October 20, 2015

A few years ago, when a colleague of mine was dating a chef, I gathered my courage to ask him about the process of coming up with new dishes. I felt like I knew how to cook Indian food, after years of cooking my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes, but I was curious to learn how to create new menu items. “Do it in steps,” was his advice,”—maybe swap out the potato in a samosa for something unexpected, or infuse the milk in a dessert with coffee or some liqueur. Experiment in batches, then kick it up a notch.”

It sounded so simple, yet I still haven’t swapped out the potatoes in samosa, and my ras-malais continue to be infused by cardamom, not coffee. There’s comfort in tradition, in just following what may have taken years to learn and even perfect.

That’s why I was looking forward to the inaugural Angikam Seminar in Kathak and Choreography, which took place last month at the Citadel Theatre. “The point of it all,” said artistic director Deepti Gupta, “was to encourage innovation and new ideas.”

“We all learn the composition and pieces that our gurus teach us,” she said. “But what happens after that? This conference is all about encouraging kathak dancers to think about choreography, the act of creating.”

When Gupta first began studying Kathak, there wasn’t much of a community in Toronto, or in Canada-at-large. “So I was going back and forth between here and India, looking for that community,” she explains. “But now there are quite a number of people learning, performing. We need to start building that community, and this is one way of doing that. This the start of a conversation.” Now there are a growing number of studios in the Greater Toronto Area where Kathak can be learned, including Kathak Toronto and Tarana Dance.

Kathak is one of the 10 recognized classical Indian dances. It’s known for its flurry of footwork and fast pirouettes, as well as a strong storytelling tradition (the word Kathak, after all, comes from the word Katha, or story).

Kathak may be a longstanding tradition, but it doesn’t always attract big audiences. In North America, Kathak has to compete for attention with mainstream dance forms like ballet and, for fans of South Asian dance, a more elaborate style called Bharatanatyam. Because of the medium’s slight underdog status, the Angikam Seminar drew a lot of attention from Kathak dancers across the continent.

Take Rashi, for instance, who came in from New York along with her guru Janaki Patrik to attend the three-day conference. Starting with workshops in the morning, the conference featured conversations with dancers such as Patrik, local luminaries such as Nova Bhattacharya and Joanna De Souza, and Madhu Natraj Kiran, a famous contemporary Kathak dancer from India, as well as showcase performances in the seminar’s first evening.

“For me, Kathak is a passion,” said Rashi, explaining that she started dancing seven years ago, and has a full-time day job. “It’s funny that I started learning dance in New York. I wanted to dance growing up in India, but you know how it is. Everyone tells you to study, get a good job.” She keeps on the lookout for ways to advance her craft.

To that end, the conference provided ample fodder for thought and encouragement to novice dancers. For instance, Patrik and De Souza share the creative impulses behind signature pieces such as KA-TAP! and Firedance (a Kathak/Flamenco collaboration) respectively. Both veteran Kathak dancers and choreographers talked about experimenting with forms, but never mixing them up—that is, not expecting tap or flamenco dancers to start dancing in the Kathak style but instead, finding common grounds between the two, whether in form of hand movements or beat cycles. As well, Patrik and De Souza spoke about all the odd jobs they did (from housecleaning to illegally waiting tables) in order to “support their dance habit.”

“If you seek to be a professional Kathak dancer, then you have to look at what that word means. Do you have something to profess? That’s what being a professional dancer means,” said Patrik, while also adding that “you take any comment from audience seriously.”

The performative aspect of the seminar similarly illuminated the many ways in which Kathak can be interpreted as a contemporary art form. Ottawa-based Kathak dancer Anjali Patil, who has trained extensively under renowned Kathak gurus Rohini Bhate and Kumudini Lakhia, showcased excerpts from Design 14, a piece based on the 14-beat Dhamaar cycle. She had wanted to step outside the 16-beat Teen Taal cycle, said Patil, which is considered oxygen for any Kathak dancer. Experimenting with the power of Dhamaar instead of the usual gracefulness (which Patil charmingly referred to as the tasak-masak) of Kathak allowed her to play with both thematic nature of the dance (invoking Hindu god Shiva in his destructive avataar) as well as the pure dance aspects with finesse, before concluding with a short but intricate round of tatkaar highlighting the footwork. Although Patil followed a traditional repertoire of the form, her interpretation was one version of a contemporary take.

On the other hand, Toronto’s Krystal Kiran chose to blend elements of Kathak with a mishmash of other dance styles in her attempt to articulate a contemporary Kathak piece. She performed a stage version of her BravoFact short dance film called Thy Beauty is Doom, inspired by the murder of Maple Batalia, a 19 year old B.C. student, by her former boyfriend in 2011. Although well-intentioned, Kiran’s piece wasn’t compelling, because it wasn’t rooted in any form. Short on technique, especially when it came to Kathak, her performance didn’t connect on an emotional level either—showing the pitfalls of a performance that isn’t grounded either in the story or in the dance.

The revelation of the event had to be Montreal-based Sudeshna Maulik, however, who performed excerpts from a piece choreographed by Usha Gupta and Lakhia called Aalaap. Maulik is a well-known dancer in her own right, after studying with masters such as Birju Maharaj, Chitresh Das and Lakhia. Featuring Maulik dressed all in white, Aalaap was a wonderful reminder of Lakhia’s gift for isolating and exploring aspects of Kathak to expand upon the theme. At once languorous and precise, Maulik performed everything from the extensions, to the pirouettes and leaps with grace and agility. A Canadian resident since 2007, Maulik is a welcome addition to the dance fraternity.

The conversations and performances at Angikam clarified one thing: there’s no clear definition of contemporary Kathak. As with any other form, Kathak dancers continually struggle with trying to figure out what is traditional, and what is modern. The repertoire that they learn may be ancient, but it can interpreted in any number of ways. It could involve collaborating with other dance and musical styles, using a contemporary muse, borrowing from non-South Asian cultural traditions, or even bring in a multimedia aspect to the performance. Or, indeed, it could also mean digging deeper into the history of dance.

In talking about the war between classical Indian dance and contemporary work in India, Kiran remembered her mother and famous Kathak guru Maya Rao’s contribution to the debate—that if done well, even contemporary dance can become classic. Unwittingly, Kiran summed it up the best, while offering a cautionary note.

“Just by taking off your bells and and wearing loose pants, you don’t start doing contemporary work,” she said. “Doing something in a diluted manner is not contemporary. It’s just bad kathak.”