Dance in trance

on a revamp

Dance in trance
Of course, I am ruffling quite a few feathers!” she laughs spontaneously, the elegance and grace in full glow as we slip into an easy conversation at her residence in Delhi. For the internationally renowned Sufi kathak danseuse, who has knitted together the classic vein of kathak with the mysticism of Sufi, the world is a stage.

Manjari Chaturvedi has performed at over 300 globally celebrated shows spanning 24 countries, in staggering, brilliant renditions: in front of the Taj Mahal in India, the Sydney Opera House in Australia... “Now I am putting together my newest baby in the form of the project, ‘The Courtesan’,” shares Manjari.

“As a dancer, I demand respect. This is the backbone of my research that explores the skills and stellar performances of artistes over the past generations. About 200 years ago, there were no exalted avenues like the Siri Fort (in Delhi) and the National Centre for Performing Arts (in Mumbai) available for artistes to perform at. They only had their stage in the king’s court or later in small mehfils. There was nothing exclusively durbari about their dance, or kotha-like. In fact, Bollywood’s rendition of the kotha has dubbed it as sleazy and debased: you need to understand that none of us have ever been to a kotha, or even seen one,” Manjari explains.


Reviving a lost tradition

She goes on, “Dance was an art form that took men and women at least 10 years to perfect. After years of struggle for visibility, the older generation of artistes is now simply on the brink of extinction as they have yet to get their due. I am archiving their journey, finding out through my research what they performed, and why, the old compositions they sang and danced to. This involves connecting with now-90-year-old artistes and delving into their memories and recounts.

The research revealed that the men were celebrated at ustaads but the women were simply bracketed as nautch girls (read low grade and cheap), though ironically women danced better than men. The female artistes were exploited, discriminated on the basis of gender. This sort of sanitisation was in play, and very few were able to revamp themselves successfully, such as Begum Akhtar and Siddheshwari Devi.”

Manjari’s project germinated five years ago through the angst of Zarina Begum, an artiste of yesteryears in Lucknow. Forgotten and living on modest means, all Begum dreamt of was singing on stage wearing her Benarasi brocade sari. With more than 300 artistes associated with Manjari’s trust, to help out the older generation through their medical needs, Begum struck an emotional chord.

As Manjari sought sponsors for her show in Delhi, the corporates raised eyebrows. “She ultimately performed to a packed auditorium, with over 32 publications applauding her performance. The respect she accorded to me, a much junior artiste than her, brought tears to my eyes. The irony is that because Begum’s profession was not perceived as respectable, she has held back from passing the legacy on to her daughter. It will die with her,” says Manjari.

“Kathak is associated with shringar. But that is not looked upon with the same respectful gaze as is shringar in bhakti, for instance in Krishna Leela,” says Manjari.  How difficult is it to tackle the stares and underlying sarcasm, being a good-looking danseuse? “I am educated, well-travelled and savvy at reinventing myself, so no one can write me off. I have the poise to deal with irritants. But what about the ones who are not as well-educated?” she points out honestly.

Clearly, she has no trouble keeping detractors at bay, and with reason enough. Manjari Chaturvedi is a force to reckon with in the field of creative expression. Having trained initially in the Lucknow gharana of kathak under the tutelage of Arjun Mishra, Manjari studied abhinaya at Protima Bedi’s Nrityagram. She closely studied Baba Bulleh Shah’s contribution to Punjabi Sufi traditions. The writings of Rumi and Khusrow have also influenced her and contribute to the Persian resonance in her work.


Channeling Sufi magic

“The magical beauty of Sufi saints is all-encompassing. Baba Bulleh Shah created beautiful music, so did Amir Khusrow through his beautiful words in Hindi, Awadhi and Urdu. The depth of poetry is remarkable. What passes off in the name of Punjabi music these days simply makes me cringe. We have such a rich cultural legacy, and we have yet to uncover even half of it,” she states. But what about artistes such as Rabbi Shergill, who sang the iconic ‘Bulla Ki Jaana Main Kaun’? “That was merely a flash in the pan,” she says bluntly.

So, how does Manjari re-learn her craft every day? “After a certain point of time, you do not learn from practice, you learn from your own improvisation. I feel that is much better. So, work happens through my own rehearsal. I teach three times a week at my dance school, and even at the centre in Goa, where I conduct classes in Sufi kathak between October and March. From April to June, mostly tourists sign up for the workshops.” Why Goa? “I love Goa, and always look forward to going there,” she confesses with a smile.

Next on the anvil is setting up a centre in Puducherry, or perhaps even Diu. “By the time I touch 50, I want to have three centres up and running,” she says. Biggest fear? “Ki haddi toot jayegi. If I break a bone, how will I dance?”

I prod her for a pearl of wisdom for aspiring artistes, and she responds promptly, “Do not copy anything blindly, it will not get you anywhere. There are hundreds of traditions in India. Pick one, work on it, and present it in a way that’s relevant today. You will succeed,” she sums up.

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