Shifting Kathak ‘His’tory to ‘Her’story

Pallabi Chakravorty

“I am attracted to poetics of Kathak – the ghazals, qawwalis and thumris. I have been trying to combine both – the technicalities and the emotiveness and by doing so how to reconstruct the emotiveness in a way that it becomes a part of the socio-political context,” says Pallabi Chakravorty , author, academician, anthropologist and an accomplished Kathak exponent based in USA. This three way model of bringing arts into her life can be also be seen in her book, Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women and Modernity in India. In this book, she retraces the origins of Kathak back to bhaijis and tawaifs of Kolkata and follows their path from a woman’s perspective.

Retracing her own journey, Pallabi recollects how she learned from her Guru Bandana Sen. “I studied with Guru Bandana Sen for a long time. Also, my aunt Dipali Nag was a well known Hindustani vocalist. So I grew up in an environment where music has been a huge part of my life. There were also movies like Pakeezah and Mughal-E-Azam that might have influenced me unconsciously,” she says. But what Pallabi noticed was a disconnect that her Kathak performances had with the new audience. Graduating in English literature from Jadavpur University, Pallabi started questioning why her friends couldn’t relate to her performances or how she could not relate her studies or her day to day life with her dance performances.

What bothered her more was the marginalisation of women dancers in Kathak. “At that time, Kathak was male dominated, patriarchal and associated with gharanas and male practitioners. Growing up in Kolkata, I was exposed to Satyajit Ray‘s movies and contribution of women artists in his movies. Those kind of exposures made me want to learn and study more about what I was dancing,” she says. Pallabi started studying dance as an everyday practice through a social angle and critical lens.

“I started delving in to the subaltern historiography and the history of tawaifs* and their contributions to Kathak. I traced the history of bhaijis* of Kolkata and how they are the beautiful repositories of this dance form. How they are poets and the foremothers of thumris and ghazals. I started knowing more about artists like Gauhar Jan who trained other women artists in the community. This lineage is important and fascinating. I gave them voice and that kind of analytical lens became important,” she says. Through her writing, she also started asking these questions: What happens to these people in the ‘now’? Who gets to be written about? Who writes about them? What is it like to have Kathak as an everyday practice? Why do people dance?

Find Metiabruz
Dancers from Courtyard Dancers striking a pose as part of their dance production Find Metiabruz choreographed by Pallabi Chakravorty

For Pallabi, to be a Kathakar or a Kathaka means an emotion. It is not something that is frivolous or irrelevant but a confluence of melody, poetry and movements. This is the principle that she follows in her dance school Courtyard Dancers. Courtyard Dancers focuses on creating dance productions based on traditional/classical or neo-classical genres but re-contextualises it to the modern context. “I use qawwali, ghazals and not try to use the Western genres to speak to the audience. It has to be relevant to some kind of political-cultural context. Each of the projects have evolved from my own research in India.That is very important for me,” she says.

Pallabi Chakravorty

Courtyard Dancers under the leadership of Pallabi have come up with projects like Asunder based on India- Pakistan partition with a tabla artist who is from Pakistan and who has been part of their school from time time, a dance project called Mahatma is Fasting which was a political piece that she created after the Gujarat riots and Celluloid E-motions based on her research on reality shows as popular culture in India and this has moved further to be a book.  Her book titled This is How We Dance Now, gives detailed ethnographic accounts of Indian dance reality shows and celebrity culture.

“Somehow, whatever I do as part of my academic role becomes a part of my creative dance works too . Last year, we produced a project called Find Metiabruz . The project is based on King Wajid Ali Shah. Metiabruz is where he was exiled in Kolkata by the Colonials. It is about the adaptation of poetry in our lives how it is being lost in the political climate today. So this is basically kind of referencing history but in an abstract way. We are using poetry to bind the piece and tarana,” she says.

Courtyard Dancers also focuses on community outreach programmes and their classes are held in Subhasgram in Kolkata. The school supports dance teachers at Subhasgram, and dancers from Courtyard Dance Company also go there whenever they can. Together they produced a show and a film called 120 square feet and they were showcased at ICCR Kolkata. “That combination of two different communities from different socio-economic status mingling, performing and learning from each other was wonderful. The interesting part of the project was once we started teaching the younger girls, their mothers came and started learning. We realised that the mothers are only between 18 and 25 years old because they are married off early,” she says.

Like me, Pallabi also believes that dance can transform people’s lives and in turn it transforms a community’s life building a positive environment for all involved. “It is a wrong assumption that talents come only from the privileged communities. Unless opportunities are open for all, we do not know where the talents come from … we need to explore more and find out how we can transform and reach out to communities,” she concludes.

*Highly sophisticated courtesans who catered to the nobility of South Asia, particularly during the Mughal era. The tawaifs excelled in and contributed to music, dance, theatre, and the Urdu literary tradition, and were considered an authority on etiquette

-By Swaroopa Prameela Unni





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