An honor for a Kathak devotee
- Anjani Ambegaokar, CA
e-mail: AnjaniA@aol.com
Photos: Courtesy NEA

October 31, 2004
When I received the call from Barry Bergey, the Director of Folk and Traditional Arts, of the National Endowment for the Arts, that I was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor for the Traditional and Folk Artist in the USA, the dates were set for me to travel to Washington, DC to receive the award. There were supposed to be four different events and as the dates came closer, the excitement was building fast. We went a day earlier as we were also invited to perform for the Library of Congress concert series, which was wonderful. The actual event for the award ceremony started with a welcome reception at the View Ballroom of the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel, in Arlington, VA, where we were all staying. As I walked into the reception, the feeling of welcome was very real, and one by one I got to meet all the voices of people that I had talked to for the previous two months since the announcement of the award. All of us artistes were requested to say a few words and each one's introduction set the tone for the next three days of festivities. Also, for the first time I realized that I was in the company of several artistes who were Grammy award winners more than once. I also felt certain humility among all of us that continued throughout the three days of festivity. I also acknowledged the diversity of art forms of the United States and how it is nurtured.

Anjani Ambegaokar and Director of National Endowment for the Arts, Chairman, Dana Gioia, at the award ceremony at the Capitol Hill, Caucus room

All the artistes who received the award with the Chairman of NEA and Barry Bergey the Director of Folk and Traditional Arts at the NEA
The banquet at the Library of Congress Great Hall was a totally different affair, formal, very well planned and just beautiful! The Great Hall at the Library of Congress is a stunning place with walls painted of various literary figures. The high ceiling created a unique ambiance to the affair. One of the award winners, Jerry Douglas, a famous Dobro guitar player from Nashville, Tennessee set the mood for the affair by playing a beautiful melody on his guitar. Each artiste was invited to speak for few minutes - my name starting with A, I was the first. I started by reciting 'Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu, Guru Devo Maheshvara' Shloka, and then went on to talk about my dance journey that started 37 years ago in the USA and as a child in India. Every artiste spoke from their heart, and the ending was by Gerald 'Subiyay' Miller who is an American Indian traditional bearer, carver, basket maker, who recited spiritual verses in his language with singing. I was given a framed letter on a White House stationary addressed to me by President Bush with his original signature, and a check for $20,000 - that felt good. Next day, early morning was the award ceremony at the Capitol Hill, another heartwarming event. The beginning was with several photographers taking pictures of each award winner and group photos. Several Senators and Congressmen came from various states of the award winners and introduced the artiste of their state. It was a simple, elegant function - we, all the artistes who received the awards, were quite overwhelmed by the attention and the repeated honor for us.

Then, we were off to our rehearsal for the performance by each one of us at the George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. I have had this idea of collaborating with other award winners for quite some time, but it had not materialized. On the day of the performance, there was a complete run through of the show and each one of us saw our art form that we specialize in. I saw the ending of the show as award winner Charles 'Chuck' T. Campbell, Gospel Steel Guitarist and award winner Jerry Douglas, the Debro Guitar Player collaborate with their band of drummers and other musicians as a finale of the performance. As they finished their final rehearsal, I asked them if I could talk to them in the green room, of course by then, we had come to know each other well. I just asked them, “Can we (my daughter Amrapali and I) join you at the end with your collaboration and dance with our Ghungroo matching your rhythms?” The answer came from Charles, “Sure, why not.” He told the stage director before we went on to dress up for the show, “Add two foot mikes, Anjani and Amrapali will join us.”

The performance started with Sam Donaldson, very well known host of ABC news for many years, introducing each one of us award winners on the stage and we received standing ovation from the packed audience of about 1,450. Everyone's performance was highly appreciated. We joined the musicians at the end for 5-7 minutes and improvised with our Kathak ghungroo rhythms with their music of Gospel singing, guitar and drums. What an incredible finale that was!! An experience of a lifetime! I think we made history that day when we joined such diverse disciplines together. It was spiritual, rhythmic, joyous, and totally exciting. How did the audience respond? With a standing ovation for all the 5 minutes that we were dancing, clapping, dancing and singing with us!! It was one of those moments when I felt that arts cross all the barriers among people, the barriers of race, religion, language, beliefs and more. What a phenomenal ending to an amazing four days of my life!! I will cherish those four days for the remaining of my life and carry on the tradition of Kathak dance in the world.


Kathak dancer Anjani Ambegaokar runs Sundar Kala Kendra Dance School in California. She is the Artistic Director of Anjani's Kathak Dance of India.