T he choreography is sophisticated. The sequences are consistent and coordinated. The colourful, flowing costumes add to the drama as the dancers fill the stage with heady whirls and fiery footwork.
But what happens before the curtains go up. It’s exciting to take a peek into the green room and witness the preparation and play of emotions.
The attractive, young artists of Kadamb sit around their Kumibehn (as they fondly call Kumudini Lakhia), who looks more a doting matriarch than a teacher, sipping hot coffee and sharing laughs. There’s no trace of pre-performance anxiety as they pull out their attire and make-up kit from their suitcases amidst loud hums and exchanges in Gujarati. Then the lights around the many mirrors come up and they sit down to do their hair and face.
Kumudini Lakhia changes from her “work clothes” to an elegant Patola sari even as she narrates her eight-decade journey in Kathak, punctuated by humorous anecdotes. The students have their say too as they do in their class back in Ahmedabad.
“She never tells us to merely replicate. She wants us to touch, feel, see and hear dance,” says Sanjukta Sinha, a senior disciple, who is making a mark as a solo artist with her Kathak-inflected contemporary vocabulary. “Kumibehn’s unique training involves understanding the body, respecting the space and applying mind to the movements. She strongly believes that for the performance to be aesthetic, you need to bare your soul,” adds Sanjukta, looking at the 87-year-old guru.
Among the country’s most progressive classical choreographers, Kumudini Lakhia started Kadamb in 1965 to free Kathak of its restrictive repertoire and travel beyond the physicality of the form. “Being a science student, I developed a rational and probing approach towards my art. I wasn’t satisfied with clichéd explanations for mudras and stances,” she laughs. “The rigour of the guru-sishya parampara, which expected you to always fall in line, made me claustrophobic. I was keen that the dance form includes abstract expressions and not just Radha-Krishna narratives. And I began exploring the geometry of the technique. Obviously the old masters didn’t like it,” says Kumudini, who after her training under various traditional practitioners went to London in 1948 to join the inimitable Ram Gopal. Being part of his productions introduced her to the importance of lighting, costume and stage design. She also collaborated with Pandit Birju Maharaj.
“The exposure gave me the strength to think on my terms. But opportunities for solo shows were not many. It was my husband who suggested I start a school. He was extremely supportive and made space in his automobile shop for me to conduct classes. Once I began to teach, I viewed the art from a different perspective as I got to train many passionate youngsters. To showcase their talent I devised group productions. My choreographic works were well-received and gave me a distinct identity,” says the veteran, who has travelled extensively around the world staging her productions.
“Nothing happened easily though,” she continues. “Believe me, I couldn’t even find a good tabla player to compose my pieces. Then I met the late Atul Desai, who worked at All India Radio, Ahmedabad, and requested him to help with the music. He was apprehensive initially, but ended being associated with Kadamb for 42 years. The challenges spurred me to come up with my first production ‘Pulse’. Through it I experienced the heartbeat of my art and found the way forward.”
Many of her works such as ‘Atah Kim’, ‘Yugal, ‘Sam Samvedan’ and ‘Samanvay’ still draw an appreciative full house. The dynamism of the concept makes them relevant. Her experiments also drew flak. Her minimalist approach to costume and jewellery (when her dancers once wore white costumes, purists termed it a ‘show of mourning’) and her stylised spins, jumps and glides were severely criticised. But Kumudini was not one to step back.
“She tells us to first believe in ourselves,” says Rupanshi Kashyap. “Encourages us to ask questions and never tires of answering. It need not be about dance. We go to her even with our concerns and worries. Over the years, I have realised the true meaning of a guru— one who helps you grow as an artist and an individual.”