Asian Music and Dance

New Directions – Kathak in the UK

Think kathak innovators in the UK and one name jumps, turns and leaps out in front of you: Akram Khan. This is the man who has created a string of successful choreographic works which contemporise his classical Indian dance training whilst bringing cultural and social issues to the fore. Khan is indeed a dance celebrity of our time. 

However, is Khan is the only one to be so innovative, so creative with the form? 

Pulse looks at four UK-based dancers who are taking kathak in their own direction. 

I t may be niche, but kathak dance is well established in the UK. So when approaching the mammoth task of acknowledging the many ways in which it is practised, how does one even begin to cover all angles? In a nutshell, it can’t be done. There are too many layers to peel back, too many issues, influences, collaborations, artistic policies that operate and so this project took a while to gain momentum. But here we are with four artists – Amina Khayyam, Aakash Odedra, Sonia Sabri and Balbir Singh – who have an abundance of performance repertoire which gives great scope for comment. This article aims to highlight what’s happening out there, in the dance studios and theatres across the country, and the kathak pathways which are being created.

“Singh entered kathak through his initial training in contemporary dance.”  

The four artists all share a great passion and talent for kathak, but that’s where the similarities end. They’ve all taken very different routes and their artistic discoveries are ones of great sentiment and integrity but how did they get to where they are today? Aakash Odedra began his training with Nilima Devi at the age of 8 but there were early signs of a dancer waiting to get out long before that. “As I grew up everything was dance,” he begins, “…from how to open a door; close a door; pick up a glass. I used to play with coins on the table and shift them and I used to think: if these were dancers where would I place them? Now I look at it and I think of it as choreography…” Rather unlike him, Balbir Singh began his kathak training much later, in his early 20s, following a few workshops which led him to train with his peer, Akram Khan, during their time at Northern School of Contemporary Dance. Yes, that’s right folks; Singh entered kathak through his initial training in contemporary dance. “I then began training with Pratapji, Pratap Pawar, I did my Rangmanch Pravesh in, I think, 2002, at a studio in Bradford,” he tells me. In a similar way, Amina Khayyam started training much later than most, “The norm for learning any dance style is to start as early as possible but in my case it proved otherwise – the older I got, the better my technique developed.” While Sonia Sabri began her kathak journey by complete accident – she’d enrolled in a bharatanatyam class at the mac in Birmingham but, while waiting for the class to start, her father put her into the kathak class with Nahid Siddiqui. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

 “Kumi-bhen said: ‘don’t worry, dance is inside of you’”

Amina Khayyam

Their training, be it from an early or late stage, has certainly stood them in good stead and they are now witnessing the well-deserved fruits of their labour. What’s remarkable, though, is the way that they never forget the people who helped them on their journey. Odedra, for example, modestly states that: “A big part of my credit is down to Nilima Didi.” In fact, he credits a long line of teachers with whom he has worked, whether their input has lasted years, months or even weeks, but it’s the bharatanatyam Guru, Chhaya Kanvateh, whom he pinpoints as the significant role in his training: “Now I think of it, it’s because of her that my kathak changed, because my bharatanatyam changed. It was seven days a week, all hours of the day…,” he recalls and, as a result, it’s that level of intensity which marked his commitment to the form and so the transition from dancer to artist was made. Likewise, Khayyam recalls a workshop with Kumudini Lakhia which came at a difficult time in her life. “I found myself wanting to apologise for my not keeping up on that day,” she tells me, “but before I could finish my sentence Kumi-bhen said: ‘don’t worry, dance is inside of you.’” That vivid memory has remained with Khayyam, acting as a source of strength during the rigours of her dance training. Sabri pays homage to her Guruji who inspired her to pursue her dancing further. Talking to Pulse back in 2010, issue 109, Sabri spoke of Nahid Siddiqui’s ‘passion and drive’ which she found incredibly infectious, adding that: “…she spoke about, and danced, kathak as if there was nothing else in the world.” That level of devotion and focus to any dance form, art form, life form, can surely only strengthen it. And strengthen it they have; these artists are pioneering the form in this country – but inspiration is only one side of it. There has also been opportunity and, of course, talent. “Sushmita Didi had left the UK to settle back to India,” Khayyam remembers, “and she asked each of her senior students to create a five-minute piece. At first, I freaked out at the thought of it but after time I found the courage and I ended up making a twenty-minute piece!” This opportunity came as a distinct moment in her journey: “I found myself working with some of the biggest names from the contemporary and kathak dance world which gave me a tremendous amount of exposure.” Since then, Khayyam has found direction in creating contemporary work using her kathak training while drawing on influences from art, theatre and film. 

”Odedra adds: ‘the intention…has to remain true’”

Odedra, who spent most of last year in the studio working with three big names on the international contemporary dance scene – namely Russell Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan – compares his experience of working with choreographers from different dance worlds. “In kathak there’s a formality and if you don’t learn the formality then you don’t learn the art form,” he begins. “There’s that level of respect, the behaviour and mannerisms in the class but with the choreographers it’s completely different. You have to be completely open and be ready to make a complete fool of yourself because, if you don’t do that then you won’t be able to open up to the next phase in your dance.” While there is a distinction between what the kathak Guru and the contemporary ‘Guru’ require of their muse, in essence, they are both striving for the same thing. Odedra adds: “the intention and the honesty that you have to bring to what you’re doing has to remain true.” In other words the artist’s integrity must always remain intact, regardless. 

Opportunity arose in a very different way for Singh whose specific line of enquiry has been supported by Arts Council England. “It was incredibly frustrating when I began to bring kathak and contemporary together,” he tells me, “…particularly when I wanted to work with contemporary dancers.” Singh speaks of a lack of time and resources to devote to previous projects but, thanks to a nine-month project supported by ACE, he has been able to work more closely with his dancers in order to train and educate them in the form. He asserts that “It’s not about turning them into ‘kathak dancers’ as such,” no, it’s their engagement with the form and how it works. “I wanted them to grasp the intention and purpose behind it, some understanding of the technique and the connection with live music which allowed us to explore, in more detail, how these different voices in different styles come together,” he explains. You could, perhaps, say that Singh’s work is something of diverse dance for the way it ticks boxes – his ethnicity combined with the ‘fusion’ of dance forms – but money makes the world go round and dance artists need to tick boxes in order to get the money to keep working and creating. But more on the tick-box culture later. Anyway, Singh wouldn’t call it fusion. “What I find more appropriate is the word ‘synthesis’,” he asserts, “and the synthesising of several things to make something else.” In other words, bringing together kathak and contemporary with live music. 

“What I find more appropriate is the word ‘synthesis’”

Balbir Singh

Talking of music, Singh explains how his kathak background has shaped his approach to the form. “From day one it’s very much about working with live music. For me the music informs the movement and the movement informs the music – it’s an organic relationship that develops throughout the process.” That organic approach in Singh’s work relates back to Khayyam who speaks of her experience in creating compositions. “Often I go into rehearsal knowing exactly what I want, from the tune to even the lyrics,” she explains. “My musicians embrace this while infusing their expertise and it’s that level of collaboration which brings those initial ideas to life.” 

Abstract vs Narrative

While kathak began as a form of storytelling by the kathakars, who would travel from town to town with stories of the gods and goddesses to educate and entertain, it became equally absorbed with abstract qualities of shape and rhythm in its second phase under Muslim rulers. Or at least, this is the commonly-held belief. However, what can be said confidently is that these two fundamental elements – abstract and narrative; pure dance and expressional or nritta and nritya – continue to provide inspiration to artists who identify more closely with one or the other. The eternal debate of form versus meaning or meaning existing within the form is embraced by our kathak interpreters.

“It’s the power in abhinaya,.. which transcends the cultural barriers“ 

For Khayyam, kathak’s expressional element plays an important part in how the form is received in the UK. “Abhinaya has the power to move anyone,” she muses, “we cannot ignore the power of rasa; it can touch any one of us…” Much to her surprise, she speaks of narrative aiding the performance, not hindering it, even for those who don’t understand the language or movement gestures. It’s the power in abhinaya, that Khayyam mentioned earlier, which transcends the cultural barriers. To that end, audiences become far more receptive to a narrative than the amalgamation of unfamiliar qualities that kathak can bring to the untrained eye; the soft yet angular lines of the body, for example, or the fast tatkar footwork or the ghungaroo bells, for that matter. Although their practice and performance work informs their perspective, we mustn’t forget that these ‘new’ audiences are not usually acquainted with the context in which the narrative operates and that can become problematic, both for the audience and the artist. 

“I’ve always been drawn to the abstract more than the literal”

Balbir Singh

One man who’s going against the grain is Balbir Singh for the way he focuses on the abstract element of the form. “I’ve always been drawn to the abstract more than the literal; I have a natural connection to it. I enjoy rhythm and creating a mood from it in order to retain interest for myself and the audience.” When you put it like that it sounds great – “creating a mood” through the abstract – but does it actually work? And how does it work? I have to admit I was a little sceptical but then I saw the company in rehearsal for Decreasing Infinity (a male duet which received rave reviews at the Edinburgh Festival and which will continue to tour this year), and then my scepticism morphed into something more like admiration. It’s the level of intensity, of integrity, between choreographer to his dancers, dancer to dancer, dancer to musician, musician to choreographer – it’s all inexplicably connected. The eyes, which follow each gesture; dart around the room; burn as they meet the gaze of another, that are the mirrors to the soul and it’s in the eyes which a seemingly non-narrative work becomes so strong, deep, evocative that it couldn’t be more narrative. There is such intent and reason behind each and every minute detail that I am completely entranced. The unwritten narrative plays out before me and I’m left feeling completely connected and moved. Remarkable. Another point to highlight is Singh’s ongoing mission to “retain interest” which, I suppose, means to reach new audiences by making the work more accessible. He openly admits that he has a short attention span so, then, his work takes on the role of stimulating the spectator; to get them to think and ask questions about the form. “It’s about constantly engaging them and taking them on a journey so that they can’t, at any point, relax or turn off,” he continues. 

“…if it’s done really well then there’s no need for explanation“ 

Aakash Odedra

When asked about the complexities of abhinaya, Odedra expresses his belief that a good dancer can transcend the difficulties in cultural translation. “I think if it’s done well people will understand,” he begins, “but sometimes even we, who have trained in kathak, find it hard to understand. But if it’s done really well then there’s no need for explanation or anything.” For someone who’s dubbed as ‘the rising star of South Asian dance’, Odedra has a tremendous amount of understanding and appreciation for the form. He tells me about a compliment someone once gave him: “This person said to me ‘What’s nice is that your nritta has abhinaya; your technique has expression.’ We classify abhinaya and dance as separate things but why can’t dance be abhinaya?” He touches on a core issue: why are the two separate? An issue which needs to be addressed. 

Urban Kathak 

Artists are rare and passionate beings who are impressionable and easily inspired by new experiences that they encounter. Our four kathak artists work in a different creative environment to that in which the form has previously existed and so, as a result, their work becomes informed by that environment: Sabri explains that “…you become exposed to those trends, those aesthetics and of course that feeds into your work – I think you’d actually have to work very hard to block all of those things out.” In a similar way, Singh finds that he is “creatively informed” by many different styles of dance to which he is exposed, whether that’s by working with artists from other disciplines or by seeing different kinds of work in performance. Following on from that, Khayyam openly admits that “If I didn’t respond to the environment I’m in, then I’m not being truthful to my art.” Sabri mirrors that with her musings on kathak, “That’s the beauty of one art form that can look so different because of where it’s placed.” 

 “Urban kathak is about looking at how young people behave” 

Sonia Sabri

And so we reach a crossroads, where all four of our artists emerge on a common ground. They’ve each made their own way to this point by following their own artistic pathways and this common ground is the ‘what happens next’. In order to address the current and future status of kathak, we now need to look at one of the terms which has been assigned to the form, namely ‘urban kathak’. This concept has been initiated by Sabri, with particular reference to her current work, Kathakbox, as a way of reflecting kathak practice in the UK. Sabri highlights that labelling, tick-box culture cannot be escaped, whether we like it or not it. “Right from census forms, Arts Council application forms, to marketing to press – they all want to define you because it’s easier to understand,” she adds. That kathak is practised in the UK will naturally affect how it is received and when people don’t understand what it is or where it comes from, it might be more helpful to make them understand by making it relevant, or at least more accessible, to them. Sabri believes that kathak’s movement language can be modernised and still be kathak. “It derives from rural India where women still go to a well to fill their pots of water but now you can have that same woman, who’s going to the well, walking down Oxford Street – shopping, on her mobile phone. Urban kathak is about looking at how young people behave, what their emotional canvas is like, what their view of the world is, right down to how they move in an urban setting.” 

While Singh proclaims ‘urban kathak’ is news to him, he does, however, acknowledge that we need artists to put forward their own interpretations of the form in order for it to survive. “It’s interesting to see how people take things and make something different which is great as a part of individual expression because at the core it still comes down to the traditional schooling and training.” 

“…it will still remain what it is, just in a different shell”

Khayyam agrees that if kathak is at the heart of this term then it is a positive step to carrying the form forward: “we should explore the possibilities while remaining truthful to our tradition of kathak. We have a responsibility to do so,” she tells me. Interesting, isn’t it, that these labels are being thrown around in order to counteract the existing labels; it’s like a never-ending cycle or a tala, if you will. Khayyam is of the firm belief that exploring the form in a different way will not diverge from “the spirit of kathak”, and, while the form is evolving, it will still remain what it is, just in a different shell. She also observes how there are many kathak dancers living and practising in the UK, so there is bound to be a new style emerging in response to the new experiences and environment. 

On a similar note, Odedra observes that: “when it was performed in the temples it had a different body language, lines and intention; it was about the gods and goddesses, then it went to the courts and it changed; with all the poetry the movements became more lyrical. Now we’re in a different place, this urban environment and the way we practise it reflects that urban environment.” That he, and the other artists, speak so openly and passionately about where we are today with kathak in the UK reveals how vital their voices and experiences are. It’s all part of shaping and innovating the form. I’ll leave you with a closing thought from our rising star: “We’re no longer at the point where we need to talk about technique, no longer at the point where we need to talk about our patrons. Now we’re on a stage which is a contemporary stage and whether you choose to do a traditional item or a contemporary item, your presentation has to change – you have to be able to cater it to those audiences, it has to live on, your art form has to evolve.” 



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