Shila Mehta on extending the boundaries of Kathak
There are those who maintain that the classical arts belong at the apex of an imaginary pyramid representing public interest. From this point of view, genres of Indian classical dance and music will naturally not draw as many admirers and practitioners, as large a proportion of hobbyists and audiences, as the more trendy arts, like, say, Bollywood dance or light music, which occupy up the larger base of the popularity pyramid.
However, Kathak exponent Shila Mehta might well disagree on this point. The Mumbai-based dancer and teacher has on occasion taken her art to a mass scale by choreographing productions in which not only do the audiences number in the tens of thousands, but the performers too exceed a thousand.
Counting among her gurus maestros including Pandit Prahlad Das, Vijay Shankar, Birju Maharaj, Suresh Talwalkar, Chitresh Das, Kumudini Lakhia and Kalanidhi Narayanan, she says in an email interview, “I have done choreographies with dancers and non-dancers in large groups ranging from 1000 to 1500 on the stage at a time.” These are “just like the Olympics, or the Asiad type,” she explains.
“My first work with such a mass group was (with a view) to project our Indian culture through dance in Kolkata, ‘Spectrum’ at Netaji Indoor Stadium, for an audience of 45,000 when I was only 19 years old,” she states. She says she is “at ease” with this mammoth task, one she is able to “thoroughly enjoy.”
In 2006, she was the chief choreographer for a project in Rajkot seeking to portray the history of Gujarat. There were “1500 dancers and non-dancers,” she says. They performed at the Lokotsav and Rangotsav, programmes that were “attended by 65,000 people.”
Whatever the numbers, though, Kathak is accepted as primarily a vehicle to discover the self, like the other arts of India that mingle spirituality with storytelling, physical prowess with metaphysical musings. Therefore, for this ‘mass’ choreographer, Yoga is also an integral part of the learning process and she has been a practitioner since childhood.
Early this week, she performed in Nagpur followed by an ongoing workshop. She says, “I strongly believe that one of the purposes of Indian classical dance is to act as a strong medium to connect to one’s true self.” Only in finding this spiritual dimension, she emphasises, can an artiste go “deeper and deeper, feel the core of the dance and grow – not only from the career point of view.” She continues, “The workshop mainly focuses on understanding Kathak dance as a classical dance art from this angle.” Besides, she offers technical training in various talas as well as abhinaya, including a thumri of Pandit Bindadin Maharaj.
Before beginning the conventional teaching, there is a session she terms “Chaitanya Yoga Dance,” describing it as “warming up of the physical body along with experience of awakening of Chaitanya – consciousness/ spirit — through classical music specially composed for this.”
What kind of artistes does she expect to attend? “Participants are professional and semi-professional dancers and teachers from different dance schools and institutes of Nagpur and surrounding regions. One group I have specially asked for are those who are totally new to dance.”
The performing arts have their basis not only in spirituality but in allied forms like music and literature. Mehta, artistic Director of Nupur Zankar academy of Performing Arts & Research Centre, Mumbai, enjoys extending the boundaries of her chosen art. This is evident from her taking up Charani literature as a basis for new compositions in the Kathak solo format.
“I was exposed to Charans, a community mainly nowadays found in Gujarat and Rajasthan, from a very young age. I was always fascinated with their literature and its depth and also its applicability in day-to-day life by normal charan (meaning ‘one who tells the story’). I took it up as my research project for my Senior Fellowship from the Government of India.”
She amalgamated the language of Kathak gestures to communicate the varied themes of the Charans, “with the art of verbal story telling as well when required,” she says. “My work includes presentation of different dohas, chhand, nav rasa, Dashavtar found in doha style of Charani literature through the medium of Kathak.”
As for the music for “Charani Kathak”, she has taken inspiration from “the sensibility of penetrating soul music – i.e. folk music of Gujarat and Rajasthan.”
(Shila Mehta and her group comprising Rekha, Shruti, Neha, Krupa, Manasi, performed will perform Kathak at Vasantrao Deshpande Hall, Nagpur on July 10. The workshop ends this Saturday.)