The recent Kathak Mahotsava seems to have woken up to the need for abhinaya expertise.

Lost for years in the lanes of nritta razzmatazz, Kathak Kendra, under the new director Chetna Jyotishi Beohar has at long last begun to take stock of the Kendra's poor feel for interpretative dance. This year's “Kathak Mahotsava” with its focus on morning sessions at Meghdoot Muktakaash devoted to “Thumri Rang-Bhava Ang” seems to have woken up to the need for abhinaya expertise.

The five-day evening performances were an ambitious jumble of all gharanas and of solo and group presentations by established seniors and fledgling learners.

The morning sessions were a much needed educative experience for the Kathak community. Bhopal's Raigarh gharana specialist Guru Ramlal Bareth, in the elaborations woven into the line “Chandra Badan, Mriga nayana” or a phrase describing the sway of the nayika's braid (“latakata veni”) likened to a black cobra, showed how the upangas are used in abhinaya and how in the seated posture the two hands held together at chest level, below the mouth, knotted at the back could express countless ways of saying “Mohe chedo na Shyam”.

Treating just one line in the ghazal “Aaj jaane ki zid na karo”, Ranjana Srivastava showed not just on-the-spot improvisation potential in the petulant, coaxing, angry, seductive, persuasive nayika dissuading the lover from leaving, but also how the mundane could be treated at an abstract level.

Sharadini Gole's evocative session highlighted mood polarities and how by counterpointing viraha or separation in love with glimpses of its opposite samyoga, the prescribed mood of the lyric could be sharpened. Her demonstration pertained to one of Rohini Bhate's favourite pieces “Shyama ghata uta hai, Nahi aye Ghanshyam, Baiti soche Brijbam” and how Rohini's vasaka introduction to khandita made the latter more pungent.

Purnima Pande, trained under eminent figures like M.S. Kalyanpurkar, J. Wikram Singhe, Lachhu Maharaj, Birju Maharaj spoke of how sringar took on different hues according to the occasion and performance space.

Taking lyrics like “Wahi hai Kadamb” she demonstrated ultimate abstraction like what late Shambhu Maharaj did in his abhinaya. Expatiating on the combined strength of vatsalya rasa and sringar rasa in which a “Mohe Chedo Na” could be shown, Savita Godbole also a Lachhu Maharaj disciple, in a Ramashreya Jha thumri on Radha/Krishna sringar, brought out the non-gender, androgenous ‘eternal moment' wherein Radha and Krishna are one. Which is why switching roles Radha says “Tum Radha bano hum Shyam, Tum vrishbhanu dulari…”

The find of the festival was the 94-year-old Balram Lal. Hailing from the Kathakar tradition, he later trained under Shukhdev Maharaj (Benaras gharana), and Krishna Maharaj (Lucknow gharana). With his sprightly rhythm and eloquent netrabhinaya conveying sringar messages, he put many a youngster to shame – his many witticisms regarding the changed context of Kathak – (“plastic bansuri” shown by hands held in the wrong place and “anchal ki gat” by present-day dancers who do not even wear a dupatta?) kept the gathering in splits. Elaboration through abhinaya is now a lost art.

Different rendering

His invocation “Prathama sumeera Sri Ganesha” was sung differently from what is rendered today. Elaborating “Kana mein tosi haari” and demonstrating nuanced interpretation of terms like “Dadki, Matki, Patki, Chhatki” were an eye-opener. Some of the hip shaking perhaps was too mujra like for the proscenium theatre, but the entire approach of how a lyric was treated in the dance, made for a fascinating session.

Demonstration by Kendra Gurus Rajendra Gangani and Krishna Mohan – both excellent teachers of technique, did not go above the commonplace though Gangani after his “bhakti sringar” demonstration changed tack by roping in Prerana Shrimali to present a sringar piece – the two showing how late Guru Kundanlalji often prefaced his abhinaya items with a chhand as an introduction to the theme, substantiated in the lyric. Throughout the sessions, one saw the need for a more than basic understanding of music for abhinaya proficiency.

Of the performances witnessed, Kapila Raj's minimalism in the Thaat, Gajgamani and Mayur gat, (which Arun Bhatt's tabla accompanied with sensitivity and her delightful Chaiti and Dadra abhinaya with Dharamnath's fine singing impressed.

Rani Khanam's fine nritta and abhinaya was somewhat diluted by the indifferent sound balancing with the musicians constantly wanting decibel levels raised to a point when it hurt the ears. Omprakash Misra's was another fine solo presentation.

Of the well knit groups were Rani Karna's students, in the Ginti, Tarang, and Pravah with Vikram Iyengar's presentation of the 5-½ beat Labbaik. The other imaginative group work was Jeevan choreographed by Vaswati Misra.