A beat that runs in her pulse

Known as one of the pioneers of innovative choreography, Kumudini Lakhia tells Rashmi Vasudeva

Kumudini Lakhia

I hated my dance classes; loathed them with all my heart. I sometimes even made elaborate plans to run away from home to escape my dance classes.” Remarks made by not some errant schoolgirl, but by Kumudini Lakhia, veteran kathak guru, avant-garde choreographer and danseuse extraordinaire. And the merriest 89-year-old you will find in this part of the world.

Never the one to mince words or not follow her heart, Kumudini’s tongue is as twinkle-toed as her feet.

“I do not remember a time I was not dancing and I also don’t remember my first guru,” she cackles and one can’t help laughing along with her. The lady, who is today known as one of the pioneers of innovative choreography, says it was her mother who was actually passionate about dancing.

In form

“I was around six or seven years and we lived in Bombay then. My mother used to put me into any and every dance class she could find — sometimes kathak, sometimes bharatanatyam, sometimes ballet — the form didn’t matter to her, dance did.”

A few years later when her father’s job took them to Delhi, all her mother was worried about was how Kumudini could continue her dance practice. “She hunted around and finally found an instructor who had just come from a gaon (village) and lugged him along with us to Delhi. He stayed with us and taught me till I was nearly 16,” she
narrates.

Days of experimenting

Around the time Kumudini had turned 18, she got an offer from the renowned Ram Gopal Company in London to join them as a professional artiste. Ram Gopal is one of those forgotten Indian dance superstars of yesteryears, a maestro in his own right and someone who never really got his due for his efforts in popularising Indian classical dances in the West in the 1950s-60s.

It was while working with Ram Gopal that Kumudini’s interest in dance was well and truly sparked. “We performed everywhere and experimented with every dance form, be it Manipuri, bharatanatyam or kathak. Dance became fun,” she recalls.

It was during her stint with the Ram Gopal Company that Kumudini began to wonder why dance performances back home appeared stilted and stiff compared to the spectacle and grandeur she was witness to elsewhere. “I was mesmerised and astounded by the production quality, the lighting, costumes and the clever use of stage props. I wanted to do this for kathak.”

Back home, Kumudini was struck anew by how kathak performances appeared to be like “taking the classroom to the stage.” She calls it the ‘idhar dekho, udhar dekho’ (see here and see there) performances — her cheekiness is of course palpable.

Trendsetter

When Kumudini began her ‘makeovers’, as she calls them, critics felt affronted. “They told me that what I was doing was ballet, not kathak.” When she wore light pastels and white costumes instead of the traditional bright colours on stage, she was asked point-blank if she was performing at a funeral.

Thanks to her firebrand attitude (and her thick skin), Kumudini went on to become one of the biggest trailblazers in her chosen art form. If kathak, once burdened with the sameness of performances and presentations, today has a modern sheen and feel, a large part of the credit must go to Kumudini.

Pulsating

“I was getting tired of the gods and goddesses...come on, give them some rest too! All of our dance presentations were based on our epics and myths.” And so she came up with ‘pulse’ a production that correlated the pulse beating in our wrist to what pulsates in kathak as a dance form. That was not all. Her multi-person productions, such as Yugal, which made use of the entire stage and dazzled the audiences with its music, choreography and coordination, is something of a norm rather than an exception in contemporary kathak today.

“Youngsters come and ask me how to bring about experimentation in kathak. I ask them back, how does a painter paint? He has a canvas and paints. So have you. Your stage is your canvas and your art is your paint. Look around you, sensitise yourself to everything in this world and then go ahead and design.”

Throughout her flourishing career, the Padma Bhushan awardee might have done things differently but she is also quick to clarify that she never deviated from the essence of kathak and while she continued to experiment, she kept its vocabulary intact. “If bharatanatyam is like a majestic mountain, kathak is like a river...sometimes sober, sometimes in spate but always moving. One should respect this essential nature of the dance form,” she says. 

Having been immersed in her art for nearly 70 years now, hasn’t she ever felt like going away or giving it all up? “Dance is a madness for me
today — you have to be mad about something for you to be with it for so long.”

Now that’s a journey if there was one — from constant loathe to a forever sort of madness.

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