Mahua means a flower that intoxicates; it’s the name that Pandit Birju Maharaj, Kathak’s living legend, chose for infant dancer Mahua Shankar, who would later become his disciple. “I am blessed,” says Mahua and you tend to believe her when you see her grace and poise on stage. Her expressive eyes and graceful movements have fascinating tales to tell. And that’s exactly what Kathak is meant to do – tell a story. It is not for nothing, you realise, that Mahua is considered to be among the finest of dancers in Kathak today. Mahua, who is a practitioner of the Lucknow gharana of Kathak, was in Kozhikode for a performance. Excerpts from an interview with the dancer...
On her guru
I consider myself fortunate to have been named and taught by Birju Maharaj. He named my elder sister too; he named her Nupur because he felt that she would become a dancer. But she went on to become a singer and theatre artiste and she accompanies me for my performances. Keeping with family tradition, I became the Kathak dancer. Both my parents, Pradeep and Rekha, also learnt Kathak from Maharaj. My guru was a regular visitor at our home in Delhi and I guess it was inevitable that I would become his disciple. He once beckoned: ‘Mahua come to me’. How could I have refused? It has been a privilege sharing the stage with him. I will always cherish the ‘chaugal bandi’ that I performed with him, Ustad Zakir Hussain and Saswati Sen in 1999 in the United States. It was such a pleasure dancing with two outstanding artistes such as guru and Saswati, to the rhythm set by the tabla maestro. I believe Kathak is where it is today because of Maharaj. He popularised it and took it beyond the confines of North India.
On the potential of Kathak
Although it is no longer confined to North India, I feel it has the potential to reach to even more audiences. I never miss an opportunity to perform in the southern parts of our country, where Kathak is still far less popular than other dance forms such as Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. Just the other day in Kozhikode, several girls came up to me and said that they wanted to learn Kathak after seeing me perform. That made my day! I would be happy to conduct workshops in places like Kerala. If Kathak can be popular on the international dance festival circuit, there is no reason why it should not attract good crowds all over India. I have danced before an audience of over 25,000 in Guyana. In Columbia, I danced at an international festival that featured artistes from 43 countries. I was initially sceptical about how they would respond to Kathak, especially after watching belly dance! But there was pin drop silence when I began to dance. Once, a Columbian dancer decided to learn Kathak after watching me. That remains one of the biggest compliments that I got for my art.
On her association with Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth (SPIC MACAY)
I have been performing for SPIC MACAY as a soloist for the past eight years. What the organisation is doing for our classical art forms is remarkable. It is thanks to the organisation’s efforts that even a child in a remote village in Wayanad is able to enjoy a performance by an established Kathak artiste. I love interacting with young people who come to watch my performances. I am often surprised to find that they enjoy Kathak ; language doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for them. I have found that youngsters enjoy the ‘chakkar’ (spin) in Kathak, the most. Kathak is a dance form that can be enjoyed by people who have not been initiated into classical dance.
On dancing with Madhuri Dixit in Devdas
I will always cherish the experience of dancing with Madhuri in the song sequence ‘Kahe ched ched mohe…’ It was choreographed by my guru and when he asked me to dance for the film, I gladly obliged. Madhuri is an amazingly graceful dancer and is charming too. I was touched by her humility. Although I have been getting offers to act in films, I am not very keen on it. I have decided that I will do a film only if I get a role that has scope for me to perform as a dancer as well.
On other Indian classical dances
I like watching Kathakali . I am impressed by acting and technique in Kathakali and the costumes.
On experiments in Kathak
I don’t like too much of experiments in Kathak. You can experiment, yes, but it has to be within limits, be it in costumes or choreography. I started wearing ‘fish-cut’ lehengas for my performance and there are many dancers who wear it now. But I cannot perform Kathak wearing leotards or tights.