Vintage vignettes

CRITICS HAVE not been enthusiastic about it, and some viewers have found it maudlin. All the same, you want to know what motivations led to creating "Dastan Kehte Kehte", a solo performance profiling the charismatic singer Begum Akhtar at this year's festival of the National School of Drama, Delhi. Your interest quickens when you see that it has a South Indian director in Saroj Satyanarayan.

Akhtari Bai Faizabadi's life is a fairytale. We have heard of the nawab who spirited her away to his palace from whence she escaped with his princely gift (a satladi, seven-stringed pearls whose last strand touched her ankles); of the besotted poet who died on the streets where he wrote her name incessantly; of her marriage to a "respectable" lawyer, and return to the stage after years of housewifery, only to conquer the world again. The lady's pride, bouts of melancholy and vengeful moods are equally part of her magnetism. It must have been a challenge for dancer-singer-actor Rita Ganguly Kothari, to recreate such a temperamental star in her courtly setting.

"This is the first time a musician of our times has been the subject of a performance of this kind," says Kothari. "I would love to do it in Chennai, a city which has given me so much."

As you listen to Kothari's raconteuring, you are not only transported to another age altogether, but wonder how she managed to acquire the experience of several lifetimes in just one. Seated on a reed mat in her low-ceilinged home, she projects a national portrait gallery for you — from Kathakali ashaans to Carnatic vidwans, gharana ustads to ghazal singers, as locations shift from Lucknow, Calcutta, Delhi, Banares to Madras, Kerala, New York...

The daughter of freedom fighter and editor of the National Herald, Rita had been a child prodigy revelling in Kathakali and Manipuri at Shantiniketan. Early lessons in dhrupad came from doyen Gopeshwar Bandhyopadhyay. A national scholarship took her to Palghat and Madras for advanced training in Kathakali and Bharatanatyam.

"I never missed Ariyakudi's concerts when I was in Madras. From him, I understood what honesty means in art." Next she tells you how the stern Kathakali guru Chandu Panikker treated her with special gentleness in Kalakshetra, not only because she was a girl, but also because she had already been well trained in the genre by Guru Kunju Kurup. Besides, the young Bengali linguist was at home in Malayalam — and Tamil.

She made new friends. Vidwan M. D. Ramanathan took her home for what he called "proper" meals with paruppu and nei. "This is the only example of human wildlife that I have captured," naturalist M. Krishnan teased. Kothari admits, "I was a daredevil. Probably that is why Rukmini Devi took a special interest in me. She made me study abhinaya with Mylapore Gowri Amma. But the great musician, Mysore Vasudevacharya, said, you sing so well, why are you wasting your time in the dance class?"

In Madras, the girl also encountered Balasaraswati. "At first I thought, oh my God, a fat ugly woman in pink pyjama, green saree and yellow blouse! But when she did the padam... ! I also recall how once, when her tirmanam ended a fraction too early, she insisted on repeating it to perfect timing. It was a lesson of a lifetime for me."

How did Kothari tackle the fabulous romance of Begum Akhtar? "By adopting the form of intimate theatre, and by reviving the tradition of the kathakar who unites the skills of dancing, singing and acting; and blending chitra, mudra and drisyabhinaya."

The words are supplemented by the re-enactment of scenes. You hear the child Akhtari learning from the redoubtable Patiala stalwart, Mohammad Ata Khan, who twists her ear until she gets it right. You watch the dashing young woman racing her car across the road. You see the singer awed by great performers in court — Rasoolanbai, Kesarbai and Badi Mainabai. Kothari imitates the voices of all her characters in speech and singing. Did she listen to their old recordings? No, she smiles proudly. "All this has come to me through the ear, listening to the singers and their tales of their seniors."

For, Kothari has herself been a disciple of lifelong rivals Siddheswari Devi and Begum Akhtar, stars of the tawaif-devadasi tradition (later the subject of her thesis as a Ford Foundation Fellow). Young Rita had been learning music from the former during her holidays from Kathakali training down south, when Akhtaribai decided to end her 32-year-old feud with Siddheswari by walking into her home at midnight and asking for a favour.

"All your life you have been asking, and getting," was Siddheswari's bitter rejoinder. "That's my good fortune," replied Akhtari and added, "I want this girl." There and then the ganda bandh (tying of the thread) ceremony was performed, with Siddheswari making Rita wear her own Banares silk for the ritual. The next nine years saw the girl accompanying her "new" guru.

Kothari has continued to work in several fields. Trained at the Martha Graham School, New York, she joined the faculty at the National School of Drama, Delhi, and set up a pioneering course in mime and movement. The tribute to Begum Akhtar is her first solo theatre show after 1968. It is also her homage to the gurus of dance, music and theatre who have influenced her life, and contributed to world culture through their commitment to truth. The response to this onstage "Dastan Kehte Kehte" may have been a mixed one, but there is only one reaction to the offstage "Dastan Sunte Sunte... ": pleasure in the recollections of an adventurous past.


Recommended for you