A lifetime of twirls & swirls

A lifetime of twirls & swirls

At 76, Manjusree Chatterjee continues to be an epitome of dignity and grace, content with leading a quiet life away from the arc lights and applause that an artiste of her stature would be used to. Her last bow was well over five years ago when she performed at Kala Vihar's 54th Vaarshikotsav Festival in Delhi in 2013. "One needs to make way for the next generation too," she explains.

Sitting in her beautiful home in Delhi's Jor Bagh Colony, the veteran kathak dancer smiles as her daughter, Indrani Kashyap, recounts how when the phone rang to announce that she had been selected for the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2011, the self-effacing dancer thanked them, but added, "Don't give it to me, give it to some younger dancer." Laughs Kashyap, "Who would say something like that? But this is so typical of my mother; she's happy with what she's achieved, and content with the respect and affection of those who love her work."

Early beginnings

It was in the late 40s when she was barely 10 years old that Chatterjee's mother took her to the Calcutta-based kathak dancer Nalin Kumar Ganguly. "My paternal aunts were far from approving, for only the dances based on Rabindra Sangeet were acceptable to them. But Ma was determined and would not just personally take me for all my dance lessons but also ensure I do the required practice at home." And three years later, when the city newspapers carried pictures of her with legendary vocalists Ustad Amir Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and the sarod  great Guru Sharan Rani at a cultural event, "their disapproval and anger were all forgotten and they became proud of me".    

In 1955, when the renowned kathak guru Shambhu Maharaj visited Calcutta, he went across to see his student Nalin Kumar Ganguly. "All of us students had put up a small performance in his honour. And I think he saw potential in me because he told my mother that I must pursue kathak under his tutelage in Delhi. He assured her that besides dance, I would also be continuing my formal education there," she says.

She adds, "Right at the outset, he said, 'Just concentrate only on practice and studies, not stage performances.'" This, says Chatterjee, was his way of telling his students to concentrate only on learning and mastering the dance form. However, three years on, Maharaj himself started encouraging her to start performing as a solo artiste.  "While he was very encouraging, he was strict as well. And should he catch anyone slipping up on practice, hell would break loose on the errant student."

Amongst the most cherished memories of her time with him was the day in 1963 when he asked her to perform a kavit pedant. Seeing her gatang (hand movement and facial expressions), he gave her the title of 'Natwari Nritya Nipuna'. "The paper signed by him stating this is amongst my prized possessions," she says looking at her guru's large black-and-white photo on her drawing room wall with reverence.

Alongside hangs a portrait of her second guru,  another kathak great, Sunder Prasad, who wanted her to learn the Jaipur style of the form. "But how to ask Maharaj-ji for permission was the question. Even Prasad-ji wasn't ready to do that, although they were both good friends," laughs Chatterjee. Finally, she decided to quietly go for classes with one in the morning and with the other in the evening. A few months later, when Shambhu Maharaj learnt of this, he laughed loudly, "Arre, kya Sunder Prasad mujh se darta hai? (Does Sunder Prasad fear me?)"  

Little wonder then, with such backing, Chatterjee came to be counted among the top kathak artistes of the 60s together with Damayanti Joshi, Roshan Kumari and Sitara Devi. "Those were great times. The rivalry was almost non-existent and we were always there for each other," she remembers, adding, "even the audiences were much more appreciative and knowledgeable back then."

At Pune's Sawai Gandharva Festival when dance was first introduced in the early 60s, Pt Bhimsen Joshi invited Chatterjee for a performance. "It was a ticketed programme and they had to finally close the ticket booths despite the long queue. And  the 10,000-plus crowd there sat till late into the night to watch my nritya," says the senior artiste who has since shared the stage with many stalwarts such as Ustad Alla Rakha, Pt Anokhelal Mishra, Ustad Latif Ahmed Khan, Pt Kishan Maharaj, Pt Samta Prasad, among others.

Even in a place like Aarah in Eastern UP, Chatterjee remembers how as she sat backstage at the first music conference organised there in the 60s, she could hear catcalls and whistles directed at the earlier performers. And when she walked onto the stage, she told the audience that her dance form is like a puja. "I will perform as I would in a temple and that is how I would want you to look at it." And no sooner than her recital commenced, there was pin-drop silence. At the end of it, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. "It was very touching and beautiful," she smiles.  

With performances all across the country, Chatterjee finally decided to "go slow" after her marriage in 1971, and the birth of her daughter a few years later. And then, with changing times and attitudes on the cultural scene, she finally decided to move out of the 'rat-race', and now, for close to almost four decades, is happy leading a low-profile existence teaching a handful of her students, holding baithaks at home, and organising an annual festival of dance and music that offers a platform not just to upcoming artistes, but has also featured some of the most revered names in the world of the performing arts such as Pt Birju Maharaj, Guru Girija Devi, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pt Rajan and Sajan Mishra, among many others.

Ask her if she misses performing and she says, "Sometimes, when someone wants me, I go with my students for baithaks and workshops in bhav and, of course, tell people about this great dance form of kathak - natwari nritya."

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