Contemporary resonance in Kathak  
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur    

October 14, 2006  

"Dance evolves. We cannot put dance into watertight compartments, as modern or traditional," says Ashimbandhu Bhattacharjee, a well-known Kathak exponent from Kolkata. Indeed he seems to believe in evolution as a philosophical concept. His innovative compositions have this theme of evolution built into them. A couple of years back, he stole the hearts and minds of the dance lovers in Kerala with his Vasudeva. The novel theme explored the angst of Krishna in his human incarnation. His friendship with Draupadi and its deep-rooted bond was analyzed in the light of Vasudeva's work and philosophy on earth. The work still remains etched in memory because of the theme - so human, so heroic, so modern and so eternal! 
The present trip brought three compositions onto different stages in Kerala. Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala enjoyed them under the aegis of Thalam. Fitting into the mood of Navaratri was the group item Shaktistuti - the power of Durga in three aspects Shakti,   Matri and Shanti (the power of Strength, Universal Mother and Peace beyond understanding). The item, a scintillating performance, pays tribute to Bengal and its cultural legacy. By harnessing modern technology of lighting and sound, the choreography acquires an ethereal dimension. The people of India could only worship such strength, power and beauty. 

Nabachanda (New Rhythm), strikingly original, is a composition of nine beats. The dancers weave various geometric patterns like, the square, oval, triangle, parallels and their like. Designs that evoke tantric symbols and the nuances of Rangoli, weave magic patterns to the accompaniment of powerful, haunting music. Somewhere from the depth of consciousness, the Srichakra emerges. The Indian mind of ancient times created the Srichakra, which is still a mathematical challenge. As the dancers weave celestial-designs, your spirit floats in the star-spangled sky where constellations opened doors to astronomy and astrology in ancient India. Here the modern mind gets connected to India's heritage, by means of costume that suits the modern search, tastes and times. Different vocabularies of Kathak finally merge and mingle to form an explorative symphony.  

Viraha Milan (Separation and Reunion), is highly sensuous. It portrays the pangs of lovelorn Radha. The oft-repeated theme has a different dimension. Human to the core, it focuses on love: an eternal ecstasy; separation its aching partner. Here, Radha is the symbol of the human in love. She realizes love through her memories: time spent together, joys shared together, and promises made... alas not to be fulfilled!! She realizes her love in fantasies: his touch, his music, his closeness. It is psychological realism that is portrayed in such anguish. Every human being capable of love goes through its endless pangs. The soul-mate always lives in deep isolation. In that sense the Radha theme is timeless. The dance recital by Ashimbandhu and his senior artist Luna Pan portrays the enduring romance from India's cultural memories.  

Ghungroo, (Ankle-bells) the main item, showcases the story of ankle-bells in an autobiographical vein. An innovative piece, the group item traces the story of ankle-bells from its birth shrouded in mystery to its role in dance performance today. At another level, it symbolizes the classical dancer, her past, present, and future. At a deeper level, the composition traces the evolution of the aesthetic perception of humanity. History comes alive in different layers: as deep as poetry, accompanied by a joy that only dance can evoke .As the performance ends, you hear the jingling all around, deep within, and it courses through your blood stream like the rivers of India. 
Nataraja is Nature personified. The dancing Siva is nature in its innate rhythm, vigor, harmony, and poise. The sounds and silences, the stillness between sounds, between movements create the immanent music and rhythm of the universe. In immemorial times the ankle bells were born during the thandava of Nataraja; made its first jingling sounds...went to sleep...The artist came eons later; heard the latent notes. Jingling notes tumbled down from the murmur of the leaves on wind-driven slopes, from rushing streams, from wafting waves, from gushing fountains, from the pitter-patter of the rains. He heard them in the cooing of the bird and in the dance of the peacock. Invoked by the artist, sounds rushed toward him jingling and formed itself into a chain.  

When dancing girls wore the golden bells around their ankles, the Ghungroo found its joy; felt ecstatic when the temple dancers danced before its Creator. Years rolled on, the dancers became honored guests at the king's court. The Ghungroo was proud to share the honor. Change came, history moving ahead. The Islamic era saw a change in theme, costume, and sophistication in style. The Ghungroo remained the signature of dancers, their alluring rhythmic steps.  

The dark days were traumatic when dancers were exploited by male clutches. Devadasis fell from their glory. During their days of ill repute the Ghungroo moved stealthily when dusk deepened, or when lovers met in lonely places....The eternal search for identity continued. In its course the Ghungroo remained a witness to Creation, Sustenance and Destruction. Now the Ghungroo has reached the proscenium theatre. What next? What is the future of classical dance in India as artists struggle against onslaughts amid changing tastes? Neither man nor woman but a divine spirit, the Ghungroo rises with hopes and aspirations, and dreams of its lasting legacy. As long as human hearts could be charmed by sound and stillness that create the jingling note, the Ghungroo will live, is the message of the ballet. Indeed Ghungroo is the signature of Indian classical dance throughout the subcontinent. Fast pace, dramatic moments, different styles of presentation, changes in costume and music, makes the recital an exclusive visual orchestration. 
Originality marks the theme, orchestration of visual scenes, costume, lighting and music. The story telling essence of Kathak tradition is modern in perception to cater to our times. The dance composition incorporates movements from Kathakali and Kalaripayattu to enhance nuances of Kathak style. Costume is inspired by the simplicity of western ballet. Shorn of heavy ornamentation, the dancing bodies merge with the colors of forms they represent. Lighting is used to give broad brush strokes to cast divine dimension. Different types of symphony, with group violin, piano beside other instruments, orchestrate special sound effects. Recorded in the studio, the booming quality of music with the jingling of ankle-bells dominating makes the Ghungroo piece an experience. "Kathak is one of the most contemporary classical dance forms that lends itself to experimentation and innovations," said Ashimbandhu Bhattacharjee. People gathered around him in admiration for the stunning show. "I am still a simple student of the art-form," bowed the master. 

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance journalist. She covers fine arts and travel for The Hindu, and is a regular contributor to