Amita Dutt: A life dedicated to Kathak

Kathak dancer Amita Dutt   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

At the venue where ace Kathak dancer Amita Dutt is conducting a dance workshop, the sexagenarian, a disciple of Pandit Birju Maharaj, shows no signs of fatigue despite a performance the previous night and a rigorous morning session with the students. A product of the traditional guru-sishya parampara, Amita has embraced modernity with effortless ease. She finds workshop-based learning a modern necessity; she even records web-only episodes to reach out to the contemporary Kathak enthusiast and is a regular feature on television while tutoring students about dance pieces.

Born into a Bengali family that had little or no affiliation with dance, Amita is now a noteworthy performer, choreographer and an academician. Her dance productions are charged with a social purpose, have a rare personal voice and don’t compromise on the aesthetics. A winner of several state-level and national awards, fellowships, she’s credited to have given a structure to the Bengal gharana, a Kathak style reliant on a melodic thread.

The Kathak exponent brims with enthusiasm as she says, “We have to move with times, otherwise, we are fossilised. I don’t want my art to become that way.” Amita has utilised her performances and teaching stints to move beyond existent norms. “My first and foremost duty as a performer is to win the audiences over, make them sympathise with what I do. I always choose and choreograph songs that a common man could appreciate and then utilise my classical knowledge to embellish it,” she adds.

Some of her notable reworkings of mainstream numbers within the classical space include pieces like Madhuban mein Radhika naache, Garjat barsat saawan aayo re, Ketaki gulab juhi, Bada natkhat hai re and Jhanak jhanak paayal baaje. Her exclusive dance productions on light, independent India, ‘Dashavatar’ have found many takers. Interspersing Kathak bols in the pieces and getting a singer to croon the numbers, her unique choreographic choices appealed to dance connoisseurs too. For instance, the Amar Prem number Bada Natkhat Hai was completely reimagined in the context of the equation between Yashoda and Krishna in her version. With time, she has effectively used technology, both with the visuals and lights, to add more appeal. “If the world is willing to give something to me, why not make my art form richer through it?” she quips.

She still goes back to her guru for inputs, even as she’s nurturing the careers of her disciples. Amita finds that Birju Maharaj has adapted to the times well. “I had once asked him to teach me items that don’t last beyond 10 minutes because that’s the average attention span of a spectator; he agreed to it. In a festival exclusively organised for his disciples, I had performed Garjat barsat saawan aayo re and he liked it. He had appreciated that it was a classical song popularised in films that I had further improvised with my classical knowledge. He’s very open to change.”

It was Birju Maharaj who prompted Amita to start a dance school of her in Kolkata (then Calcutta) and her husbandrevitalised her priorities from time to time. “I was reluctant. I was at the university, giving performances, practising and had little time for anything else. One day, my husband had asked if I wanted to keep everything about the form to myself and if I didn’t want to pass my knowledge to anybody. He reminded me of the need to give back to the community and insisted I take out time. I only started the school with two students without any advertisement and the institute grew over the years only through word of mouth,” she reminisces.

The love for her land, her language and Goddess Durga are a constant feature in her productions and she feels her career wouldn’t have been possible, if not for her Bengal roots. “We’ve had Tagore who made his family members dance for his compositions on the stage, at a time when dancers were treated as equivalents of prostitutes because they use the body for expression. Tagore reminded people that the body may be the medium, but the art is the most important.”

Her mythological productions revolving around women have served as a catharsis of sorts for Amita Dutt. ‘Sita apharan’ and ‘Draupadi vastrapaharan’ are productions that she keeps revisiting. “People ask me why I don’t take up modern-day stories like the Nirbhaya case for a dance item. I feel the hurt for the incident is still very raw. The beauty of mythology is that gives us a mask. Today, when I am doing the role of Sita or a Draupadi and the latter is seen disrobed, they see the character and not me,” she reasons.

As age catches up, she realises she may no longer be able to dance for three or fours hours at a stretch. “Today, I don’t have the energy and have a problem with my knee joints. It’s something that every dancer goes through, but organisers and students still want me to perform. I am glad to hear that my presence still matters. I create roles that I can perform. Of course, having grown up on the stage, who would want to leave it?”

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 2:56:37 PM |

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