Share Your Thoughts

On a cold and dark October morning I boarded an early flight to Chicago en route to a conference I still can hardly believe occurred. It was a long day of travel and with an eager exhaustion I entered the altered light of a theater where a kathak performance was already underway. As I sat down in my seat, the familiar outlines of a whirling figure and the ecstatic sound of jingling bells accompanied by sarangi, sitar, and tablas reminded me that I had once again arrived in the “other world” that has been a part of my life for the past 24 years.

For all of us, members of a small and dedicated group of devoted gurus, teachers, scholars, and students, the International Kathak Festival held at the University of Chicago over the weekend of Oct. 8-10, 2004 was of great historic and cultural significance. For the first time in history the resident gurus who have brought kathak from India to America participated in panel discussions, workshops, and performances with India’s most famous and beloved gurus: Birju Maharaj and Kumudini Lakhia. For the first time in history performers from three different gharanas shared the same stage in America, offering the new generation of students a glimpse of the long tradition of kathak, some of the innovations that have been a part of its transition to the modern stage, and most importantly, the similarities and differences in the styles of kathak dance widely performed today.

As I watched the interactions between artists whom I have seen in their own concerts many times over the past 24 years, knowing that they too sat in the same audience watching each other, acknowledging with the respect inherent in the act of witness, I felt a cycle, long overdue, coming to sum.

Primarily in isolation, these individuals have worked to preserve and nourish the life of an ancient and powerful dance that evolved over the course of millennia in India. Both here and in India they have struggled to find a home and a context for kathak in a modern culture almost entirely different from the one in which this dance was conceived and grew. The path of preservation of ancient cultural forms is always the work of great devotion. The dance, because of its ephemeral nature, adapts to changing cultural circumstances in the work of each succeeding generation.

The isolation of the gharanas was not an accident. Geographic in pre-industrial India, gharanas have survived in modern times as distinct schools precisely because they did not intermingle. And yet it was vitally important to bring everyone together, to share the stage, the styles of technique in workshops, and to sit together and talk about our experience and struggle as well as our hopes and dreams. As performing artists kathak exponents are not in a position to pass up any opportunity to consolidate efforts to preserve our classical dance. While the number of students and teachers proliferates dramatically, opportunities to perform and share what we have learned dwindle. While resources and venues disappear, hundreds of students are training, studying, and learning while holding in their hearts the eternal hope and aspiration of youth to share the beauty and joy of their dance. Patronage, not a topic of this conference, is rare and wonderful but woefully inadequate. In its role as a presenter of this first conference on kathak in America, the Anila Sinha Foundation with the University of Chicago deserves our deep respect.

I appreciated the opportunity to hear the stories of how the teachers came into the field, their training and practice and the different world in which they were trained and grew. History and tradition are important. But I was stunned into a profound awareness of how much has changed since their careers began when, on the second day of the conference, chided to be provocative, Lakhia said in the panel discussion on “Putting it all Together” that although much will be said about the guru-shishya parampara, and though it is the traditional training and tuning of the body in the classical technique that must first be acquired, the artist who wishes to emerge from that training has a loyalty not to the guru, but to himself, his work, and his audience. I expected a collective gasp from the audience at this piece of profound heresy, but instead, she was roundly applauded. Having been her student for the past eight years, I was not surprised by her words but by the favorable reaction of the audience.

Lakhia applauded Deepti Gupta for her presentation of a kathak interpretation of a Celtic ballad accompanied by the hurdy-gurdy. She commended her for breaking all the rules. The artist must make her own choices and present what she envisions, giving credit where due to the guidance and inspiration of the gurus. But it is not enough to simply present what has been handed down by another generation, no matter how sacred or beautiful we may know it is. We must find our own voices and movements and we must dance, here and now, of what we believe and what we want the world to see in us.

Megan Black lives and teaches kathak in San Rafael, Calif.