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Kumudini Lakhia on crisis in Kathak

April 24, 2017

Raza Foundation presented Guru Kumudini Lakhia's lecture on 'Kathak in our times' at Habitat Centre, New Delhi. Introducing the Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Memorial Lecture, Ashok Vajpeyi, the Managing Trustee of Raza Foundation, spoke about paucity of performing dancers who are thinkers and can articulate the issues of the art form they are engaged in. The first lecture organized under this series was by Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam. And after few years interval now the Foundation has invited Kumudini Lakhia. She has earned a reputation as a thinker, engaged in the art form, raising the bar of the traditional form of Kathak and contemporizing it with innovations.

There is a buzz when Kumudini's visit to Delhi is announced. Having known her from 1957 onwards and having spent time with her in early 60s when she was performing and also after establishing her institution Kadamb at Ahmedabad, I was fortunate to acquaint myself with her work. She often invited me to see the rehearsals of her new works. It gave me an insight into what she wanted to do with the form. I was fortunate to watch major innovative works of hers during the creation of those choreographies. It helped me to see traditional Kathak from other perspective.

Kumudini had partnered Ram Gopal, the legendary dancer in London and had travelled with him in Europe and USA. That had given her an opportunity to get exposed to professional presentation of the dance form. She said that earlier she used to do bit of Kathak, Manipuri and Bharatanatyam in Ram Gopal's troupe but on returning to India she chose to study Kathak under Guru Shambhu Maharaj at Bharatiya Kala Kendra receiving Govt scholarship for two years and then one more year she studied under Sundar Prasad of Jaipur gharana in late fifties around 1956 onwards. That gave her a thorough grounding in both Lucknow and Jaipur gharanas.

She admitted that she did not feel comfortable doing abhinaya on thumris with Krishna breaking the pots, harassing gopis, and the basic shringara rasa of thumris. So she looked for abstraction in dance. She explored movements, understood the elements of time and space in dance. After giving a brief account of how today Kathak has come to stay as a major classical dance form she spoke on Kathak in our times.

Having seen Kumudini's choreographic works at various stages one was familiar with her approach to Kathak. Spending time with her while attending conferences within India and abroad, one was able to see the raison d'Ítre of her approach. To liberate Kathak from its feudal moorings was a daunting task. The climate was not ripe for moving away from traditional performances of Kathak as was taught and performed. But the uneasiness led her to chart her own path.

In her first innovative work 'Dhabkar (Pulse),' she chose to explore the pulse of Kathak, not depending upon story, but through abstract movement what could be seen in Kathak as an art form capable of investing itself with newness. If she moved away from mythological stories to contemporary poems like Sarveshwara Dayal Saxena's Hindi poem The Coat, she took challenge to interpret a contemporary poem in Hindi which has remained a major landmark in her output. Often she was criticized for divorcing Krishna from Kathak when she did not rely upon mythological stories or dance dramas. And she created her own niche in Kathak world. In the beginning she was much misunderstood and often ridiculed, but she braved her own path and changed the face of Kathak with contemporary sensibilities.

With this background some of us seniors wanted her to share her experiences which have placed her style of Kathak on a different level. She did speak of relevance of training the body. The stance, the awkward postures, total indifference to how a dancer's body has to be trained for dance, she drew attention to training methodology where attention to each individual body needs to be given so that the body is tuned to artistic transformation. She lamented absence of this training in today's Kathak.

She expressed happiness that so many people are dancing. But she also said that with such proliferation and with social media, YouTube, advanced technology, dancers freely copying from performances of dancers from YouTube, then there would be soon 'YouTube gharana!' This rampant copying has led to loss of quality and dignity in Kathak.

Photo: Sanjukta Sinha

The institutions where teachers are imparting training have no awareness of body training and the result is there for all to see that the dancer's basic training is faulty. In early fifties, the ratio of teacher and taught was 1:1 or 1: 5 and today it is 1: 30 so how can there be individual attention given to a student to correct his posture? With the proliferation of dancers, institutions, each school has one teacher mainly from Kathak style and for their annual shows they need them to choreograph group dance, in such situation standards are bound to be poor.

She drew attention to performances which are straight from class room to the stage and they perform class room work. The institutions are to train them for art but they produce artisans. Where especially Kathak is taught the syllabus is full of items and no thought is given to proper distribution of numbers to be taught. Kumudini was scathing in her observations about teaching tala to students, and gurus creating so many talas, which they themselves do not know. Shambhu Maharaj used to say that if they master even one tala like teen tala, it is great. But today changing one matra here and there, a new tala is created and it results in travesty.

With proliferation of students, teachers have problems therefore they start choreographing. In India we do not have as in West, special training in choreographing, with the result the slipshod work passes for group dance. In general we have dance-dramas which tell stories mainly from mythology. To choreograph displaying the potential of movements is not understood by Kathak dancers and gurus.

And the most neglected aspect is of abhinaya. Kumudini's own preference for other songs than thumris for abhinaya received counter argument from former Secretary of Sangeet Natak Akademi and disciple of Durgalal. As a Kathak dancer, Jayant Kastuar spoke of a project of introducing many thumris. Also there is a vast body of literature which is available. However, the discussion did not lead to any specific conclusion as abhinaya is not taught in institutions and the over exposed thumris of Bindadin Maharaj do not match the core values of abhinaya. Kalanidhi Narayanan taught abhinaya as one to one and each individual was made to think in what ways abhinaya is to be shown. There are now no teachers to teach abhinaya. Ashok Vajpeyi had made a remark that most Kathak dancers are illiterate. Since boys did not like to perform ghunghat ki gats or thumris they chose to master skill and command over technique, and abhinaya aspect has gone completely neglected.

A lot of discussion took place without arriving at any conclusion about how abhinaya can be taught. To make face mobile to express emotions as in Kathakali, some exercises to learn for making visage mobile were mentioned. For past 70 years the emphasis has moved from abhinaya to virtuosity and display of skill, now there is very little hope that some great master would appear on the scene to teach abhinaya.

The present scenario as painted by Kumudini and as dance critics most of us watch day in and day out, is of speed, chakkars, and footwork. That Kathak through footwork can create dialogue, suggest tandava and lasya of Shiva's and Parvati's dance, the very abstract language of Kathak form itself has so much potential is not understood by most of the dancers. Kumudini also mentioned that if one dancer takes 100 chakkars, another will take 108 and will claim superiority. Since dancers do not study poetry, literature, have no connection with other arts, they perform nowadays only to get more applause for their energetic dance.

The question of rise of mediocrity propped up. But there is no way of stopping mediocre dancing. To raise level of appreciation of audience is entirely dependent upon dancers. If dancers are content getting applause for their skill, then there is little hope for raising the level. Mediocrity will prevail. The question of good lighting as a partner, good costumes, the art of presentation were touched upon. Some young Kathak dancers wanted solution from Kumudini Lakhia. She only outlined the present Kathak dance scene. There were a number of senior Kathak dancers present. Kumudini also suggested that they should get together and decide about how to improve the situation.

Some of us seniors wanted to speak, but Ashoka Vajpeyi wanted the young to participate. So issue like complete lack of criticism was not taken up. Dance criticism as an institution is systematically killed by press barons. In absence of criticism the field has become free for dancers to post their own reviews and photos on Facebook and on blogs. E-portals like are few and even when one writes critically about performances, it appears dancers do not care. Absence of criticism indeed has created a void. And the crisis is further compounded as no major newspaper barring The Hindu in English language carries reviews. There too the space is limited.

At the moment it does not seem likely that the institutions or the dancers would bother to improve the quality. Those who believe in presenting Kathak aesthetically continue to do so irrespective of absence of large audiences and they do not cater for applause. Fierce competition has driven majority of young dancers to "who cares?" attitude. And today we see with sadness the crisis not only in field of Kathak, but as most of the members of audience agreed, in all fields of performing arts, major dance forms, and theatre also.

I have been writing in my reviews of Kathak about where has that feeling of 'sukun' - difficult to translate - feeling of quiet, silence, peace, joy in watching dance, gone? How to reclaim it? One can ruthlessly say when dance is bad, it is bad and if Kathak dancers seek short cuts to success, say it openly does not work in final analysis. We all know that what is constant is change. And Kathak scene has changed. Perhaps we have to wait for a major artist once again to appear on the scene to change the present state of mediocrity. Then there is some hope, else the mindlessness will prevail and connoisseurs of arts have to only lament. Yes, there is freedom to walk out of a mediocre Kathak performance.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and critic. He is honored with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC.


"To liberate Kathak from its feudal moorings was a daunting task."
Unfortunately Kumudini's Lakhia's latest productions take us back to the feudal moorings. Her latest pack of students and choreographies thrive on "show off" element of Kathak.
In the the recent show of "Atah kim," the meaning "now what" got the most hilarious meaning ....with Sanjukta Sinha being synonymous to Kumudiniji's style is not only a sad state of Kathak but even Kumudiniji could not save herself from the consumerism which rules in the society today which is the benchmark of Sanjukta's style. So I guess the title should have been "Kumudini Lakhia in crisis on Kathak" .....
- Anon (April 25, 2017)

If you choose to be anonymous it makes you even more hilarious to hide under the garb of being a dance observer. At least Kumudini has given her name to her work and is open to criticisms, while you, I might add, are a creation of your complexes.
- Shishir Hattangadi (April 27, 2017)

I read the article in Narthaki about the crisis in Kathak by Kumiben. We all agree that Kathak has crisis of quality. Other styles produced number of good dancers (in very short time for Odissi). Today every level of dancer is confused about how to do movement, where did things go wrong? Even if we say our whole generation screwed up, we need to find a solution. I am doing my bit by doing research on anatomy of Kathak which is in the process.
Here in USA, I saw dance teachers while teaching movement, show which primary muscle is active and which are supportive muscles for each movement. Thus the basics are clear and dance is healthy. It would help a lot if gurus like Kumiben dictate the muscles or Anga for at least 15 fundamental movements of Kathak. It will bring a lot of clarity and sanity in the field. This can be her biggest contribution in the Kathak world. Maharaj ji tried in his Anga Kavya which is valuable but not enough.
- Hasita Oza (April 27, 2017)

Hasita Oza seems to be doing good work in the right direction. It is now very important for Kathak teachers to impart proper knowledge to students about their physicality and the functions of the muscles in the process of the training of Kathak. I, on my own, would like to try and work on these concerns.
- Kumiben (April 28, 2017)

What a loser Ms/Mr. Anonymous... I hope someday you can prove your worth so at least one knows your name and who you are...Heights of insecurity! God bless you.
- Sanjukta Sinha (April 28, 2017)

Enjoyed your take on Kumiben's talk and the issues it raised. Readers might like to see more of what she addressed in my Asian Age column.
- Sharon Lowen (May 2, 2017)

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