"Something … Some force… Someone that makes me dance." For Manjari Chaturvedi, the creation of Sufi Kathak as a medium of expression was not part of a conscious act. It came on its own as a quest, a search for the divine. “I see my dance as a prayer. When we use our tongue to say the Almighty's name it is called a prayer with words, but when we use the entire body to speak about the Almighty, for me, that becomes a prayer too,” says Manjari.
It took twelve years of intense work for this ace dancer to give classical expression to the spontaneous and mystical dancing traditions of Sufi artists. She used the narrative beauty of Indian classical dance to convey the metaphysical meanings of Sufi poetry. Journeys to the lands of Sufi saints and working with local artists gave her an insight into their rich heritage. "I have travelled extensively in countries like Krygyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and worked with artists from Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Tunisia. In Iran, I met with several prominent artists like Reza Abaee, Ali Rahimi and Pedram Derakhshani. Recently, I associated with Dhaffer Yousef, a celebrated Sufi musician from Tunisia." She realised that the Sufi dance forms in these countries were not the result of an extensive research and that they did not follow a classical format. Hence she had to recreate many movements by hearing the descriptions at the Sufi shrines and reading about them.
Like the whirling dervishes of Turkey, a Sufi Kathak dancer overcomes the limits of the body by becoming a vehicle of the divine. "The focal point of a Sufi Kathak dancer is the abstract presence of the Almighty," explains Manjari. "It is a dance form that spans from the earthly romance of Hindi folk to the Sufi imagery of love, from a form to formlessness, making it the dance of the soul."
Training in Kathak
Manjari says it is erroneous to consider Sufi Kathak as a form of Kathak. According to her, Sufi traditions have never been a dominant part of the history of Kathak. Besides Kathak evolved as stories of Lord Krishna and later became a medium of entertainment in the form of Darbari Kathak. "People think that I merely combined Kathak and Sufism. It is not true. I have created a dance-form based on classical Indian dance tenets and doctrines that follows the philosophy of Sufi traditions and thought," she points out. She also reminds that the grammar of Sufi Kathak is similar to that of classical Indian dance forms. “Because I was trained in Kathak, the grammar came to me easily”. Manjari belongs to the Lucknow gharana and was trained in classical Kathak by Guru Pandit Arjun Mishra.
As it occurs with every new initiative, obstacles stood before Manjari when she launched her new art form in 1998. Critics were sceptical and dance gurus were not receptive to her ideas. They questioned each and every aspect of Sufi Kathak from a traditional point of view. "Even my guru, who trained me in classical Kathak, did not believe in Sufi Kathak initially," she remembers. "Dancers questioned things like me wearing complete black on stage, saying that it was inauspicious for classical dance and has not been done before! But the colour represents the negation of love for the body and takes the viewer beyond bodily limits."
"They also questioned the genre of music like Qawwali and Persian music, again not understanding the relevance of the age-old Sufi music traditions which obviously will be an essential part of Sufi Kathak."
But gradually she gained support from artists such as Pandit Jasraj, Shafqat Ali Khan from Pakistan and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. In 2008, a decade of Sufi Kathak was celebrated, and the art form is now widening its reach with every new concert.
Sufi whirling has inspired Manjari tremendously. It represents the 'cosmic dance' visualised by the great religions of the world including Hinduism. "I have been particularly influenced by the Chistiya Silsila and the Mevlevi traditions in Sufism. Mevlana Rumi started the whirling dance to represent this metaphor through the body," she explains.
In the backdrop of the recent Ayodhya verdict she staged a concert, 'Divine love of Krishna as imagined & written by Muslim poets', in Delhi, on November 1. It was an initiative by her Sufi Kathak Foundation aimed at strengthening the religious unity. "As an artist, it is my responsibility to remind the society about the pluralism and composite culture of our nation. I want people to understand the idea of humanity beyond mandir and masjid," says the danseuse.
One has to meditate on the deeper meanings of Sufi poetry to penetrate into the core of its lyrics. Here lies the challenge of a Sufi Kathak dancer. And when one succeeds in it, the mudras, abhinaya, the beats and the rhythm merges into the ocean of devotion and moments of complete surrender.