Veteran Kathak dancer Rani Karnaa talks about the dance form and how it can still hold the interest of young dancers
Rani Karnaa, a veteran Kathak dancer and Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, chose Kolkata to live and teach her art to aspiring dancers in her school, Samskritiki Sreyaskar. Karnaa, an astute dancer not just in Kathak but Bharatanatyam and Manipuri too, does not belong to a family of dancers. “No one in my family was a performer. My uncle who used to sing in gurdwaras requested my father to buy me a pair of ankle bells, which I wanted badly,” she recalls. First, she learnt Kathak and went on to learn Bharatnatyam and Manipuri. In an interview here, she talks about her long journey in dance, her mentors and more. Excerpts:
Is classical dance purely devotional?
Devotion is a significant aspect of all classical dance forms. Devotion is an elevating experience. The impact of ‘Rasoutpatti’ or the resurgence of an elevating experience, is unique. It transports the mind of the audience to experience aesthetic bliss. It definitely relaxes and refreshes and transcends the mind.
What is the hallmark of Kathak?
The hallmark of Kathak can be epitomised or summed up as dance with fluid grace with subtle nuances, dignity, elegance and exuberance in both nritta and nritya.
Who would you call were your mentors?
Mohanlal-ji, Hiralal-ji, Pandit Birju Maharaj-ji, Pandit Shambhu Maharaj-ji, Pandit Sunder Prasad-ji, Pandit Narayan Prasad-ji were all my gurus. I learnt Kathak from 1944 with a break during the India-Pakistan Partition phase. Later, I attended regular classes under Pandit Birju Maharaj in Kathak and Lalita Shastri, disciple of Rukmini Arundale, Kalakshetra, in Bharatanatyam. I also learnt Manipuri under Guru Amubi Singh and Narendra Kumar.
How do the existing themes in classical dance forms relate to modern society? Is change possible to attract the new, so-called modern generation?
Themes in Kathak are numerous and varied. The mythological themes are ever green. Various ragas, talas and languages make the Kathak repertoire colourful and enriching. The stories with inner meanings, ‘bhavartha’, which convey a plethora of ideas. The compositions are of varied nature. The tala aspect is abstract and has its own flavour and aesthetic appeal. The Kathaka or the storyteller may use the leaps, spins, extensions and contractions of the body to convey any theme. The movements have their abstract grace and beauty which lends itself to contemporary themes. Kathak’s energetic and lyrical beauty attracts the modern generation as well. The methodology of Kathak is such that it can be made very interesting through a jugalbandi with sitar — Tarang and Shumar or Ginti. Or a Pravah duet based on composition of flute and santoor. Its scope is immense.
How do you see the young and the modern dancers shaping up in Kathak and what future awaits them in today’s world of sky-high pay packages, in almost all other fields?
Young dancers are doing very well and are showing interest, involvement, sincerity and dedication. The guru has to consider the additional responsibilities of studies as well as their extra-curricular activities and future. My recent experience of imparting intensive training in Kathak to the recipients of Spic Macay Gurukul Anubhav scholarship was enriching. Students pursuing philosophy, psychology, architecture, English literature, came from five States, it was indeed an eye-opener. Besides Kathak, they were exposed to other dance forms. Besides pursuing dance, some of them were keen swimmers and athletes.
I am very sure that with their positive attitude, they can be guided to become performers, teachers and inspired to do research oriented work in the field of dance. There is need of quality and not quantity.
What is your dream project in Kathak? Tell us something about it?
An ideal institution with a holistic approach to train and discipline students to be initiated in Kathak, to be groomed and honed to understand the final aspects and nuances of the dance form would be a dream come true. For this, students have to be admitted at an early age. From day one, their health check-up, medical care and general studies till the school finals is to be taken care of. The awareness of body fitness, strength, stamina and rigorous regime of Ashtanga yoga and Pranayam with stretch exercises has to be planned. This should gear up their body and mind towards the proper approach needed for the rigorous schedule laid down for the initial training and the strenuous future of long hours of dancing at a stretch.
This has to be accompanied by a nourishing and balanced diet on one hand and teaching associated subjects such as percussion, dance notations and above all, the study of the theoretical aspect of classical dance in general and Kathak in particular.
To fulfil this ideal plan, the institute or academy needs various experts for guidance and to implement the regimentation and coordination of all these aspects needed to train dancers who have to be made aware of the demand made on their body and mind both for sustaining and understanding the guidelines. The time needed to bring the students to a level of preparation and performance is any where between 10 and 15 years.