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Remembering Rohini Bhate
Photos courtesy: Shama Bhate

February 8, 2017

I clearly remember Rohini Bhate and I sitting together at the historic All India Dance Seminar convened by Sangeet Natak Akademi from 31st March till 7th April 1958, at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi. I was an up and coming dance scholar and was deeply involved in dance, having learnt a little Kathak at Deodhar's classes of music and dance near Opera House, Mumbai. Later on, I studied Bharatanatyam under Guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai at Raja Rajeswari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir at Matunga.

Rohini and I used to meet in Mumbai when she was staying near Wilson School at Girgam. She used to visit Mumbai regularly from Pune. My painter friend Prabha Vithal had given me autobiography Mazi Nrita Sadhana written by Rohini in Marathi. It was a fascinating account of her discovery of and deep interest in dance. She was trained in classical Hindustani vocal music and used to sing for All India Radio, which I remember having listened to. I was much impressed by her multiple talents. As a Kathak dancer her training had led her to study the theory also. She had translated Abhinaya Darpana and Isadora Duncan's biography. Her deep interest in aesthetics and literature were praiseworthy.

The Delhi seminar was a rare event, when I think of it now. Rohini and I were young and anxious to learn as much as we could. The conference had all the legendary luminaries from different dance forms. You name them and they were there. Dr V.Raghavan, Kamala Devi Chattopadyay, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Balasaraswati, her mother Jayamma, Kathak Gurus Lachhu Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj, Mohan Rao Kallianpurkar, Maya Rao, Birju Maharaj, Dr. D.G.Vyas, the great guru Amubi Singh from Imphal, Guru Bipin Singh from Mumbai with his pupils the Jhaveri Sisters, Mrinalini Sarabhai and Kathakali exponent Chatunni Panicker, Kathakali Gurus Kunju Kurup, Guru Gopinath and his daughters, Banda Kanak Lingeswar from Kuchipudi village, scholar Vissa Apparao, K.S Karanth, an authority on Yakshagana, Kalicharan Pattanayak from Odisha, an authority on Odissi, Guru Debaprasad Das, Babulal Doshi who established Kala Vikash Kendra in Cuttack, Devi Lal Samar from Udaipur (a scholar and a performer from Rajasthan, he had worked with Uday Shankar and established Bharatiya Lok Kala Mandal at Udaipur), Sudha Desai from Gujarat, Srimati Tagore and Shantidev Ghosh from Santiniketan, Sachin Shankar (former inmate of Uday Shankar Cultural Centre in Almora, then based in Mumbai, choreographer with his own ballet troupe), Dr. Maheswar Neog from Guwahati who brought with him for the first time to the seminar the great Maniram Mukhtiyar, Guru of Sattriya dance from Kamalabari Sattra from Majuli Island and few other celibate monks. There were dancers from Sri Lanka and Nepal and also a delegation of dancers from China.

Others who I remember were Professor Mohan Khokar, Dr. Mulk Raj Anand, Shirin Vajifdar, her sister Roshan Vajifdar, who was studying Bharatanatyam under Guru Chokkalingam Pillai, legendary film star Devika Rani and her Russian husband Roerich, the renowned painter, the Hungarian dance scholar, archaeologist and critic Charles Fabri and many other dance scholars.

It was there that we had seen Shambhu Maharaj singing thumri "Kaun gali gayo Shyam, bata de guniya" doing upaj ang, sanchari bhavas which were fascinating and I was completely floored not having seen anything like that. Lachhu Maharaj, Birju Maharaj, Maya Rao, Mohan Rao Kallianpurkar and others were watching it in complete admiration. Rohini and I used to talk about it very often. When Nritya Bharati celebrated its Silver Jubilee, Lachhu Maharaj had also performed and displayed the upaj ang with great imagination. Spreading palm of his left hand with index finger he showed the lines on the palm, hasta rekhas and suggested the galis.

Next day in the seminar, the great Balasaraswati took to the stage and sang in her melodious voice "Krishna nee begane baro" casting a spell over the audience and dancers who were present. She elaborated upon the word "Jagadoddharana Krishna" and in sanchari bhava, enacted the sequence of game of dice and Yudhishthira losing the game including Draupadi. When Dushasana attempted to disrobe her and humiliate her in the court, Draupadi prayed to Krishna, who saved her.

Way back in April 1958 Rohini and I had seen this together. Rohini had later on raised question that since Yashoda was calling child Krishna, in terms of sequences can sanchari bhavas for such sequence be shown? There was also reply to that query that when Yashoda asks Krishna to open the mouth to show he was not eating earth, he shows her entire universe. Therefore the acts of divine characters can be employed as sanchari bhavas to enhance the sthayi bhavas. I used to admire the queries raised by Rohini. We both were trying to grasp the depth of this great art of dance.

Rohini's learning Kathak under Mohan Rao Kallianpurkar and Lachhu Maharaj is well documented. Her constant search for the aesthetic appreciation of Kathak form is well known. She was tall and her movements were of 'simitanga', not large as we see in disciples of Shambhu Maharaj which were in 'sphuritanga,' large, and both had their own merits. The open ended nature of Kathak gave audiences an opportunity to see its depth.

Sansmaran exhibition

As a performer Rohini stood out for her execution of the pure dance movements. The command over tala and laya were universally appreciated. Her desire to expand the limits of the form with a series of dance choreographic works was seen in Malhar, Jhelum Che Ashru, Usha Sukta, Nritya Gopal, Parjanya Sukta, Ritu Samhar, Binda Kahe, Samay/Pavas, Udgar, Maun, Tanmatra, Udan.

For two years I was Assistant Secretary of Dance with Sangeet Natak Akademi when Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay was the Chairman from 1982 to 1984. During her tenure, Kamala Devi had requested Bharatanatyam abhinaya exponent Kalanidhi Narayanan and Rohini Bhate to present together a unique performance of abhinaya padas in Bharatanatyam and Kathak. Both the dancers displayed their unique ability to portray the characters in their chosen medium. The brevity, suggestive abhivyakti on part of Rohini was much appreciated by Kalanidhi Narayanan. Both the dancers rose to great heights. I was lucky to look after their requirements at Triveni Kala Sangam theatre.

Rohini's approach to Kathak was all inclusive. She was on board of studies of Khairagarh University and other Universities devising courses and syllabi for advanced studies in Kathak. In Pune University's Lalit Kala Kendra, her services were most valuable to raise the bar. Preparation of syllabi, courses, visiting lecturer, participation in several national and international seminars, in particular Kathak Prasangas arranged by Ashok Vajpeyi at Bhopal, we remember with great delight. She used to demonstrate the salient features of the style of Lachhu Maharaj with clarity. Her approach was analytical; she was interested in structure and aesthetics of Kathak and she had a flair for adaptation of oral tradition and had ability to explore innovations both in nritta and abhinaya.

She believed in what she used to say: "Dance does not signify mere pleasure or fascinating physical activity. It awakens soul and arouses sense of elation rarely experienced otherwise. What is dance then, if not a prayer?" Her life will inspire a generation of dancers. The legacy she has left in her countless disciples is her great gift to the society. The institution Nritya Bharati in Shivaji Nagar and its seven branches in Pune, one in Indore and one in Germany carry on her Kathak style faithfully. With advanced technology fortunately there are videos and a DVD titled Lehaja-Life Sketch and thoughts of Guru Rohini, also audio cd Noopur Dhun Pyaree, music, lyrics, and dance compositions are available.

For 40 years her disciple Sharadini Gole continued teaching and performing with her forte abhinaya and grace. Roshan Datye, another senior disciple, performer and a guru in her own right runs her Rochit Kathak Akademi in Pune since 1980. Rohini's daughter-in-law Shama Bhate has further extended her horizons of Kathak with her Naadrup institution. Among other countless disciples, Nilima Adhye, Prajakta Raj, Amala, Aruna Kelkar, Prerana Deshpande to name a few, carry on Rohini's tradition admirably.

Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, SNA Fellowship, Kalidas Samman and several honours, all came her way for her contribution to Kathak. To me she always remains what I used to write about her: 'Sthirdyutijyota.' She had firmness in what she believed. And come what may she remained strong. The flame never wavered. It remained steady and shall continue to shed, metaphorically, light for years to come.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and critic. He is honored with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC.

Thanks Kothariji, for a beautiful insight of a great artist.
- Prasanna Kasthuri (Feb 10, 2017)

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