Rani Khanam is the first Indian Muslim woman to set Islamic verses to Kathak performances. The renowned dancer believes that every performer must yearn for a journey towards the soul

Namidaanamkeakhirchun dame deedar mi raqsam Magarnaazambaizauqepesheyaar mi raqsam

Usman Harooni

This Persian composition translates to – “I don’t know why a glimpse of you makes me dance, but I take pride in the fact that it is my love for you that makes me dance.”

The two lines above pretty much summarise the life and passion of Rani Khanam. She is the first Indian Muslim woman to adapt Islamic verses and Sufi Compositions to her Kathak performances. Several compositions of great Sufi saints like Aamir Khusrao have found a new meaning and representation in the astute and sensitive depictions of Rani Khanam. Trained in the Lucknow Gharana of Kathak for over 15 years, under Pandit Birju Maharaj and Reba Vidyarthi, she has carved a niche for herself as one of the most energetic, and expressive Kathak dancers. Rani Khanam was in Bangalore for 10 days to conduct a workshop on Kathak for the students of the Stem and Natya Kala Academy. After a splendid two hour performance which included Rani Khanam’s lecture demonstration, as she sat down for a tete-a-tete, there was no sign of fatigue. Ask her about what motivated her to perform Kathak for the Sufi compositions and she says: “There has always been a tradition of invoking the blessings of God before beginning any performance such as doing the Ganesh Vandana. Sufi compositions have the same underlying purpose of invoking the Almighty’s grace. Hence I thought of using them for invocation in my performances.” Her earliest attempt was to perform for a verse that has 99 names of Allah in it. The encouragement her performances received at the shrine at Bareilly Sharief – Dargah-e-AlaHazrat, ensured that she would continue in her endeavour.

Having learnt the Sufi compositions extensively and also through the tutelage of her uncle, Rani Khanam was able to bring her creativity into foray in her performances. It wasn’t sans challenges though – “It is very important to understand the essence and the purpose of the compositions before they can be picked for a performance,” she says. “It had to be borne in mind that the name of the Almighty, his messenger or the names of his Saints cannot be shown directly in the performance. Hence I had to develop an abstract form of depiction that could convey it to the audience effectively.” Her performances depict the mellifluous combination of Sufi tradition with Kathak. As she whirls to the composition “Mohe apne hi rang mein rangle Rangeele”, the trance that her soul goes through infects the audience, driving them to a spellbound silence.

Her performances are renowned for the aspects of “bhaav” or expression and Kathaa Vaachan – narrative styles. “They are parts of the performance where the technicalities of the dance are reduced to a minimum or are totally absent. Instead, the entire focus is on abhinaya or expressions.” She is poetry in motion as she emotes the feelings of a girl woken up by the sound of the wind, only to discover the silent drops of rain stealthily tip-toeing outside her window, and she playfully catches them on her palm! Did it come naturally to her? “I guess so! I believe that the desire and urge to dance was always innate in me.”

Rani Khanam began to learn dance at the age of four. Graduating with top honours from the Kathak India School in Delhi, she went on to become a teacher at the age of 20.

She had already given her international performance at the age of 15. There was no looking back. “I had to wear a sari, so that people would believe that I was indeed a mature girl and was teaching dance” she laughs. The vast repertoire of knowledge that she represents is not to be lost for the future generations.

Through AAMAD – her dance school in Delhi, she continues to train many young dancers, while at the same time utilising the platform of art, to showcase the shortcomings in the society, especially the plight of Muslim women in India.

Her soul mate through this journey is Syed Salauddin Pasha, himself a noted Bharatnatyam exponent and founder of Ability Unlimited Foundation.

Together they have heralded a new era of innovation and creativity into two of the noted traditional dance forms of India. Her firm belief has been that “Tradition is dynamic. It is a pravaah. Any parampara that becomes rigid or static cannot survive. And what is considered an innovation today will be regarded as tradition tomorrow.” But like a true Guru, she also adds that “it is important for creative innovations to happen, the performer should have a thorough understanding of the art form she is dealing with. There must be an insatiable hunger for knowledge and understanding of the essence of their art, and its purpose. There should be total absorption of these factors. For example, even in music, if the singer cannot relate to the composition that he/she is singing, understand the nuances of music and the style that they are singing in, without committed training and practice, there cannot be true innovation that they can bring about.”

Sufi culture and art has hogged the mainstream limelight since a few years now. But Rani Khanam’s passion for Sufi tradition isn’t a new found fad. Does she see an impact of this diaspora of a spiritual tradition into commercial and mainstream culture? “I feel that the spirit of Sufism is lost. Sufism is about faith; it gave importance to an inward journey, a journey to your soul, where you realise your union with the Almighty.

Whether it was music, or dance, they were seen as a form of communicating to God, an expression for the innate desire of seeking oneness with him.

This is gravely absent these days. There are only a few who are making a genuine attempt to understand the real significance of Sufi tradition.

Unless they can understand the spirituality behind it, and the meaning of the communion and the longing or their Nizbat towards the Supreme, mere singing of Sufi Songs or adapting them will not suffice. Unless the soul is in tune with the divine rhythm, and the performer yearns for it, any creative performance shall remain tepid.”

As the conversation was drawing to a close, there was one lingering question in my mind, and as if sensing that she remarked, “Now there is a sense of tiredness. I want to retire from active teaching. My heart yearns for dance, and I want to get back to that space, where I can focus entirely on dance.”