The Natya Kala Conference of the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, a major event of Chennai’s annual music and dance season, has over the years attracted some of the finest exponents of India’s classical dances and other dance forms. The title Nrithya Choodamani was this year awarded to Gopika Varma, a practitioner of Mohiniyattom, a dance genre from Kerala.
One of the highlights of the Conference has been the conduct of lecture sessions in the morning, which have for decades drawn experts ranging from Singhajit Singhji and Astad Deboo to Kalanidhi Narayanan and CV Chandrasekhar to engage in lively discussions of topics crucial to their art, followed by even livelier interactions with the audience. Many of these discussions generate a great deal of debate and audience participation, even if half the time the only heat that results is in the form of hot air.
This year the discussions focused on the abhyasa-sampradaya or the evolution of teaching-training traditions of the five major systems of Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Odissi and Kathak, traditional natya, “culminating in today's repertoire and presentation”. A contemporary acharya of eminence led each deliberation, while both well known performers and students demonstrated the path traversed by the art form to reach its present status. Each day’s deliberations proved to be an eye-opener to those not familiar with the rigour and science behind the training methodology unique to each genre of dance.
The popular vote for the best session went to the last one on Kathak, because it served not only to showcase some of the brilliant techniques and levels of accomplishment attained by today’s practitioners, but also to dispel a few myths about the perceived lack of sophistication of the art form relative to the southern dance forms.
Anchored by Sangeet Natak Akademi secretary Jayant Kastuar, himself a past Nrithya Choodamani, the session was led by senior gurus from the two major gharanas of Kathak—Jaipur and Lucknow—and made eminently watchable by dance demonstrations by three representatives of each school, veterans, current stars and senior students. Jai Kishan Maharaj, past master of the Lucknow gharana, and Rajendra Gangani, pillar of the Jaipur gharana, led their disciples on a thrilling journey from the first exercises they practised as young students to the most complex compositions they perform on stage today.
In addition to the Birju Maharaj clan, which was represented by two of Jai Kishan’s brothers, and three musicians from the Gangani family who assisted Rajendra, there were vocalists, sarangi players and percussionists on stage. Gauri Diwakar did the star turn for the Lucknow gharana while Swati Sinha played her role to perfection from the Jaipur side.
Remarkably, there was perfect coordination between the two different gharanas on display. The camaraderie and chemistry were to be seen to be believed, the Ganganis appreciating and encouraging the Maharajs and vice versa. We learnt how at the Kathak Kendra, New Delhi, where the teaching methods have through the decades been codified and structured to develop a common vocabulary, the two gharanas have gained by observing absorbing each other’s ways. It was most heartwarming to see the two senior gurus working in tandem to make the demonstration meaningful and fruitful for an audience largely untutored in the nuances of Kathak. Two senior students of the Kendra, Dhirendra Tiwari and Quincy Kendell Charles, gave a high quality display of expression and footwork.
The high point of the lec-dem was the impromptu display of footwork by Jayant Kastuar in his south Indian silk veshti—which he had donned in his capacity as anchor for the morning—at the instance of the Ganganis, who even managed to persuade the portly Jai Kishan Maharaj to magically transform himself into the thieving boy Krishna caught with butter all over his face.
To those of us who believed Kathak offered no more than fast-paced footwork and twirls and pirouettes, the variety of expressions and the poetry—even if largely based on the Radha-Krishna theme—the two teams demonstrated that morning were quite a revelation. Accustomed over the years to rivalries and claims of superiority made by the different schools of classical dance, it was refreshing for a south Indian audience to see how well nearly a dozen artists belonging to two different gharanas worked to a common purpose, illuminating the lecture with some outstanding nritta.
That the youngest were students and the oldest over sixty, that they came from different parts of India, and that one of them was a UK-born mathematician turned dancer of African descent made the whole experience even more enjoyable.
Just a day earlier, MS Dhoni’s men, with fifteen years separating the oldest and youngest team members, again from different parts of India, coached by a South African and supported by staff from different parts of the world, had beaten South Africa comprehensively in their own backyard.
Jayant Kastuar, Jai Kishan Maharaj, Rajendra Gangani and their talented artists won over the hearts and minds of a highly demanding Chennai audience. Amidst the general gloom surrounding the future of the Indian classical performing arts, thanks to lack of support from the government and the media, such events give us hope.