Vaswati Misra conveyed poetic elegance through Raha at the Kathak Mahotsav in New Delhi recently. Inspired by Baul philosophy, she weaved a wonderful balance between kathak and Baul, where the audience was taken through a trance by Parvathy Baul’s singing and the Dhwani Repertory dancers’ grace. It was a choreography that deserved the standing ovation the audience honoured it with.
Vaswati has been a kathak dancer, teacher and choreographer for over 35 years now. She is the artistic director of Dhwani Repertory and has created an impeccable body of work that has contributed to the extensive range of new movement vocabulary, extending the horizons of the art form. She is also the first woman performing artiste in the legendary Shambhu Maharaj’s family. A fine balance
A little before the curtains went up, Vaswati told me, “Choreography should always be well-balanced. None of the forms or techniques used in the choreography should overshadow the other. Often I have seen kathak choreographies studded with the entire repertoire: The tukras, the tihais, and the parans, all of it! This is a little strange because a performing art is like cooking where there are a few select ingredients brought together proportionately for a delicious dish; a little more or a little less could spoil it. Nor do we use all the ingredients for all the dishes!”
This balance is unmistakably present in her choreography. And it is achieved while giving space to every performer and partaker, which reflects on the success of her compositions. “I always feel that choreography is about giving space to everybody: To the thoughts of the choreographer, to the dancers, to the musicians, to the person you are collaborating with, like in this production, Parvathy, and also giving space to the audience to take their own flight.” No wonder this is a choreography which you take back home with you.
The package is a delightful balance of the songs and charisma of Parvathy; the dance poetry created by Daniel Freddy, Ipshita Mishra, Anasua Majumdar, Surashree Bhattacharya, Garima Arya, Rishika Roy and Pradeep on stage; the music composed by Rahul Chatterjee, Pritam Ghoshal and Kiran Kumar; the live percussion by Suchet Malhotra; the sets created by Kailash Jiwani; costumes by Jyoti Talukdar; and make-up by Naresh Khare.
Born to a family of doctors, Vaswati admitted that she has been lucky to have had the right exposure from an early age. Her mother was an actor associated with the Bengali organisation, Juba Sampradayak. “There used to be regular gatherings of people from cultural fields in our house. Also, right next door was the Kathak Kendra, where I used to accompany my elder sister. So, even before I realised it, I was in that atmosphere. My formal training started when I was seven, and I was lucky to have the best gurus of the time — Reba Vidyarthi and Birju Maharaj.”
Later, at 18, when she married Birju Maharaj’s first cousin Krishan Mohan Mishra, Birju Maharaj was upset because in their family, women did not dance. Vaswati broke this tradition with the support of her mother-in-law. She reminisced with a twinkle in her eye, “I wore the ghunghut at my in-laws, but when I performed on stage, my neighbours used to sit in the first row and watch. So I didn’t mind the restrictions.” Her stint as teacher and choreographer began when she joined Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra as a teacher at 19.
Speaking about Raha, Vaswatiji said, “I am fascinated with Baul, but not that kind of Baul which is blended with contemporary elements. In this composition, the subject is prem and we try to walk together: kathak and Baul. There are points where Parvathy talks about something and the dancers carry it forward, and there are times when the dancers say something and she carries it forward. And, gradually, we flow in such a way that we become one part, which is the main thought of Baul: oneness of the body, mind and soul.”
Trying to articulate the inspiration behind Raha, Vaswatiji expressed, “When I saw Parvathy perform for the first time, I was touched by her singing which is so rustic and so rooted. Besides, the spontaneity of Baul singing, its saral rendition, fascinates me. It’s like you get into a trance and you have the courage to talk about anything and to move in any way you want. This spontaneity is also a main feature of kathak although the dance form has its own grammar and structure.
But then, any kind of creation is very spontaneous, it’s like a spark. One can get inspired by seeing a piece of stone, a leaf, or a flower, by a thought, or poetry. And all the concepts that come to your mind are based on the ambience that you are in, the way you are groomed up, your entire upbringing. All of this together leads to the creation of something.”