Kathak, unlike other Indian classical dance forms, is not as much rooted in the religious tradition. Encapsulating a synthesis of Hindu and Muslim influences, it is a combination of both the devotional and the ‘sringar’. If it was Ras-Leela and compositions of Mirabai and Surdas that provided the subject of the performance initially, the arrival of Muslim rulers saw the incorporation of ‘nritya’ and ‘bhava’ and a mastery of rhythmic movement in a manner such that it drew in audiences. Under the colonial rulers Kathak earned ill repute as a courtesan’s dance and it took decades for the dance form to come out of this slotting. Placed against this background, Kathak practitioners faced the uphill task of reclaiming the purity of the form and to take the aesthetic appeal to a higher realm. New Delhi-based Kathak dancer, Monisa Nayak would call herself a traditionalist, a purist who deems it important to retain the integrity and identity of Kathak. ‘Spectrum’ (relating colours to sentiment), ‘Raga–chitra’ (depicting the moods of various ragas), and ‘Nartan’ (depicting the historical development of Kathak), are among the performance pieces she has choreographed. The artiste speaks on her grooming as a dancer. Excerpts…
I started learning Kathak at the age of seven. Although a Bengali, my father’s job took me to different parts of the country, and finally, I became a student of Pandit Rajendra Gangani of the Jaipur gharana, at the Kathak Kendra in New Delhi. I completed my post-graduation from this reputed national institute and taught at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. In 2011, I started out on my own and set up Khanak Institute of Performing Arts.
On the Jaipur gharana
Kathak as taught at the Jaipur gharana is rooted in the subcontinent tradition, which implies that the Muslim influence that moulded Lucknow gharana is not as strongly felt here. Kachchwaha kings of Rajasthan were the major patrons and stress is placed more on the technical aspects of dance, such as complex and powerful footwork, multiple spins, ‘laykari ‘(variations done in the dance) and complicated compositions. The Nawab of Oudh, particularly Wajid Ali Shah, was a patron of the Lucknow gharana, where the emphasis was on ‘abhinaya’ and ‘natya’ elements and is reputed for its subtleties and grace (‘nazakat’).
Re-imaging for present day audiences
My responsibility to Kathak is now immense. I owe it to my guru to preserve the tradition and hand it down to my shishyas in the same state. I therefore decided that I would not deviate from the original. When I trained it was in the ‘dekhiya, parakhya, seekhiya’ mode. That is, we not only learnt by practicing but also learnt by watching our guru perform. We watched, reviewed and learnt from observing seasoned Gurus in performance. For example, when guruji did a jugalbandhi with Deepti Omcheri-Bhalla, we students learnt more observing and assimilating the nuances in the performance.
In choreography the order continues to be with the usual stuti, todi, tukada etc, but for the ‘bol’ I draw on the works of writers such as Mahadevi Varma and Ramdhari Singh Dinkar. Extended performances are not possible these days because organisers ask you to brief them about the pieces being performed. Therefore, the dancer has to stick to a format, more so because the demand is so market driven. The basic structure is drawn from the time-tested content that is tweaked to suit modern day audiences. Often the present viewer is quite unaware of what existed a generation ago.
As a teacher
Before one takes up dance as a career, there has to be a mental preparation for the long haul that awaits you. As a newcomer you may get stages because organisers are on the look out for new talent. But, to last in the field, experience has shown me that one has to be extremely talented and thorough to ensure lasting power.
Having set up Khanak, I realise how much flexibility the gurukul method aids learning. In an academic ambience there are other inputs that are included thereby, making it difficult to extend a dance training session beyond the granted time frame of a class schedule. There is the search for an inner peace through perfection that is the ultimate for an artiste.