The effect of Lord Krishna’s lore on Kathak and Natwari Nritya was explained by lectures and performances during the 54th Vaarshikotsav of Kala Vihar.

Throwing some light on the relationship between Natwari and Kathak, the seminar at India Habitat Centre’s basement, organised by dancer/teacher Manjusree Chatterjee for the 54th Vaarshikotsav of her institution Kala Vihar had Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan chairing the session. After a tame beginning, what followed was a very informative and lively evening with Chetna Jyotish Beohar’s talk setting the pace. Kathak scholar and till recently Director of the Delhi Kathak Kendra, Chetna, trained in the Raigarh gharana of Kathak under Kalyan Das Mahanth and Guru Ramlal Bareth, delved into old references, which carefully researched, provide clues to why the appellation of Natwari was given to a dance form.

Dances were often known by the music that formed the base, like dances done to Dhrupad (‘nrityasahakari Dhrupad’ which was different from what formed the vocabulary for pure singing) during Mansingh Tomar’s time, just as the Thumri later on provided the main musical plank for the dance. Our art forms regarded as paths towards attaining self-realisation, like Haveli Sangeet, were part of temple activity. Kathak references are found scattered throughout history. Songs on Rama, suiting homage to a ‘Maryada Purush’, predictably, received less effusive translation into dance idiom than songs on mischief-loving, romancing hero and darling of all, Krishna. From the period of Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, and the Srimad Bhagavatam, Krishna bhakti led to innumerable compositions, and kavits on Krishna abound in Kathak. With the Ashtachhap poets and Ras Lila, the Krishna emphasis was ever strong. Thus, the dance being named after Krishna the Natwar was not surprising. Many of the songs with the Krishna reference mention parts of dance technique and can legitimately be looked upon as lakshana-geet, like Bindadin’s “Ni-ra-tata-dhang”, where along with “Krishna ki chabi dekh harsha” is mention of Kathak technique “Agrapheri kavach palat, gat tihaiyan aur toda, tat tat thai thai, tatta dig, dig, dig, dig, charan dharat uchhang”.

Krishna Mohan mentioned that his father Shambhu Maharaj mentioned the light-foot contact being raised from the floor, as part of Natwari Nritya. The dance Krishna performed on Kaliya’s hood was called Natwari Nritya. Manjari Sinha who spoke later, traced the history from Ishwari Prasad and referred to Thakur Prasad son of Baba Orakashji who came to Lucknow from Allahabad and was in the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah calling the dance he taught as Kathak-Natwari Nritya. In fact, male dancers even turned out dressed in the Krishna costume, as Gopi Krishna and the young Vishal Krishna from Benares did very recently in a Kathak Kendra Mahotsava.

Manjari Sinha mentioned the film “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje”, with Gopi Krishna’s Lamchand paran and the kavits on Krishna, of which several examples were read out by Chetna also. As Kavits spontaneously poured out with dancers like Nandini Singh from the audience also participating, the evening had evolved from starting remarks like Ishwari Prasad having a dream of Krishna that the dance be named Natwari Nritya. Shanta Serbjeet Singh, art commentator and now Vice Chairperson, , Sangeet Natak Akademi, went into abstraction in Kathak, where theme apart, the form too is involved in a search for the final truth.

The performances at Stein Auditorium the next evening had Pandit Nayan Ghosh’s tabla recital with son and disciple Ishaan Ghosh providing a brilliant curtain raiser, with a display in Teen tala of vintage percussion legacies of the Farukabad, Delhi, Ajrada and Lucknow styles. Twelve-year-old Ishaan within the first twenty minutes revealed that he is an exceptional talent with nimble fingers who is bound to follow in the footsteps of the father. That being so, the father getting carried away and going far beyond his allotted time, thereby reducing the time of the artists to follow, could have been avoided. There were two more performances scheduled for the evening and by the time Malavika Sarukkai took the floor, a large part of the audience had left.

Students of Manjusree Chatterjee gave a straightforward rendition of Kathak Natwari as taught by her Guru Shambhu Maharaj. The ‘dora’, ‘kalai’, paltas and tukras exactly as learnt from her guru were rendered without any flourish — which is typical Manjusree. She is one dancer who over countless years has not tinkered with the old world look of the dance she inherited from the guru.

Krishna rasa

The real feel of Krishnahood in dance came from Bharatanatyam exponent Malavika Sarrukkai’s short recital, which was more than anything else an experience — aesthetic and soulful. After “Sthiti Gati” where nritta was visualised around two polarities of stillness and movement — complementing and validating each other — each drawing its identity from its opposite, with the choreography built round the music of C.V. Chandrasekhar in raga Madhuvanti, Malavika went on to “Bara Masa” where Radha’s viraha and final union are all visualised within the seasonal canvas of the monsoon. As a forlorn Radha, waiting in separation, goes from expectation to disappointment and on to wilting loneliness, through the curtain of rain, she suddenly sees Krishna, radiant, and the final union is shown in abstract imagery. The dancer’s gut wrenching abhinaya had its ideal accompaniment in the stirring vocal support of Nandini Anand, the Desh and Bageshri lifting the rasika to another world. And how sensitively the instrumentation of the violin by Srilakshmi Venkatramani and the mridangam by A. Balaji was conceived! When Radha sees Krishna, the wordless joy was eloquently expressed through the instruments alone.

Equally moving and suiting the occasion was Raas built on verses from Srimad Bhagavatam. Here again the singing and the exceptional percussion touches to show multiple Krishnas partnering the many gopis during the dance on the moonlit autumn night of Sharad Poornima, with the circular geometry of the dance brought out by the dancer, had all the uplifting joy associated with this experience of the gopis; and finally, the silence in the frozen stillness of Krishna, shown through myriad manifestations — as Govardhanagiridhari and also as Venkateshwara, with the concluding prayer to the deity. Truly an ennobling experience for all who shared this wonderful evening, and a performance on a totally different plane!