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Reclaiming historic contribution of Kathak paviour
- Leela Venkataraman

May 24, 2022

Non-Gharanedaar Pt Mohanrao Kallianpurkar: The Paviour of Kathak
Authors: Shama Bhate, Arshiya Sethi, Shilpa Bhide
Price: Rs.495
Published by: Sterling
Pages: 200

Too refined to self assertively project himself into the forefront of Kathak, Pt. Mohanrao Kallianpurkar's contribution has been relegated to a fading, barely remembered past of Kathak history. And this in spite of the recognitions he earned like the SNA award in 1962 and the Uttar Pradesh SNA award in 1981, Nritya Nipunn from the Bhatkhande Sangeet Vidyapeeth, the Sarangdev Fellowship and Karnataka SNA Award in 1982. Now, rescuing this non-gharanedaar Kathak pioneer from the backburners of dance memory, comes a timely, well written, extremely informative and riveting book - the result of a collaborative effort involving three like-minded people - Shama Bhate (principal disciple of Rohini Bhate and Suresh Talwalkar), who is a Kathak teacher, performer and artistic director running Nadroop, Arshiya Sethi twice Fullbright Fellow, arts activist and writer, founder of Kri Foundation, and young Shilpa Bhide, Shama Bhate's student, proficient in translating texts to dance,and has established her own Bilvaani School of Dance and Movement. Uniformly spurred by a passionate zeal that Pt. Mohanrao be given his rightful place in dance history through chronicling his contributions, this trio's direct link with the subject comes from Shama Bhate who as principal student of Rohini Bhate, (a reputed Mohanrao Kallianpurkar shishya) learned and performs his compositions - the awareness of their real worth sinking in with the eye-opening event in 2013, celebrating the birth centenary of Mohanrao Kallianpurkar - with Shama's Nadroop seminar Sansmaran as part of the centenary celebrations, as a tribute to Mohanrao.

While a collaboration of “three authors, two cities and one story” to quote Arshiya Sethi, certainly provided more material for the book, what is praiseworthy is how the matter has been collated, and the entire book planned, taking into account the special qualifications of each of the writers. And what emerges is a rounded biography which looks at Mohanrao Kallianpurkar against the background and history of the times he functioned in. In the process one also gets a lot of added important information on what dance was to society and specially on how Kathak was placed in the scenario of the time. That the book has been written with deep respect for the subject speaks loudly.The contributions to Kathak apart, Mohanrao was a loving husband and fond father to his three children - despite wife Sudha, a practicing gynaecologist, for health reasons, having to live as a single parent with the two sons and daughter in Dharwad. Despite the distance his presence felt by the family, says much about the man himself.

Pt. Mohanrao, a visionary, was one of those rare human beings - combining intellectual vigour with noble human qualities - an aspect rightly stressed in the book. A very perceptive assessment of Pt Kallianpurkar's contribution, and his real place in Kathak history, makes for a valuable work with all aspects carefully examined. This is a must read for the Kathak world (specially) and extremely informative for the dance community in general. To add to the value of the work are the QR codes provided, for the registered to go straight to the special portal of digital material providing aspects of this Kathak savant and his contribution.

It was the year 1935, when Kathak (Nautch at that time) was still besmirched with the 'tawaif' taint, when, mesmerised after watching Guru Sunderprasadji dance, a non gharanedaar Mohanrao Kallianpurkar from a Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin family, with absolutely no background of dance ( music trained as a sitarist under Mohammad Khan of the Mewati gharana) stepped into an arena, where Kathak 'biradaris' had males hailing from only traditional families. Overcoming vehement family opposition ( the only succour coming from the maternal aunts Rukma Chandavarkar and Kalyani Samsi), Mohanrao started learning at Babulnath temple from Jaipur gharana's Pt. Sunderprasad, who contrary to gharana loyalties, during his boyhood days in Lucknow, had trained under the Lucknow savant Bindadin Maharaj.

Strangely, it was this very group of disapproving Saraswats that came later to the rescue of Guru Sunderprasad when he got mired in money problems, helping him set up his Bindadin School for Kathak in Mumbai, with Lucknow guru Lachhu Maharaj himself dancing for the inauguration! Attracting students like the Pooviah Sisters, actress Nalini Jaywant its first female student and several others like Madame Menaka, it was Mohanrao however, who rose to become its best product and was deputed to overlook classes, leaving Sunderprasadji unencumbered, with time to reflect on creating new compositions. The jolt for the institution came when Mohanrao's exceptional talents caught the eye of Pt. Bhatkhande's senior disciple, scholar/teacher Pt. Srikrishna Narayan Ratanjankar, who decided on this young artiste as the best suited candidate for the work profile envisaged for the Professor of Dance in the Marris College of Music in Lucknow. Conscious of how much this offer meant for Mohanrao's future prospects, it was nevertheless, with a deep sense of loss that Sunderprasadji, permitted his prized student to go.

A measure of Mohanrao's character was that despite formal education and knowledge of Sanskrit with understanding of texts like the Natya Sastra, Abhinaya Darpana etc, he accepted, in all humility and abiding respect what the Gurus gave him through the oral Guru/Shishya system, where family traditions of Kathak were passed on from one generation to the next, with little or no recourse to texts and Sastras. This unusually talented youngster, humble to a fault, with no family lineage to vouch for his credentials, with his sterling character and impeccable behaviour, stood out as a contrast amongst gharanedaar Kathak teachers, many of who, given to wayward and licentious eccentricities, were not known for niceties of language while dealing with their students. And yet Mohanrao earned plaudits and abiding goodwill from each of his gurus. While very respectful of all gharanas, he availed of all the opportunities that came his way of learning from maestros of more than one gharana - thanks to his primary guru Sunderprasadji, despite his Jaipur heritage, having learnt from Lucknow Bindadin Maharaj also, making him a 'Guru bhai' of the Lucknow stalwarts, brothers Achhan Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj - all of who taught Mohanrao without reservations.

Very open minded, never claiming to be from any gharana, Mohanrao preserved in toto, the intrinsic nature of individual compositions as taught to him by gurus from both gharanas. As a performer, his dance with flowing, expansive movements, given his communicative eyes in an unusual six-foot tall frame for a dancer, combined the excellent laya mastery of Guru Sunderprasad (Mohanrao's uncanny feel for intricacies of laya could use the four limbs simultaneously, each marking a different tala) with the movement lyricism of Achhan Maharaj's ang, and interpretative depth he acquired from Shambhu Maharaj the abhinaya expert, not to speak of Lachhu Maharaj's poetic imagination of emotions spun into nritta passages. The book mentions the aural weaves of footwork churning out of a Tha thunga takita thunga rhythmic phrase. Much like Shambhu Maharaj's subtlety in pointing to the parting in the hair as the gulley through which Krishna has perhaps gone in Kaun gali gayo Shyam, Mohanrao in interpreting a poetic line would point to the eyes - with iris as lotus, the collyrium in the eye as mud or dirt, with pupil and lashes standing for various aspects.

Non-Gharanedaar Mohanrao Kallianpurkar: The Paviour of Kathak

The book rightly calls Mohanrao the 'Kathak Paviour' - his combined academic and practical (sastra / prayog) knowledge enabling the kind of research to pave the Kathak pathway so to speak, by establishing the links between practice and theory as mentioned in the old texts. This also enabled him to devise a curriculum for teaching and with it a performance format - with a clear sequence of items paving the way for a more structured approach to performance, while keeping in mind the spaces a form like Kathak needs for improvisations, the soul of the dance. What was left till now to the arbitrariness of individual gurus, with this crucial ground work, helped standardise teaching also. And known Kathak institutions like Khairagad Sangeet Vishwa Vidyalaya (Madhya Pradesh), Chakradhar Kendra (Bhopal), Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Prayag Sangeet Samiti (Allahabad) still follow the curriculum set by Mohanrao. Mohanrao, through his dance-drama (known as 'ballet' creations) expanded Kathak's creative horizons, looking at literature from other languages like Sanskrit for Kathak. His War and Peace, a duet, was inspired by Tolstoy's famous novel, with Vikram Seth his guru bhai and prime student dancing with him. Between 1943-44 he used the Gat-bhav medium of Kathak to do work inspired by Kalidasa's Vikramorvashiyam. His other pioneering work was Malti Madhav. He wrote the first ever Hindi translation of the Abhinaya Darpan published in 1956. He retired from Bhatkhande College in 1972, and came back to Mumbai for the next ten years, his home at Gamdevi getting busy with an array of students from different gharanas coming to his place to learn from him like Padma Sharma, Rohini Bhate, Habiba Rehman, Purnima Pande and a long list of others. The NCPA enlisted his services for talks with renowned artistes like Ravi Shankar and for lectures.

Mohanrao's compositions apart, his papers read at various fora, his articles (of which one sees examples in this book too), his master classes, the exchanges he had with other luminaries like great musicians, critic Mohan Natkarni, Keshav Kothari et al are all proof of a thinking, researching art mind. Of his book reviews, the video material through this book provides glimpses of his review of Classical Dances of India written by Kapila Vatsyayan. Without fear or favour, while praising the book he comments on the absence of more elaboration on certain points, which the author could have provided.

As a teacher, Pt. Mohanrao with his patience and even temper could have had few equals. Not bound by possessive gharana feelings of hoarding creative riches within the family (parting parsimoniously with creations taught to chosen students) Pt Mohanrao or 'Master Saab” as he was called, was a generous teacher, totally open-minded, who believed that students could benefit by learning from different teachers. Easily approachable, he suggested Usha Sukta, as an item for Uttara Asha Coorlawala, a Modern dancer stationed in the States who contacted him and came to his classes to 'watch his Kathak.' He gave to each student what he felt would suit the person's abilities the best. Thus his Amad and Thaat specialties, his Gats as also thumris done in the baithaki bhav were taught to Guru Subhas Chandra, who is said to be a carbon copy of the Guru in ang. A large part of his repertoire was taught to Rohini Bhate, his close disciple, of whose dedication he had a very fine impression (captured in an article where he mentions her restless energy and deep love for the dance).

In the digital material one has a glimpse into the Amad teaching class of Mohanrao explaining how his guru had taught him the difference between a male and a female dancer in executing the a finishing rhythmic phrase and freezing. One gets a peep into execution of fractional taals of 5.25 (class conducted by Shama Bhate). Mohanrao's laya wizardry with his discovery of the 10.5 beat cycle (chitraroopak), his bhinnalobha 6.5 beat cycle, his mix of talas like Jhaptal and Pancccham Savari (Ganga Jamuna), the 70 matra cycle comprising teental 16 matras), Jhaptal (10 matras), Dhamar (14 matras), Chautal (12 matras), Ashtamangal (11 matras) and Roopak (7 matras) combined the distinction of being able to compose for this nritta, the nagma or the lehra refrains (which are not just tunes but need to reflect the full nature of the tala and its stresses, so the dancer does not need a tabla percussion to dance) as a trained musician. Musical compositions like the Sangeet, Sargam, Tarana were brought into the repertoire.

The photographs in the book have been carefully selected giving a feel of Mohanrao Kallianpurkar as a family man and as an artiste, and with friends and fellow artistes like Maya Rao, Rohini Bhate and others. Pictures of the young dancer performing in War and Peace and in a duet in Malti Maldhav and Baithaki bhaav snaps showing not just the delicate facial expressions but the hastas and the emotion conveyed by the full silhouette of the body are very telling.

Written with not just empathy for the Guru but also a sense of humour, with the writing having mention of interesting episodes, this book wins a hearty vote of confidence for collaborative work.

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

Sounds fantastic! Thank you for your detailed review. Kudos to the three authors for their collaborative oeuvre! Mohan-maama was my beloved uncle and greatly admired and respected by all in our family and the community. As did so many artists and professionals in the music and dance fields. He was a master of rhythm and had composed superb pieces especially for dance and sounded almost musical. A must buy!!
-  Gautam Sirur (May 27, 2022)

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