Alpana Shukla Vajpeyi on her approach to Kathak and the Raigarh gharana.
Alpana Shukla Vajpeyi’s eyes shine with a secret all on their own. Like those of many trained dancers, they reflect, both on and off the stage, every shade of nature, every thought and spoken word. It is not surprising to hear the seasoned Bhopal-based Kathak exponent exclaim with sadness that children today are deprived, by a hectic lifestyle and television-heavy evenings, of ordinary delights like the sight of a full moon! How then can they develop bhava, asks Alpana, noted for her sensitive abhinaya and currently holding the position of Guru at Bhopal’s Chakradhar Nritya Kendra, her alma mater. Alpana is a disciple of Pandit Kartikram — among the brilliant dancers trained at the court of Maharaj Chakradhar Singh of Raigarh — and his son Pandit Ramlal. In this interview, she speaks about why she considers herself a representative of a distinct school, the Raigarh gharana of Kathak. On July 28, she will perform compositions unique to this tradition in a programme titled “Varsha Samay” under the aegis of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in Bhopal. Excerpts from a conversation:
Is the Raigarh gharana accepted as a distinct gharana of Kathak?
Some people have started to accept it but some still disagree that it can be recognised as a gharana. Even Benaras is not always accepted as a separate gharana. People talk of Raigarh as a shaili. But a few of us have started to term it a gharana. We feel it should be recognised as such, because the work is visible. Chakradhar Maharaj, himself a good tabla and pakhawaj player, brought out four important books: “Taal Toy Nidhi”, a collection of tabla bandishes, “Muraj Paran Pushpakar” about the pakhawaj and its parans (muraj means pakhawaj and paran is a type of rhythmic composition), “Nartansarvaswam” on dance and “Raagratna Manjusha” on ragas. He invited great artistes of Lucknow and Jaipur gharanas to his court and had his artistes learn from them. However, at his durbar there were not just musicians and dancers, but also litterateurs of Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu and English. So, there was exchange of thought. It was a complete, all-round approach to art. Another contribution of his was that he prepared male dancers.
What are the distinctive features of the gharana?
Maharaj Chakradar amalgamated elements from the Lucknow and Jaipur gharanas to develop the ang (bodily and postural aspect) of Kathak. But it was not just a mixing of styles: he added his inputs too. Since many brilliant artistes were working together, the trend of creating ‘jodas’ or bols in complementary patterns, gained credence here. Chakradhar read up in ancient books on percussion and discussed with vidwans to revive the practice of jodas.
He also created the tala chakra, a circular diagrammatic form of the tala avartan. Another distinctive feature of his art was that he made rhythmic patterns and gave them thematic names, such as Megh Pushp, Chamak Bijli, Brahma Beej, Dal Badal Paran... These are all bandishes (compositions) of tabla, pakhawaj and dance. (The bols themselves don’t have a meaning but he selected those with the appropriate sound to bring out the theme.)
Another speciality of his was that he taught his dancers to execute movements from ati vilambit laya (very slow) to ati drut laya (very fast). It is very difficult to dance in such a slow laya. So I feel his approach to rhythm too was distinctive, and bandishes were created for these rare layas too. (The most prevalent layas executed today are vilambit, madhya and drut.) These things used to be done in other gharanas too but slowly died out.
Another distinctive feature was the elaboration of abhinaya. First, the vidwans would do abhinaya on a line of song in the sitting position. It is considered tough since there is limitation of movement, but this would go on for a long time, my guru told me. Then, they would stand up and continue the elaboration. Maharaj also composed thumris.
And my guruji (Kartikramji) being from a folk (Karma and Gammad) background, introduced a number of chaals (gaits) where this influence is obvious.
My gurus also learnt to dance on gulal and create an image on the floor with the footwork.
The approach and image of Kathak had changed after the coming of the Mughals and at the Raigarh court, much of the old spirit was revived.
What are your recollections of your guru?
I learnt from Kartikramji (whom we called Bade Guruji) and his son Ramlalji. My first thumri, “Mohe roke Kanha Braj ke mag mein”, I learnt from Kartikramji.
I was 16 when I started learning. I got a scholarship from the Chakradhar Kendra and today I teach there! Before that, I had only danced in school and at home, never learnt Classical. My home was in Itarsi, where I had once seen Sitara Deviji perform but never had the opportunity to learn. When the Chakradhar Kendra was established in 1981, I was in the first batch of students.
Guruji told us about doing riyaaz wearing iron ghunguroos, on river sand. This made movement so difficult that when you danced normally on stage, your feet could produce the sounds very clearly. After this heavy tatkar, they would have their legs massaged. No wonder, at the inauguration of the Kendra, when he was 70 and had to be helped to get up, when persuaded to demonstrate a bit, I saw him jump several feet off the ground on a bol “traam”. He said, “This is all riyaaz.” He would tell us if you miss one day’s riyaaz it is equivalent to missing 21 days. That scared us and kept us on our toes.
The gurus of those days were adept at tabla and singing too, and I do feel this is very necessary. He would say effective abhinaya is that which touches the heart. He understood the individuality of people and would call us four-five girls by names of flowers. Though we all learnt under him, we didn’t dance the same way. He went so deeply into things.
You worked with theatre director BV Karanth too...
Yes, he was in Bharat Bhavan (Bhopal), and Ashok Vajpeyi who headed it then, would say, all the Dhrupad Kendra and Chakradhar Kendra kids should participate in all the sangeet sabhas and workshops, etc. at Bharat Bhavan. This was a very good thing. It was a golden period for learning. Today, even if we want, we can’t send children to such programmes compulsorily. They have coaching classes!