With changing mindsets, the dance also has to change, because it’s a living art form: Kumudini Lakhia

Kumudini Lakhia
When I spoke to Kathak legend and pioneer Kumudini Lakhia during a workshop in Delhi recently, she was telling both young and experienced dancers, “Put a story in your movement, aise hoti hai choreography.” The workshop was part of the Naval Kathak Utsav in Delhi on the 15th and 16th of November, during the morning sessions. In the workshop, she was assisted by her senior disciple Sanjukta Sinha. The venue for the workshop was Meghdoot Theatre. The morning breeze had a nip in it, as the workshop started punctually despite the Delhi smog and traffic snarls. It was an honour to be a part of this workshop. In a brief chat, Kumdini ji emphasized that dance space has to be ‘landscaped’ or ‘designed’, and that every movement should be graceful, like a brush stroke, not abrupt or jerky. After that, Sanjukta came straight to the nritta portion. The first day, she taught thaat aamad, and the second day, gat, baant and a paran.
Kumudini ji’s list of awards and honours, for the uninitiated, is endless – the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the Kalidas Samman and many other national and international accolades. Equally well-known is her reputation for being something of a ‘rebel’ in Kathak. However, the outspoken doyen of Kathak insisted that she never broke away from tradition – “it’s all I know!” she said. She just tried to find more within the tradition than the limited form that was popular with audiences, she told me. In this interview, the 87-year-old Kumudiniji’s formidable, vital outlook shines through as she declares, “The dance has to change, because it’s a living art form.”

Q: I wanted to ask you about the rebellion and revolution in Kathak – when you broke away from tradition to pick up contemporary issues and do choreographies, not just traditional nritta…
A: Actually, I never broke away from traditional Kathak. Whatever I use in my choreography, it’s all from the format of tradition. I did not break away – I would say that I reiterated it, or revisited it. I try and put in what I felt was forgotten in the past years because of the audience’s demand for certain movements of Kathak. The dancers do that more – like chakkars, footwork etc. But the audience demands that, you see, the dancers have also to do what the audience demands. I didn’t think about that (what the audience wants). I wanted to see Kathak in its pure, old form, which couldn’t have been just chakkars. That is why I did a lot of work on Maharaj Bindadin’s Niratat Dhang. Nirat is nritya – in U.P., they can’t say jodakshars. For ‘school’, they say ‘sakool’. So ‘nirat’ is nritya, ‘dhang’ is karne ka tareeka (the manner of doing something). Usmein jo ashtapadi hai, I took each one and I tried to revisit it, reiterate it, reconstruct it. Because Kathak had to have been very, very graceful, they must have used a lot of space around their bodies, they must have used levels of the body, they must have used different speeds – it couldn’t have been just a kind of exercise. So I wouldn’t say that I diverged from tradition. I don’t know anything but the tradition, so how can I move away from it?

Q: But you wanted to break away from the format of just footwork and chakkars that catered to audience demand?
A: I don’t think I broke away from that at all, but I tried to put in a lot of things – more space, a new designing of the space. You might call that choreography. I worked a lot with groups. When we were dancing, whenever it was a question of abhinaya or storytelling, it was always about mythology. So the first thing I did was… all my choreographies in the beginning were abstract, no stories. Does the dance have to depend only on stories and sahitya? Can it not be art on its own? A form of art for art’s sake, not for sahitya’s sake, (not always) standing on the shoulders of sahitya. That kind of a story (just enacting mythological stories) I call not abhinaya, but mime. It’s miming – miming to be Sita, Rama, Shiva, Parvati. Abhinaya is different – abhinaya is there even in technical dance. To feel every movement, every movement your body makes, and to put a feeling to it. Like I said, just putting a flower at the feet of the lord, or the water flowing through your arms – feel a little story around every movement that you do. That is abhinaya. There’s a difference between abhinaya and miming.

Q: How did the audience take to it in your time, this breaking away from mythological stories?
A: Not only the audience, even the critics didn’t like me. There was a very well-known critic, Subbudu (P.V. Subramaniam), you know what he wrote about me? He wrote ‘Kumudini – from the sublime to the ridiculous’. Because I did something called Duvidha. It was the story of a middle-class woman, a middle-aged woman who imagines herself to be the Prime Minister – ‘if a woman can become the Prime Minister, so can I’. She gets into a frame of mind. And in that, I had a frame on the stage. She would get into the frame and imagine herself to be somebody else. But actually, her life was chained to her home – cooking for the husband and children, waiting for the children to come home, giving them a bath – that was her life. Chained. But the magazine used to show women with short hair, with a wide posture, surrounded by well-dressed men… God, that’s the Indian woman (she thought), you know. So she used to feel, why can’t I be like that? Why am I like this? That was the story, and it was called Duvidha. (To show the) Chained woman, I used sarod, no tabla, and just alaap. And for the frame of mind, I used electronic music. So Subbudu said (it was) “ridiculous, how can you do Indian dance to this music?” The gurus said, “Yeh toh kutte-billi ki awazein hain (these are the sounds of dogs and cats).” Twenty five years later, when I did a programme in Kamani (auditorium in Delhi), that same Subbudu wrote, “That Kumudini is the saviour of the Kathak dance.” The same Subbudu. I was 25 years ahead of him, right?
Whatever I did at that time, the gurus didn’t like. Now they are doing the same thing. They won’t give me the credit for having those chakkars covering the stage, I started that. Now everybody does that. At that time, they used to say ‘yeh toh dale hain, yeh Kathak nahin hai (this is an addition, this is not Kathak)’. Ab sab kar rahe hain (now, everyone is doing it). It’s become part of Kathak, the repertoire. At that time, they criticized me. But I had the guts. If you want to do something, you must have the guts to do it. You mustn’t be carried away by people’s opinions. People are going to criticize you; they are there to criticize you. It is a very good thing, because that’s how you grow. Criticism makes you grow, but you must have the courage to stand up to it, or to just… not worry about it. And now they are respecting me a lot.

Q: Did you have any backing?
A: No, no, my backing was my own courage. When I went to Gujarat, started teaching there, some of the mothers of the kids, they said, you can’t learn this, this is the prostitute’s dance from Lucknow. Some kids said my mother was saying this is the dance from the Bollywood movies. I said, if you want to learn, you learn. Today, you can’t get admission in my school. There are 200 students. Kadamb is a national and international institute today. See the courage with which I did it. And my students are all over the world now – America, England, Canada; I even have a Kadamb branch in Japan. So you see, you have to have courage. Darna nahin kisi se (don’t fear anyone). Log toh kuch bhi kahenge, unka kaam hi kehna hai (People will talk, that’s what they’re there for). Critics toh bahut kehte the – kya karti hai, ridiculous hai, kutte billi ki awazein hain music (the critics said so much – what does she do, it’s ridiculous, the music is like the sounds of dogs and cats). Wohi log ab mera wala karte hain sab (those people do my stuff now). Some great Kathak dancers had said yeh toh ballet hai (this is ballet). Now their students are doing it, it’s become a part of the repertoire. Pehle stage chhote hote the. Lekin ab stage aapko itna mil raha hai, aapko lighting mil raha hai, technology mil rahi hai, toh use karo na (the stage used to be very small then, now you get such a wide stage, good lighting, technology, so use it).

Q: How has technology impacted Kathak – the music, the lighting? Do you think it’s necessary, and what impact does it have?
A: It is necessary. It adds to the value (of the production). It was not there at all in our time – the lighting was so bad. We had only one spot. The lightmen used to have one circle with big green, yellow and red lights, and he used to keep moving it, so sometimes you were green, sometimes you were red, that’s all we had. But now it adds to the mood, the lighting is so good nowadays, it’s amazing. Sometimes, the lighting can play a role in the choreography. In one of my pieces, the light is on the dancer first, then it moves to another place – the light, not the dancer. And then the dancer follows that light. So the light has become part of the choreography. In one of Sanjukta’s solos, there’s a beam of light that comes down, like a rope. The light also becomes a character in the play. It’s really very nice how one can use modern technology. I feel it’s necessary, yes.

Q: You devoted your whole lifetime to the form, but is it practical for the upcoming generation of dancers to do it - just dance?
A: They need to have good costumes. Nowadays, I find that Kathak dancers are not really wearing very good costumes. Some of them are; it’s a question of taste, really. There comes a question of taste – what you think is good or bad, what would look good and what would be appropriate for what you’re doing. In the abhinayas, we have angik, vachik, aharyam. That is mostly for the plays, because you’re playing a role in a play. If you’re playing Aurangzeb, you can’t be coming in jeans and a shirt. There, the aharya was very important. But in dance, unless you’re doing a dance-drama, then you might have to dress according to the role you’re playing. But otherwise, if you’re just doing a solo performance, it’s not necessary that you should be dressed up like a Christmas tree.

Q: But if young dancers need to do their jobs also, how much can they focus on dance?
A: They should, if they want to become professional dancers. There might be people who might not be very good dancers, from the dance point of view. But they can become good teachers. They can become good critics, good writers on dance. We need people to write about dance today. We need people who do a little research on the dance. There’s very little research on dance today, because the funding is not available for research. People think, if I learn dance, I must dance. I must do a solo, must get a performance. Performances are very hard to come by nowadays, because there are too many dancers. So why don’t they think of becoming writers, critics, teachers?
We need good teachers, but then they should be learning. Just because you’ve learnt a style doesn’t mean you can become a good teacher. If you learn a certain movement, the teacher should be able to tell the students from where it originates in your body, your torso, your hand, your knee, your ankle – where does it start? Teachers should be very, very well-versed in the body language of the dance. Body language is very important if you’re a teacher. The students just copy the teacher, but the teacher might be very tall, and the student might be very short. So that movement has to be taught according to the body of the student. What are you going to produce – clones or dancers? I treat all my dancers individually. Aditi Mangaldas is different. Daksha Sheth is different. Parul Shah in New York is different – her body was of a modern dancer, she puts a lot of modern dance into it. Sanjukta is different, Rupanshi is different. I see their mood also, and the background they come from. That plays a big role. Some come from vernacular schools, some come from Christian schools. They are trained differently, their outlook is different. Their everyday life is different. All that helps in their growth. At home, what kind of life they lead. What kind of talk there is at home with parents, what their parents teach them. Don’t talk to boys, look down, you know – that kind of thing. There are girls who are completely free also. The teacher gets all kinds of students and the students have to be treated like that. ‘Why don’t you dance like her?’ No. You should be able to say, dance like yourself. One of my bywords is that you are not for Kathak, Kathak is for you. That dance is made for you, your body. You are not the one going to hold the jhanda or wear the topi for Kathak. No.
Also, there are people who say ‘age-old technique’ – it’s age-old, but it’s not ageing. It’s living. It lives with every dancer that dances, especially the young and the next and the next (generation) that is why it becomes a classical art – because it lives on. And when it lives on, it has to change. Look, you’re wearing a salwar-kameez now. Did your grandmother wear that? No. I was a sari person, in fact, my guruji insisted I wear a sari in class: ‘Yeh kya Punjabiyon ki tarah pehen ke aa jati hai. Sari peheno (what is this salwar-kameez, like Punjabis? Wear a sari).’ We all used to dance in saris. But today, I specially tell them ki dupatta nikal do, beech mein aa raha hai (remove your dupatta, it’s in the way). In our time, if we didn’t wear a dupatta, they’d say badi besharam hai yeh (she’s quite shameless). Mindsets change. And with the mindset change, the dance has to change, because it’s a living art form.

Great gurus become great by dedicating their entire lives to learning, imbibing and teaching a dance form. So it is hats off to them when they are imparting their knowledge and experience to the younger dancers. Kumudini ji still has the nazakat, the delicacy of hand movements, the expressiveness of the eyes, and her wisdom is quite immense. Sanjukta, her senior disciple, is an amazing dancer as well. Kumudini ji has trained her to have perfect technique, power, pace, energy and precision. She could take leaps before a sam with the effortless grace of a gazelle. She can mesmerize you with the power and precision in her dancing. Truly a humbling and enriching experience.

Pics: Anoop Arora

Note: This interview first appeared in narthaki.com