Asian Music and Dance

Kathak Performance

The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s summer school gave us a rare opportunity to watch an experienced and seasoned performer share the stage with an upcoming artist. 

The evening started with the young dancer Abhinav Mishra. Born into a family of dancers and musicians, Abhinav, as the disciple of his father Abhay Shankar Mishra (the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s former kathak teacher), has had the advantage of growing up in an environment of classical dance and music. In his short but detailed performance the compositions were carefully chosen to show the diversity of kathak styles and gharanas: Benares, Lucknow and Jaipur. Opening with a recorded item on Lord Shiva, he then performed with live music, showcasing in particular the technical aspect of kathak. Although a bit nervous at first and sometimes a bit hurried in his movement vocabulary, Abhinav was still able to capture the joy and energy in the technique of kathak. 

In the second half, Rani Khanam transported us from West Kensington to the playful streets of Vrindavan and to the majestic Mughal courts, and to within hearing of the temple bells of the river Yamuna and the qawwalis of Ajmer Sharif. Rani uses a personal style of kathak that emphasises dynamic use of space, fluid torso and graceful yet powerful movement vocabulary. Her first piece, Yamuna, which praised the power and the journey of this sacred river, portrayed her style at its best. The second piece, Darbari Salaami, gave us a glimpse into the bygone age of the Mughal courts. Here she showed absolute control of her body and her ability to hold the attention of the audience with very few gestures and movements.

Her mastery over her expressions and the use of subtle and nuanced choreography was highlighted in the ghazal (lyric poem, in Urdu) and thumri (devotional love song, in the Brij dialect). Dynamism was here a very different concept. She needed only a sway, a gaze into eternity or a flirtatious look to convey all that even the lyrics of these poems themselves could not. No translations were required here. 

She then changed the pace and styling with a Sufi piece on Hazrat Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti. In the informality and live effect in the musical setting and her deep and soul-stirring devotional bhaav (expression), the look and feel of a pure Sufi tradition was seamlessly combined with the classicism of kathak. 

She also presented technical dance accompanied by live music presenting various compositions in fast tempo. Beautiful twists, melodious footwork, pitch-perfect recitation, precise angles, fluid movements and a freedom in her sam (final pose) characterised this section. A footwork section stood out which she embellished with imagery of raindrops where one could actually feel as if the stage was being showered with tiny drops of rain. Her gatnikas (stylised gait) in which she showcased the regal gait of an elephant (gaja-gamini) and swan (hansa-gamini) were a master-class in use of the spine and breathing control. Rare compositions like naav ki gat (boat) were a treat for the eyes. Some of the gats (gaits, walks) were based on the book Bani written by the last Nawab of Lucknow, Wajid Ali Shah, where she gave us a visual insight into the pages of this book.

The performance was a journey that I did not want to end. A perfect amalgamation of Hindu and Muslim traditions, Rani Khanam keeps alive the true essence of kathak. Full of old-world charm and grace, she had a soul in her dance that is rarely seen in present times. 

The dancers were accompanied by Gurdain Singh Rayatt on tabla, Abhay Shankar Mishra on pakhawaj and Pandit Vishwaprakash on harmonium. 



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