Dancer Natalia Hildner is of mixed heritage: Peruvian mother and American father of German descent. Introduced to ‘world’ dance aged four, Natalia was to pick out kathak as her dance style of choice. Twenty-five years’ worth of training later, Natalia is living her dream. Pranav Yajnik went along to watch Natalia perform at a mehfil in Leicester put on by fellow dancer Aakash Odedra.
A winter’s day, barely lit or warmed by the cold watery sunlight, and dusk was already beginning to fall. It wasn’t yet four in the afternoon. Together with a decidedly down-at-heel commercial property in Leicester, the situation didn’t promise magic. But within the building, the scene was being set for a metamorphosis. Desi Masti’s dance studio had been transformed into a scene from some fantastical Orientalist past: billowy drapes, cushions, a petal-strewn floor, peacock feathers, incense. Into this walked Natalia Hildner, as though the door she had just opened led not from her dressing room but from a Mughal miniature painting.
She presented a Krishna Vandana: a technical piece, the dadra thāde rahiyo. She took requests from the audience; she performed extempore abhinaya to āj jāne kī zidd nā karo. In these days of amped-up kathak with spectacles designed for audiences of 1,000, a presentation to an audience of just 5 per cent of that number was refreshing in its directness. There was nowhere to hide (not that she would have needed to) but this potential vulnerability only served to draw in the audience who were visibly left wanting more by the end.
This was the second of her explorations in the United Kingdom of the mehfil environment, the first of which had been held at Sadler’s Wells. When pressed about whether she prefers a proscenium stage, she is reluctant to commit: “I can’t make a complete answer for the mehfil, because for me it’s still a young idea. It’s nice to be able to interact with the audience: speaking to them directly doesn’t feel out of place, whereas it can sometimes feel awkward on stage, especially with audiences unaccustomed to it. But I love feeling the presence of the audience when I’m dancing rather than just the black abyss one often gets when one is performing on stage. Having said that, the ‘black abyss’ gives one plenty of room to transform oneself. In a mehfil, it’s impossible not to be aware of the audience’s reaction to what one’s doing.”
This shift to the stage is only a relatively recent innovation; in days gone by, the predominant performance spaces were the mehfil and the royal courts. But once kathak had become an officially-sanctioned ‘classical’ art form, it had to be made suitable for stage performance. “Stage performance is not ideal for kathak specialists. An average audience doesn’t have the patience to watch forty minutes of slow tempo on stage. The subtlety of expression is often lost. Conversely, in the mehfil, although occasionally the performer would show a gat or a short footwork, that vigorous paran or paramelu would be excluded. So you have to have both formats. And the audience is generally very welcoming of experiments: audience members said they felt the Sadler’s Wells mehfil had a very warm atmosphere.”
On to trickier matters. It has been a long journey for Hildner since I first met her in the summer of 2006. Since then, she has spent six years as the student of Birju Maharajji, one of the most significant living influences in kathak, prior to which she had trained in the US under Mekhala Natavar, Purnima Shah and Sandhya Desai. I ask her how she responds to accusations that Maharajji has homogenised the kathak style (whether intentionally or not). “But this is true of all classical schools; it’s a mentality promoted in all of classicism. How perfectly can you catch the genius of your teacher, be it Mozart or Maharajji? You have to try to understand that genius and interpret it as best you can. If you look at Maharajji’s most senior students, like Rani Khanam, Durga Arya and Saswati Sen, their individual personality permeates the style. You can immediately see that, though their training is the same, they are totally different dancers. They not only realise the beauty of the style but also why and how these things have become beautiful in combination with other things in this style, their personalities and their bodies. As Maharajji sometimes says of his students: ‘Some understand the movement. Some understand the rhythm. But a very few understand the philosophy behind my style of dance.’”
We move on to another tricky subject. The greatest artists in kathak devoted themselves full-time to the art; they are now old, pace their continuing vigour. What hope is there for the future, for the fractured loyalties and competing priorities that plague the days of modern dancers? “As long as we keep asking ourselves that question, then we’ll be fine. Everyone I know who dances does so because they want to discover and eventually represent what the art form means to them. There’s always an infinite amount of possibilities.”
But she does admit to anxiety when kathak gets co-opted for other purposes. “I remember someone who stood up at one of the festivals solely to say: ‘I just want to announce that kathak has nothing to do with the Islamic influence in India.’ Politicisation does not help at all. As dancers ourselves, we’re only trying to play inside a structure which has already been made, of all its elements, Hindu, Muslim, folk, secular. It’s perfect as it is, and it is accommodating. Why struggle unnecessarily trying to redefine it and end up with something that lacks what it had before?”
Kathak perennially suffers from a perception that it is in decline; that it will die out without special treatment. From one point of view, this is a positive thing, because people worry for its future but it foments a sense of crisis that strangles creativity. Hildner is optimistic.
“We have to keep working. Exposure creates interest. I mean, kathak artists break their backs; they perform for free. They shouldn’t and it’s easy for organisations to take advantage of them but they do just because they want to increase exposure to kathak. But my experience is that, once they know about it, people are eager to learn. So I am hopeful but I am putting up a warning sign and saying we can’t sit around like Wajid Ali Shah and melt into the luxury of having such a beautiful dance form. All of us have to work and always understand why we’re doing it. That’s the message I try to give to my students and in my performances: this is not and should not be a religion, we’re not here to preach, to say this is right and wrong. It’s a medium. There are great ideas within the form and we have to decide how we deal with those ideas on our own terms. And when that comes out when we dance, that’s when we communicate with people.
“Let’s fight against kathak becoming a niche art; let’s not be stuck in our worlds; let’s keep working at learning and creating.” Otherwise that can be the beginning of an end.