dance movements, I approach the making by setting tasks. I find that I am becoming more and more observant and more and more selective.

The personal and emotional life of the dance artist gives an insight into the character and to the work that she will ultimately produce. The dance and the dancer are inextricably linked. Many dance students have flocked to Urja’s classes, confident of gaining a sound grounding and the ability to progress to advanced levels under her guidance, though Urja declares “I learn equally from my students.” 

Resolution! reviewer Katie Fish writes of her as “a fluid performer both in her range of facial expressions and poetic hand gestures.” Urja has always felt a deep connection to working with abhinaya. This is where she ploughs her own furrow. “I like to create work which has a journey,” she says. 

Urja Desai Thakore is her own person. She has moved to a stage where she will make work on her own terms, on herself, on her students and perhaps even for some of kathak’s leading soloists. There is also the possibility of Detox seeing the light of day. An audience member remarked following the showing of Detox that Urja was on the verge of a breakthrough. If only the next tranche of public subsidy comes her way.

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Pagrav, Urja has taken a group of senior students to India for inspiration and training. Her initial plan was to start with a two-week training period at Kadamb, followed by visits to Kumiben’s students who have trail-blazed their individual paths; Aditi Mangaldas and Daksha Seth are the two most illustrious. Although it hasn’t exactly worked out that way, the group have made the Dance Yatra and Pulse wishes Urja Desai Thakore and Pagrav Dance Company a very happy tenth anniversary with much more still to come.



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