A mission to make Kathak a household name
Photos courtesy: NY Kathak festival
May 22, 2019
New York Kathak Festival produced its first festival at the Ailey Studios and Ailey Citigroup Theater on April 19-21, 2019. The first of its kind, the New York Kathak Festival was a confluence of artistes and Kathak aficionados coming together as a community to learn, share, and connect over the 3-day event in the heart of Manhattan.
Originating in India, Kathak is a classical dance that carries history in its very form. The New York Kathak Festival is a nonprofit organization that was found by young professionals born and raised in the U.S. Despite not having the backing of any major organization or donors, the team was driven by its love for Indian art, and the desire to bring the Kathak community together for future generations in the U.S. "The NYKF organizing team is mostly millennial women who live and work in the New York + New Jersey area. The festival is our passion in addition to our careers," said Meenakshi Lala, on behalf of the festival. Anisha Muni, also on the festival team said, "We created this event with the intention of using art to bring community together and create a platform for Kathak to blossom in New York City. We're on a mission to make Kathak a household name."
The team organized the event in addition to their professional careers. While most are trained Kathak dancers themselves, their intention was to "create the type of experience we wanted to enjoy ourselves," said Geeta Purushuttam. Henna Khanijou elaborated, "This is our seva to the Kathak community." They set up five teams (Brand, Event Experience, Programming, Sponsorship, and Promotion) that reflected their personal and professional strengths and got to work.
The festival created a welcoming space for performance, teaching, and discussion. The India Center Foundation, co-sponsored panel discussions on critical conversations relevant to Kathak dance. The expert panel dealt with the present, past and future of Kathak dance today during the Kathak Festival weekend. Eminent artists contributed to the festival, including Pt Divyang Vakil, Dr. Pallabi Chakravorty, Dr. Purnima Shah. Dr. Sitara Thobani, and many others. Consul General Sandeep Chakravorty and Air India supported the event.
The concert lineup included 50 dancers and 10 musicians from all over the world, with an impressive showing by American Kathak dancers. The festival was well-curated by the organizers, who included a diverse bill of dancers: senior gurus who have taught in the U.S. for decades, such as Pt Satya Narayana Charka, Janaki Patrik, and Abha Bhatnagar Roy, alongside younger dancers, such as Barkha Patel, Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, and Brittny Chandra. Highlights included Shivangi Dake Robert who traveled the furthest - all the way from Singapore - and left the audience wanting more; New Jersey based dancer, Pallavi Degwekar Shaikh's rendition of teentaal in raag Puriya Dhanashri was precise and powerful.
Prashant Shah, an Indian dancer and teacher now based in New York, taught workshops to participants over the weekend, and also debuted his performing unit, Prashant Shah and Dancers, through his traditional and contemporary Kathak works. His guru Kumudini Lakhia is well known for her innovative choreography, and Shah's presentation at the NYKF was in the same vein. His presentation included a sampler of impressive solo and group performances by his local Indian American students, more contemplative pieces, along with a traditional live recital, accompanied by Abhik Mukherjee on sitar and Mike Lukshis on tabla. Shah's newly formed performing unit truly has a bright future as each choreography was a visual treat of sensitivity and sensibility. Echoing the sentiment of the festival, Shah closed his presentation with a touching piece including his youngest students, Prisha and Anika intimating that Kathak lives forever. The audience gave Shah's concert a spontaneous standing ovation.
While the mood was positive and the concerts generally enjoyed by the audience, there were of course presentations that needed some work to meet the high standard set by the curators. Notably, a few works felt like they could have been shortened to hold the audience's attention, whereas others could have presented original choreographic works given their tenure in the field.
Pt Birju Maharaj workshop
The weekend closed on a high note, with a finale by the festival's guest of honor, legend Pt Birju Maharaj and his disciple Saswati Sen. Sen presented a Krishna pada, before moving towards a presentation of technical pieces in dhamaar and teentaal. Pt. Birju Maharaj closed the NYKF inaugural event by presenting thumris in baithaki bhav to a rapt audience, many who had travelled from all over North America to catch a glimpse of him. Speaking about the event's organizers, Sen said, "When we first heard about this idea last summer, I was really not sure at all about what would happen in the next two or three years. And not even one year has passed since that conversation, and to put this festival together in such a way, without any resources, without any proper support proves that where there is a will, there is a way." She continued, "What the seniors couldn't do, these youngsters have done: bringing everyone together for Kathak." Maharaj, 81 years old and a highly celebrated 7th generation artist added, following the close of the festival, "Now you must support them."