Kathak exponent Nisha Mahajan on the benefits of integrated training

It is a pulsating picture, of children of varying ages — some real young, trying to match steps with their guru’s; some in a huddle surrounding their teacher, trying to reproduce the way he is rendering Sa Re Ga Ma Pa; some others playing the tabla in the adjacent room, their tempo corresponding with their tutor’s.

At TYAAG (The Yoga and Art Group), this scene repeats itself many times a week. Senior Kathak dancer Nisha Mahajan along with creative educationist Shiladitya Ghosh started the platform in 1999 under guru-shishya parampara. A platform that aimed at initiating into dance even very young ones — through the play-way method, through a teaching module that interweaves Kathak with vocal music and yoga and the knowledge of tabla. In came vocalists Rakesh Pathak and Samina De, tabla player Arunava Chanda and Kathak dancer Shalini Singh. Mahajan, who trained in yoga under Pandit Shambhunath, doubled up as the principal dance and yoga trainer.

“Dance is not just movement and rhythm. It is also philosophy, psychology, emotion and spiritual consciousness,” says Mahajan about why such an integration can deliver. Mahajan herself is an example. She resumed Kathak in New Delhi in 1979 after a break of 16 years and trained under Guru Munna Shukla and also at regular intervals under Guru Rohini Bhate in Pune. Simultaneously, she pursued Hindustani classical vocal under Irene Roy Choudhry and Pandit Amarnath. “At present, I learn from Rakesh Pathak. If you talk about my mentors, I would also like to name Nibha Joshi, Guru Reba Vidyarthi, Shri Jiwan Pani, Habib Tanvir and Kamalini Dutt,” she says during a chat on the benefits of integrated training.

Here, Mahajan takes a few questions related to her training module and more. Excerpts:

On her training in physics and then shifting to Kathak

I wanted to be a nuclear physicist…completed post-graduation and taught physics in high schools for seven years. When emotional crossroads surfaced in life, I switched totally to Kathak. It gave me the space to explore the abstract, which has always pulled me with a compelling force, both in physics, as well as in life.

On choosing Kathak

It is my natural language of communication. Had I been born in a jungle, away from civilisation, and created a dance form, it would have been very similar to Kathak.

On learning yoga and vocal music along with Kathak

Training in Kathak or any dance form needs sensitisation to music. When music pervades the inner being, the dancer experiences and manifests worlds that lie beyond the boundaries of cognition. Music is the vehicle that transports us into these worlds! Yoga is needed to maintain, enhance and harmonise the body-mind-psyche apparatus of the artiste so that he may become a finely-tuned instrument capable of producing exquisite work in art. My students are introduced to music and yoga right from the beginning (age 5-plus or even less)!

On using play-way method in dance

The play-way method in dance means using simple but playful rhythmic structures, small themes, stories or poems, skills of improvisation (group or otherwise), theatre games, to develop, first of all, a love for dance in the heart of the child, and then, the child’s dance vocabulary, self-confidence, communication skills, group interaction, commitment, trust and sportsmanship within the working group. The themes should be related to the world of the child so that the experience is meaningful for him/her. Once this base has been built up, one can move on to further technical training and traditional repertoire. Such training in childhood stands them in good stead in later years.

On correcting the lines, postures and other technical aspects of classical dance vis-à-vis the free spirit of the child

While it is essential to have excellent command over one’s language skill (in dance, it means technique), one cannot overlook the fact that sheer technique can lead only to imitative art or acrobatics. The dance experience is rich when the inner experience, churned nicely, is expressed through excellent technique. Even as we lay emphasis on technique, we need to leave space for the child to explore his/her world of imagination. A child with a heightened sense of imagination will shy away from dance if insistence on technique curbs his creativity. Technique, in any case, is bound to improve as more awareness awakens in the student.

On equipping her students to face the dichotomy between the spiritual core of our classical arts and the demands of a profession where the material and the financial often overshadow its intangible gifts

My students have been made aware that talent is a gift from Providence and their journey and responsibility lies in exploring it to the best of their ability. What they create can only be an offering to the Divine. About taking it up as a full-time profession, they have been asked to opt for that, only if the call from within is so strong that dance claims to be their very breath. That alone will enable them to withstand the financial and emotional challenges that accompany this choice. Even if they choose to be with other professions, they can still achieve excellence in dance. That this approach works is evident from the fact that students who came to me at age five or so, continue to learn well into adulthood. They will make good dancers, teachers, choreographers, art journalists, or perhaps just ‘rasikas’. Contribution to the field of art will have been made in any case!

On yoga’s place in pursuit of arts

It is important to know whither are we headed, and this signal can only come from deep within, from one’s intuition! Yoga connects one to one’s inner being. It enables one to develop clarity of motivation, choice of direction, the determination to follow one’s path through; it provides good physical, mental, emotional health, therefore, stamina; also balance in intra-personal relationships; it helps one develop inner discipline. It also equips you to land firmly on your feet when it is time to land in the real world from the world of make-believe. Art is meant to be a joyful experience and not something that leads us to pain. Ashtanga yoga ensures that the individual is an integrated being at the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels. The journey then is totally joyful!