Last spring, I turned the corner onto San Francisco’s Union Square to see a 15-feet statue of Lord Ganesh serenely seated atop Macy’s. The store windows displayed mannequins in saris and flashing neon signs reading “Bollywood.” It was all part of the department store’s annual flower show, themed Imagine India. A few months later, I went to see the Bollywood film Don at San Francisco’s historic, 1,400-seat movie palace, the Castro Theatre. To my utter surprise, the crowd (almost 70 percent non-Indian) erupted in whistles and howls as Shah Rukh Khan made his first appearance on screen.
As India rises in the global economy, Bollywood and Indian food seem to be leading the way for a wave of American interest in Indian culture. Many of my Indian-American peers are thrilled at this new phenomenon. It brings with it the prospect of liberation from the childhood shame of being the only brown kid in school or having parents who speak with accents and wear strange clothes. The optimists around me see in this new phenomenon doors opening for a golden era for Indians and Indian Americans alike.
I am ambivalent. Despite my reverence for the pantheon of Hindu Gods and my childhood love of Bollywood, I am uneasy about Lord Ganesh sitting atop Macy’s and the American craze over Shah Rukh Khan. To me, increasing popular interest in all things Indian seems perfunctory at best and cultural voyeurism at worse.
Across the nation, many are hungry for a new era where multiculturalism flourishes and enmities along racial and ethnic lines that hardened post-9/11 soften, if not vanish all together. I understand the sentiment. I voted for Barack Obama, the national face of this hunger. I believe in the dream of a multicultural America. But what is multiculturalism? Is it simply multiple cultures co-existing in the same physical locale? Or is it something more? To me, multiculturalism is about forging enduring relationships between cultures. So the question I face is this: If the doors are opening now for India in the West like they never have before, if we have ahead of us real opportunities to forge cross-cultural understanding, am I content to let Bollywood and samosas be my cultural ambassadors?
The answer for me is an unequivocal “No.” But then a cascade of new questions arise.
Who am I? What is my history, my heritage? What is India? What is an adequate representation of all of these things?
Almost eight years ago, I walked into a small studio on Berkeley’s famous Telegraph Ave to observe a newly offered kathak class. I sat down in one corner of the room with a few other visiting guests. The room vibrated with energy. An Indian man in his 50s was sitting on a small rug at the front of the room, singing and playing tabla. He had an irrefutable presence and fierce, penetrating eyes. In front of him was a mass flurry of movement. Nine women were singing with him, spinning in pirouettes, displaying intricate footwork and miming a story of Lord Krishna playing with his love, Radha. Time became irrelevant, and I sat there mesmerized for I am not sure how long.
As I would learn, the man leading the army of women in their dance and reverie of Krishna and Radha was Pandit Chitresh Das, internationally renowned master artist and guru who is said to be among the great pioneers such as Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar who have brought Indian classical art to the West.
I of course enrolled for classes immediately and thus began my education in kathak.
Kathak, as I have come to know it through Chitresh Das, is exhilarating—akin to a roller coaster ride or a sky dive. It is equal parts power and grace; raw energy and precise, controlled movement; drama and story; risk and reward; agony and ecstasy. And finely interwoven amidst it all is the history and philosophy of India.
Kathak comes from the word “katha” meaning story, and the kathakas of ancient India, much like the wandering bards of the West, would travel from temple to temple telling stories of the great Hindu gods and goddesses. Centuries later, story-telling remains at the heart of kathak. Modern day kathakas retell the stories of Ravan’scapture of Sita, Krishna playing with his beloved Radha, or of Draupadi’s disrobing in the Kaurava court. Kathak being a solo art form requires of the kathaka that he or she play each role, becoming Ravan, the powerful demon king, one instant and changing into Sita, the ideal wife, the next. In this depiction of both Ravan and Sita, we arrive at a core concept in Hindu philosophy—ardhanariswara. The word literally translates as half-female-lord. We are each the masculine. We are each the feminine. Male and female are inseparable and reside within each of us. As the kathaka becomes Ravan or Krishna, he or she manifests the masculine within; in the next instance the feminine, as he or she depicts Sita or Radha.
“Kathak is organic math,” my guru will often says to his students. Rapid footwork, swift pirouettes, and dramatic movements are executed in a highly sophisticated rhythmic system common to all North Indian classical art forms. Pandit Das demonstrates with Kathak Yoga, his groundbreaking technique, simultaneously singing a 16-beat pattern, executing a 12-beat pattern with his feat, and playing a 5-beat pattern on the tabla.
At the heart of the North Indian rhythmic system is the concept of taal, a rhythmic cycle of definite beats, a concept that mirrors the most fundamental tenets of Hindu thought. According to Hinduism, the universe is beginning-less(anadi) and end-less (ananta), and it is the inherent nature of the universe to evolve, devolve, and re-evolve eternally. The taal or rhythmic cycle is a microcosm for the cycle of creation, dissolution, and recreation that our universe moves through.
There are many types of taals, each with a distinct number of beats and each invoking a particular feeling or mood. The first beat of any taal is know as sum,literally translated as “together with.” Sum is the precise and brief moment in time where creation and dissolution meet, making it effectively the most important beat in the taal.
If we move out of the realm of philosophy and into the world of history, here, too, we find kathak to be a distinctive chronicler of India’s past. Kathak is the only Indian dance form to bear the stamp and legacy of the Mughals’ rule over India. In a traditional kathak solo, sandwiched between an invocation (often to a Hindu deity) and a gat-bhao or story (often from Hinduism’s most popular myths), is the thaat. Highly stylized and emblematic of the Moghul courts, thaat is characterized by improvised movement punctuated by rapid flourishes and dramatic stances. One may see in a thaat the Muslim greeting, salaam or the Muslim welcome, aamad.
Layer beneath endless layer, as we delve into kathak we find that it is not merely dance. It is history, mythology, philosophy, religion, math. And so, in my personal search for cultural ambassadors to the new generation of Americans, I have arrived clearly at kathak and the Indian classical arts.
I am a diaspora child. I will make my life and my community millions of miles away from my ancestral homeland. And in doing so, I will shape the present and future of multicultural America. What will this America look like? Where will Indians be situated in this America?
No singular “thing” can claim to represent an entire culture, whether it be Bollywood or the Indian classical arts. In examining a culture, one must look at food, entertainment, social structures, language, and art amongst a myriad of things. But as the world eagerly opens up to all that India has to offer, we as a community have a stake and a say in what the world sees and what it doesn’t of India and Indians. We have to ask ourselves what the world is seeing when Ganesh sits perched atop Macy’s over Bollywood themed window displays. We have to ask what is being understood about us and what is being distorted or misrepresented as one aspect of our culture is popularized (Bollywood) and another (literature, the arts) remains under the radar.
Multiculturalism requires genuine relationships. How do we as a community foster such relationships? I hope it is by nurturing and promoting our artistic traditions, for I believe they hold some part of our collective soul. And the deepest of bonds, the strongest of relationships are built, whether between people, communities, or cultures, at the level of the soul.
Rina Mehta is a disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das and member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company. She is also director of the Chhandam School of Kathak, Southern California. For information on classes, performances and programs, visit www.kathak.org