On 17 May Dr. Margaret Walker, University of Ontario, delivered a lecture entitled ‘Subtle Glances and Graceful Stances: The Gentrification of Women’s Dance in North India’, followed by a performance of two thumris by kathak dancer Natalia Hildner. This double staging, part of the 2012 University of Roehampton Dance Festival, explored the history of kathak and its colonial precursor nautch.
Before kathak there was nautch. A synthesis of singing, acting and dancing, nautch somewhat exceeded the West’s rigid hierarchy of fine art. ‘So completely Oriental’, as the nineteenth-century travel writer Anne Katherine Elwood put it. For other colonial participants mentioned in Dr. Walker’s lecture, nautch was by turns ‘dull’ and full of ‘sameness’ (Emma Roberts) or a pretext for belligerent durbar-esque diplomacy (Cpt. James Skinner of ‘Skinner’s Horse’). (All texts freely available, it should be said, on Google Books.)
To make this aesthetic jarring of minds between nabobs, East India Company wives and nautchinis all the more complicated, nautch had another life in the superlatively refined court of the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah. The sensuous, semi-classical musical genre thumri was a particular favourite of Wajid Ali Shah, both before and after his exile from Lucknow to Calcutta in 1856. Under his patronage, nautch took on that exquisite jewel-like, Mughal miniature-esque precision of line which Natalia Hildner’s kathak performance displayed to full effect.
The pale plastered, stuccoed, gilt-framed and ornately fenestrated eighteenth-century Terrace Room of Grove House, Roehampton looks a lot like the opulent colonial interiors in watercolours and lithographs by Balthazar Solvyns, Emily Eden, Mrs. Belnos and Sir Charles D’Oyly which depict nautch and which Dr. Walker displayed in her lecture. In fact, it was uncanny to hear the bells of Natalia Hildner’s ankles in the corridor before she arrived on stage after the lecture. It sounded like history arriving.
Nautch is not kathak. But what the images, texts and dancing of this dual lecture-performance demonstrated were that kathak has complex roots. Dr. Walker explained that kathak as we know it originated in the emerging nation space of early twentieth-century West Bengal, that it developed actually out of ‘anti-nautch’ social reform, out of attempts to purge nautch of its ever-present association with the courtesan culture of tawa’ifs, and out of institutions – like the American Gramophone Company or Rabindranath Tagore’s school Santiniketan – which divested it of its links to hereditary systems of caste.
Nevertheless, as Hildner opened her performance with a poignant choreographic acknowledgement of space, it became clear that there are continuities between nautch and kathak: the gat or travelling step, for example, or the beginning of a pirouette, starting with a ‘dip’ called palta.
The first thumri danced was Kahe Ched Ched Mohe with music and choreography by Hildner’s guru Pandit Birju Maharaj-ji, a seventh-generation descendant from the Lucknow Gharana. This thumri narrated a dalliance of Lord Krishna and the gopi Radha with carefully stylised mime. As Dr. Walker had explained, the thumri form treats raga with particular flexibility and this allowed Hildner to develop a subtle story of expressive movement in line with the teasing push and pull of a seduction.
In the guise of Radha, drawing her ghunghat (or veil) coyly across her kohl-marked eyes, executing a series of powerful rhythmic bols or a flurry of spins, Hildner’s performance demonstrated the powerful historical potential of kathak. It was potent: full of seduction, self-possession, pure rhythmic virtuosity and the power to create meaning from gesture and expression.
The second thumri to be performed was different. Jage Ho Kahin Re is a contemporary reworking of the thumri genre developed under Wajid Ali Shah, Nawab of Awadh in the mid-nineteenth century and was choreographed by Smt. Archana Joglekar, an abhinaya exponent from Mumbai and student of Smt. Asha Joglekar, to music by Pandit Birju Maharaj.
Far from depicting voluptuous posturings and courtesan airs for an exclusively male gaze, this revisionary thumri voiced the feminist story of an expectant lover betrayed by her deceitful partner. Jage Ho Kahin Re showed that the opposite of courtesan culture is not banner-waving, loud, radical Westernised feminist reaction. It can be more subtle: the ability to own stories physically through dance.
Calmly and out of breath, Hildner left fragments of different times on the stage behind her. Across the span from the court of Wajid Ali Shah to the international dance world of the present, the complex forms on which kathak draws were shown by both Hildner and Dr. Walker to be alive with potential. In fact, they suggested that one possible future for kathak is a new investigation of its past.