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Calligraphy and Kathak
Photos: Ganesh Kale

May 5, 2017

When Kathak and Odissi exponent Parwati Dutta invited me for her two day festival Vistaar (April 22 & 23), I was still in a black mood, having seen Kathak performances which had upset me that I told her I do not want to see any more Kathak and I am afraid I won't be able to attend the festival. Parwati Dutta was naturally surprised at my response and only said: "That is not fair, Sunil bhai. We would like to share our new choreographic works with you. If you can come, it will be a great pleasure for us."

After a few days I called her and confirmed my visit to Aurangabad. I am indeed an admirer of her work, performances and total dedication to dance. Having visited Aurangabad earlier and having seen the excellent work she is doing there both in Kathak and Odissi, arranging seminars, discussions, inviting scholars, critics, performers, instituting Sarngadeva Award, research, lecture-demonstrations, performances of different dance forms, summer workshops, starting a course in dance criticism and several other projects, and over 20 years, preparing an audience which has turned into rasikas, one simply marvels at her tenacity, determination to work against all odds. Luckily, the Mahatma Gandhi Mission has supported her all these years.

I am glad I went to see her new work. Parwati arranged post performance discussion with music and dance critic Manjari Sinha and me. To our utter surprise, the audience sat through our observations and responded to the intricacies of her choreographic works and concepts. Both Manjari and I felt, that if it were Delhi, not one member of audience would have stayed back, whereas here the audience was sitting quietly listening to both of us and did not leave the auditorium till 10pm!

Parwati had prepared the program notes for both the days and given the necessary information about the inter-disciplinary work on Calligraphy and Kathak, and on Pravahi for the second day. I was introduced by my painter and poet friend Gulam Mohammed Sheikh to the ancient Indian calligraphy, the exquisite artistic script as seen in India. But when travelling to Iran at Isphahan, on the panels below the domes of the mosques were several religious quotations in wonderful script in Kufri language. One was exposed to the variations in calligraphy of different countries while travelling in Japan and China, and had admired it. But I had not thought of this imaginative approach to Calligraphy and Kathak dance. Parwati had also held a workshop few days earlier in order to acquaint the audiences to calligraphy. The local 70 year old artist was invited to conduct the workshop which found heartwarming response, and detailed explanations of this art were given.

Calligraphy workshop

Parwati in her choreographer's note mentions: "I have titled it as Varnajaa. It is a solo exposition in Kathak - expression through Sound, Idea, and inspiration through Form. I have drawn inspiration for calligraphic ideas and attempted to display the possibilities of spontaneous images in space and time, and to create calligraphic patterns. Forms emerge from 'Naad' and 'Varna' making an aesthetic and spiritual experience. Cadences of rhythmic and gestural phrases in dance create vivid images of Calligrams that seek to explore the narrative and symbolic."

This helped us to enter into the innovations Parwati has undertaken specifically for Varnajaa, dance delineations on ancient Indian, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. Calligraphy has a quality of spontaneity. So has dance also. The finished product is fluid and random, but each part, even a single stroke is choreographed, intentionally made. Fluid lines seem to mimic the energy and appearance of nature. The constructed experience is no less than a natural one. Each word within a finished piece of calligraphy is self-contained, an independent spatial experience. Parwati spoke about space as a static condition, whereas 'spacing' is an active process. Especially, Indian aesthetics practices deliberately make gaps. Spacing is a liberating act because it breaks the convention of having everything 'aligned'.

If these were only thoughts, it would not have made such an impact. But to see these ideas get articulated in dance was for me fantastic. One, for its sheer novelty, moving away from the usual 'chhed chhad,' Krishna teasing Gopis theme. Here was a theme which has not been explored with such deep understanding. And it evoked in us curiosity of how Parwati would translate it into dance.

Trained in Kathak under great masters like Birju Maharaj and with other gurus at Kathak Kendra in Delhi, Parwati is well equipped to undertake a novel theme. To illustrate it with several Kathak 'intra- forms' like kavits, tukdas, parans, parmelus, ladis, tatkar, chakkars, using her own background in music in Dhrupad, Parwati succeeded in highlighting the inter-relationship between two visual forms, plastic art of calligraphy, and visual art of dance.

The origin of sound, the progression with Panini's sutras, Sanskrit Maheswar shlokas, iconic images of gods, goddesses, Nrittavsane Nataraj etc, evoked images, connecting with projection of several eye catching drawings of calligraphy which showed the complexities of the form and response to the forms in word, rhythm time cycle, singing and movements. In one section in vilambit teen tala, to the tuneful rendering of sarangi instrument, graceful movements, variations of that were reposeful, unhurried and gave feeling of 'sukun' - quietness, peace. Namo shabda rupe and with padhant, recitation of Hara Hara bol, the shapes corresponding with projected calligraphic images showed what deep thinking and hard work had gone into this production. Taking Bindu - spot, rekha - line, and exploring it with Dha taka thunga paran Jodi aamad, Parwati elicited spontaneous applause for use of dha, and musician Manoj Desai's speaking dha at right time, were connoisseurs' delight.

Using Sul taal of ten matras, Dhrupad composition of Tansen, Parwati progressed to section using 4 scrolls hanging from ceiling with calligraphic images of Ali (lion of Allah), Phoenix, Bismillah and Hana Ka ((Japanese, meaning aura of a dancer) with Japanese dancer's image done with as it were a single stroke. Parwati weaved in and out of these scrolls with excellent lighting and approximating movements with calligraphic images of lion and flying bird, to the prayer to Allah with calligraphic image of Om and other script also suggesting God/Allah. The mnemonic syllable Dha, excellent ladi, earlier 'tum rab tum sahib', 'tum rahim tum karim,' 'tumhi karatar, ghat ghat puran' etc., were imaginative and captivating.

The use of various forms/drawings of calligraphy along with performance succeeded in establishing the inter-relationship between two forms. It was a visual treat, original and imaginative. All the musicians deserve congratulations for such team work. Their understanding of dance while providing music for Kathak movement and Parwati's concepts was praiseworthy. Here was Kathak breathing life into the form, away from speed, mere chakkars and noise.

During post performance discussion Manjari Sinha spoke eloquently about the imaginative way the music was composed by Parwati and performed by the musicians. She also pointed out where there could have been better accompaniment. Thoroughly well versed and seeped in music, Manjari eulogized the musical textures, embellishments and brought the subtleties to the notice of the audience. I enjoyed this analysis which helps audience to appreciate the hard work which goes behind creating this innovative work. The appropriate movements and accordingly the use of music were like two arts going hand in hand. I spoke about the original concept and beauty of calligraphy, inspiring the dancer to choreograph such beauty in Kathak.

Next day in Pravahi, in group work Parwati explored the concept of River through 3 artistic and philosophical perspectives. It is known to all of us that river is the life giver to this planet. But Parwati had used the concept of river as a metaphor to describe knowledge, divine thoughts. Within Pravahi, three dance productions AJARAA, VAARI and VEGINI were presented.

Ajaraa portrayed mystic river Saraswati. Selecting appropriate richas from Rigveda to describe river Saraswati in a group choreography she created various ways the water generates waves and moves. Atralupta Sarswati goes the saying. The costumes, selection of colours, the movements for the group with her seasoned disciples and lighting were pleasing, not crowded. The formed circles with chakkars were also pleasing as there was no attempt to employ chakkars to impress audience and win applause. The dancers performed competently and it looked unlaboured, natural and articulated the concept well.

What was interesting was that Parwati planned to use Marathi compositions, which in particular, communicated to the audience in Aurangabad as majority of them speak Marathi. In Vaari, she used the life and teachings of Saint Dnyaneswar. At Mahagami Gurukul, we see a statue of young Dnyaneshwar. He had suffered rejection in life, was not allowed to lead life happily. His Dnyaneshwari Gita was imaginatively used for some of the images. Saint Dnyaneshwar had at young age taken Sanjivani sharanagati. The group at the back and Parwati in front enacted the philosophical meanings and to typical ovi she used 10 and half matra, maitrik chhand. Images of Ardhanari Nateshwar were alluded. The dancers in typical Maharashtrian costumes, evoked familiarity, singing songs which women sing daily, the games they play, holding hands and taking chakkar et al in Kathak evoking touching emotions.

In Vegini, Parwati and her disciples showcased in pure dance the flow and varied textures of river. It was like watching through the lens of a kaleidoscope. The patterns created when dancing were varied. On the banks of river sometimes one saw the clusters of trees with branches moving in the wind, the waters flowing gently at times forming whirlpools and the use of tarana enhanced the feeling of water flowing, creating whirlpools with chakkars. The language of Kathak was thus employed consistently.

My complaints against the presentation of Kathak, the excessive use of chakkars and tatkar, mindless meanderings, loud music, and total disregard for aesthetics, I still hold. It is in pockets of Pune where Shama Bhate and her disciples and other Kathak exponents maintain the dignity of form, the excellent music and also continue to innovate within traditional format. The other place is Aurangabad. Parwati deserves all compliments for carrying on her work with such fidelity to tradition and pushing the bar, with innovative ideas, extending the boundaries and offering another perspective of Kathak.

The other reason could be that she is far away from the madding crowd and cut throat competition. She has luxury to contemplate, think and dream and has a dedicated team of her disciples to whom she has been passing on values which elevate the dance form. May Parwati's tribe grow and may rasikas, lovers of Kathak and dance in general, relish dance.

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.


I am so sorry to have missed this. What a fertile topic to explore for Kathak.  Calligraphy is the trace form left by the choreography of writing fingers... and most arm movements in Kathak  (nrrta) do trace arcs and spirals especially.  What a wonderful idea to compare the calligraphy / scripts of different languages, with rules of connecting movement in their corresponding styles.   I wish I could see this piece. Thank so much, Sunil, for sharing it with us.
- Uttara Asha Corlawala (May 7, 2017)

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