Deodatt Persaud on his tryst with Kathak

A disciple owes everything to the guru. If not for the guru, how would talent be moulded? Well, in some cases — like that of the Guyanese born Deodatt Persaud, a disciple of Pandit Rajendra Gangani — there are others we need to thank too. After all, where would Deodatt have been if his sister had not decided to “pull along” her brother to the Indian Cultural Centre in Guyana, telling him to try out the tabla while she learnt Kathak? He would probably have been sitting behind a big desk as a chartered accountant. But that was not to be. Eventually, Deodatt was “pulled” across the world to India, but this time it was his love for Kathak that propelled him.

This Sunday, he performs in New Delhi under the aegis of the Muniparampara Kathak Academy, in the annual programme “Rivaayat” spearheaded by Swati Sinha, another disciple of Pandit Gangani. It so happened, recalls Deodatt, that the Kathak teacher at the Cultural Centre needed male dancers for her dance drama, and he ended up being recruited. And did that whet his appetite for Kathak? No, he wasn’t pleased at all. “I thought, what will the boys in the tabla class think?”

But when the teaching staff at the centre rotated, fate brought along a male Kathak teacher, a disciple of Gangani, and Deodatt was floored by his charismatic technique. After learning under him for some time, he came to India on a scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations to train at New Delhi’s Kathak Kendra under Rajendra Gangani himself.

This was in 2005. Deodatt was over 20, preparing for his CA examination from London. “For me it was a very big decision,” he remarks. On the brink of a lucrative career, he had to tell his parents he wanted to give it up and move to India – the land of his ancestors but one his family had never visited – to pursue Kathak. His parents, however, supported this change of heart, and he has never had occasion to regret the choice, says the young dancer, now settled in Germany.

While it was a “dream” for the family to visit India some day, Deodatt says, “I was the first one in two or three generations that got a chance to come back. It was very exciting for me.”

Was India what he expected it to be? “In my mind I knew what India would have been like, but I got a shock anyway,” he admits. Perhaps only to be expected for one “coming from a country of 700,000 people, and suddenly landing at Delhi airport and seeing thousands of people at one go.” India, however, is “a place that grows on you,” he smiles.

At the Kathak Kendra, Deodatt completed his three-year diploma course, and, he mentions, though he was taught the same syllabus, alongside the Indian students, earned what was called a “Foreigners’ Diploma”. He then wanted to continue with the two-year post diploma course. “But Kathak Kendra had a rule that foreign students can’t do the post diploma.”

Unwilling to accept this discrimination, he argued and dug his heels in, struggling to remain in Delhi with the scholarship over and South America too far to contemplate a trip home in the interim. Through those months, his “heart was just pounding for Kathak all the time,” says Deodatt. His patience was rewarded when Kathak Kendra amended the rules, he was allowed to take up the post-diploma course and his scholarship resumed.

Currently based in Goettingen, Germany, Deodatt teaches and performs and has started an annual “Kathak Utsav” in the city, where his guru and Swati both join him. The three of them perform, taking Kathak to venues around Germany, Poland and Switzerland.

Not just as a classical dancer but also coming from a community that left its motherland a century and a half ago, Deodatt is conscious of the preciousness of tradition. “We live so far away, so many generations have passed, but we preserve Indian culture,” he observes.

In his art too, “deep down”, he prefers to perform traditional material, steering clear of contemporary experiments if he can, but he is also game to move with the times when required. As for using his medium to tell his own unique story and that of his people, Deodatt muses, “I guess I will, one day.”

(“Rivaayat” takes place on October 6 at the CSOI Auditorium, Vinay Marg, Chanakyapuri, 6.30 p.m.)