Ibtida: the beginning of never-ending ecstasy in dance

This event in Delhi was called Ibtida, which means ‘beginning’ or ‘where it begins’. Life actually begins in the womb with love, and continues to be a quest for love.
The Guru Pradeep Shankar Academy of Promoting and Performing Arts, and the Surang Parampara Music Society of the Moradabad gharana, presented Ibtida on the 22nd and 23rd of August at IHC, Lodhi Road, Delhi. On the 22nd, the performance was titled Jashn-e-Sufi. Sufism is a celebration of the love of the Lord with dance and music. The evening began with a vocal recital by Kabul Rishi, with Fateh Ali Khan on sitar among the accompanying musicians, followed by a recitation of poetry by Aalok Shrivastav. Both were beautiful and deepened the Sufiana atmosphere of the evening.
Mahua Shankar (Pic: Anoop Arora)
This was followed by the dance recital of the evening - Kathak dancer Mahua Shankar, the co-organizer of the event, performed solo and together with Bharatnatyam dancer Dakshina Vaidyanathan, who also performed a solo. The music composition for all the kalams they performed to was by singer and sarangi ustad Murad Ali Khan. He, together with his fellow musicians, which included his family members, were truly the rooh of the magic performed that evening. The compositions were perfect for the subject and the dance, both contemplative and rousing, and the musicians all never missed a beat - their skill was evident, their synchronisation perfect. Shuheb and Zohaib Hasan were on vocals, Shahbaaz Khan on the tabla, Siraaj Khan on tenor and mandolin and Sunil Nirman on dholak, with Mahua’s sister Nupur Shankar on padhant and reciting the poetry. The combined and individual skill of the musicians was most evident in Dakshina’s solo piece, in which she paid tribute to each instrument and musician separately and together. Altogether, the dancer and musicians took that piece to a different level.
Pic: Anoop Arora
The first kalam was by Amir Khusrau, and the composition was ‘Zihal-e-miskin makun ba ranjish’ performed by Mahua Shankar. Mahua is a young Kathak dancer who started learning at the tender age of 5 from her parents, Rekha and Pradeep Shankar, and then from Reva Vidhyarthi and Pt Birju Maharaj, at whose school she now teaches as well. She is a much awarded dancer who is also a gandha bandh shagird of sarangi maestro Ustad Ghulam Sabir Khan. Mahua, in her black dress with a red dupatta draped on her head, was a very pretty sight that evening. But the way the dupatta was draped seemed a little cumbersome for her hastas. The lyrics of the poem talk about the pain of separation from the beloved, which in Sufi poetry is the equation between the bhakt and God. The poet says that moments of union are short, but those of separation are very long. How does he pass the night of separation – ‘kaise katoon ratiyan?’ She looks beautiful in her ornaments, and the shama is lit, but neither does he come, nor his message. ‘My life is like a flickering candle,’ the despairing lover says. Nupur Sharma’s recitation of poetry is always very gentle, and the music was very moving. The nritta by Mahua was fine and polished and her abhinaya was subtle.
Dakshina Vaidyanathan Baghel (Pic: Anoop Arora)
The second piece was by Dakshina Vaidyanathan Baghel. Dakshina, the disciple of her mother and grandmother, eminent Bharatnatyam exponents Saroja and Rama Vaidyanathan, is also a much-awarded and praised dancer who teaches and choreographs at the Ganesa Natyalaya. Dakshina’s aharyam for the evening was black with a green border. The kalam was Noor-e-Shuman by Rumi. The lyrics say, ‘The Lord is inside all, the living and the non-living. He is in the lotus and in the water, in the earth, the mud and the light from the sun, in the leaping deer. The music inside the instruments is from You, as the resonance is yours. You dance inside my chest, where no one sees You. But I do, and that sight becomes this art. As I stop playing them, I still hear You within.’ What she danced on the stage that day was not constrained by any idiom of the classical, though it was a classical piece. It was pure exhilaration at realization, a pure celebration of movement - the joy, the leaps, the claps and the rotations. Dakshina, in her dance, translated the lyrics to pay homage to the One Sound within all instruments, and also to all the instruments and musicians on stage with her who were channeling that sound. She danced each instrument in the orchestra accompanying her. The musicians played their instruments live on stage in the beautiful kalam, transporting the audience to another level. When Dakshina paused in her portrayal of the music, you could almost hear the anhad in the notes. A truly immersive experience of anand.
Pic: Anoop Arora
Later, when I spoke about it to Dakshina, who was still in that mode of ecstasy, she said, “Choreography was a challenge in the beginning since the music is Sufi and the language is Farsi, but somehow Muradji made such lilting music that it made you feel it. I let myself flow with it. I was not concerned that there was no mridangam and its sollus. I let myself flow in that river instead of trying to capture the boat I like to flow in. My interpretation of the words was that ‘you dance inside my chest – that sight is art’. We as human beings might be doing the dance, playing the instruments, which we are propagating through the medium of our bodies. But it is You who dances using me as a medium. I can never, at any point, think that I am bigger than the art, since the art is God and I am humbled by it.”
Pic: Anoop Arora
The third composition was a duet with both Mahua and Dakshina dancing to the kalam ‘Mose bol na bol, mori sun ya na sun’ by Amir Khusrau. The lyrics say whether or not you talk to me, or whether you hear me, I will not leave you. Even if all go against me, please don’t turn away from me. I have given up all rituals and shall live with you as I wish to. The nayika was portrayed as adorning herself with ornaments, braiding her hair. He comes and puts flowers on her hair as they lock in an embrace. The portrayal is that of god, the bhakt and bhakti. The final piece had the exuberance of Sufi at its peak – ‘Aaj rang hai’, again by Amir Khusrau. ‘Raini chadhi rasool ki, rang maula ke haath’ – in this night, the Lord has the colours in His hand. The one on whom He throws his colours is most fortunate. I have roamed the entire world and found Him nowhere but in my courtyard. You have always been with me, and finally, ‘agar yeh hai ibtida toh inteha kaisi hogi (if this is the beginning of love, then what will the peak be?)’ The two dancers very scintillatingly brought out the love of the bhakt, who is united with his Lord. The perception of colour in the air was brought out well by showering flowers. Mahua, with her chakkars and Dakshina with her pace and abhinaya and fast technique, brought out the frenzy of love. Truly a performance that moves you to tears and awakens the spiritual within you.
Pic: Anoop Arora
Mahua, explaining the concept, said that it was a purely Sufi kalam “and the music was given by Muradji. We wanted to do something different since last time we did Jashn-e-Raqs. I wanted to experiment with a performance with Dakshina and Rama didi (Rama Vaidyanathan) encouraged me to go ahead with it. Though I did say that Dakshina is so tall, but Rama didi said woh aise bhi toh araimandi mein hi hogi, so do it! Though she is a from a family with a lineage of dance, yet she is so humble and so down-to-earth, very grounded.” Muradji said about the music that “classical musicians have limitations, isiliye compose karne ke liye Sufi kalam ko alag se sochna padta hai. Yehi ismein mushkil thi. Main chhati peedhi mein kaam kar raha hoon, and aur asha karta hoon aise hi karta rahoon (classical musicians have limitations, that is why you have to think differently to compose a Sufi kalam. That was the challenge here. I’m the sixth generation of this tradition, and I hope that I can continue to work in the same way).”