Kathak Yatra at Agartala  
- Dr. Sunil Kothari 
e-mail: sunilkothari1933@gmail.com  
Photos courtesy: Kathak Kendra, New Delhi 

March 28, 2009 
Hot on the heels of their successful Kathak Yatra of Assam, performing to the packed halls at Guwahati and Sibsagar, Kathak Kendra, New Delhi marched on to Agartala, the main city of Tripura. As per the decision of the Government to bring within the cultural fold the North East region and states, the artistes from other parts of India and of Kathak Kendra, New Delhi, in particular, were presented before the audiences in these two North East States, winning their appreciation in three-day festivals. 

Classical Kathak dance form has special appeal to masses. An open-ended form, it has a distinct advantage over other forms. People love to witness the chakkars, the pirouettes, the tatkar, the intricate footwork, compositions barely of one or two minutes and in rendering bhajans, and thumris, Kathak dancers with simple abhinaya convey a lot. 

However, their command over the technique, the tala, time cycles and lay, the rhythm, the repartees between the tabla player and the dancers invariably involves audiences and the artistes entertain the audiences with joy. 

Kathak Kendra has an enviable record with great masters who have taught more than two generations of dancers. Legendary gurus like Shambhu Maharaj and Sunder Prasad-ji have imparted training at the Kathak Kendra. Pt Birju Maharaj had a long innings teaching, performing, choreographing and leaving his own impress on countless students who studied under him. Directors like Gopal Das, Keshav Kothari, Jiwan Pani worked towards making it a national institute of Kathak with a very high level of standard for training. The annual Kalka Bindadin Mahatmas acquired a reputation of national festival of Kathak, with tireless working and artistic vision of Keshav Kothari, and established the event which dancers from all over India looked forward to participating and attending.  

Recently from Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Deputy Secretary Mr. Dasgupta has been given the charge of Kathak Kendra as its Director. With thorough experience as an able administrator and exposure to artistic events of national importance, Mr. Dasgupta, since he took over charge of Kathak Kendra, has set in motion several activities. Few months ago last year, he organized a festival in memory of late Pt Durgalal, the Jaipur gharana exponent, featuring the dancers of Kathak Kendra, and showcasing the best talent. He saw that all workers, teachers, gurus, performers, the repertory dancers and members of the staff were involved in it and succeeded in bringing to them a feeling of belonging to one family. 

Nazrul Kalakshetra, 
venue of the Kathak Festival, Agartala
Geetanjali Lal lighting the lamp with Shri Dasgupta, 
Director of Kathak Kendra and Dr Sunil Kothari
Of the various schemes, he has set into motion this concept of Kathak Yatra organizing Kathak festivals in North East region. Entrusting artistic responsibilities to senior guru and Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee and exponent Geetanjali Lal, the three-day festivals at Guwahati and Sibsagar, cities in Assam brought in its wake, a visit to Agartala (16 -18 February 2009). In collaboration with Directorate of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, Government of Tripura, Kathak Kendra held the festival at Nazrul Kalakshetra, one of the finest auditoriums at Agartala. Featuring 11 artistes, a couple, five male dancers and four female exponents, the festival brought a rich fare through a cross section of dancers, including few dancers from Assam, the neighbouring state and one male dancer from Agartala.  Daily three artistes were featured within two and half hours. Accepting the challenge of time constraints all of them put their best foot forward. Barring the opening night, the audience turn out was overwhelming, as word spread and people thronged in large number, standing on the sides and aisles.  

This was my second visit to Agartala after nearly fifty years. In 1959, when I had joined the research team of Bharatiya Lok Kala Mandal, Udaipur to undertake survey of the tribes of Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura, I had spent a fortnight witnessing the folk dances in Agartala and other places in Tripura. At that time Tripura was accessible by road and train. Now it is bounded on the North, West, South and South-East by the international boundary of Bangladesh. In the East, it has common boundary with Assam and Mizoram. 

The city of Agartala has a long association with the poet Rabindranath Tagore who has expressed his feelings in the following words: "... the woodland of Tripura has sent out invitation to their floral feast through their courier of the South wind and I have come here as a friend..." The association between Tagore and the Maharajas of Tripura goes a long way back. It was here that Gurudev had for the first time seen Manipuri Raas and requested the Maharja to send Buddhimant Singh, a renowned Manipuri dancer to Santiniketan. During an informal meeting with leading painters, literary figures, film directors, local dancers, and musicians at the Directorate, we met the author Bikach Chaudhuri who is currently writing a book on Tagore and Tripura, which will throw light on Tagore and the Maharajas of Tripura and their mutual affection and the assistance that the Maharajas gave to the poet to support Santiniketan and various activities.  More about it later on, in another account and Diary of Agartala, Tripura. 

On the opening evening, the Kathak duet by Delhi based husband and wife team, consisting of Assamese exponent Hemant Kumar Kalita and his wife Moumala Nayak was presented. Trained by Birju Maharaj, Hemant has an attractive stage presence, a fine figure and flawless technique. Moumala Nayak was associated with Vaswati Mishra. They complement their performance with imaginative entries and exits, performing together, one making an exit, other picking up from where one leaves and coming together. Their presentation of Ardhanarishwara, enhancing the attributes of Lord Shiva and Parvati was well synchronized. Performing to teen tala, various compositions, like Natwari tukda, Tripalli Aamad, chakkardar, parmelu, they created a favourable impression. In a Bindadin Maharaj bhajan, "Aise Ram hai dukhaharan," replete with bhakti bhava they enacted episodes of Ahalya and Krishna providing clothes to Draupadi and saving her from humiliation, in the court. When Indra showed his displeasure and tried to submerge the gopas and gopis, with torrential rains, Lord Krishna lifted Mount Govardhan and saved his devotees. Among the accompanists, Rajesh Pandey lent vocal support whereas Kishore Gangani on tabla and Salim Khan on sitar provided able instrumental support. A fine couple to watch.  

Moumala Nayak and Hemant Kumar Kalita
Abhimanyu Lal
Their recital was followed by Abhimanyu Lal, son and disciple of Geetanjali Lal. Trained by her, Abhimanyu has arrived on the Kathak scene with his untiring efforts, long hours of regular practice and good sense of music and expertise on playing various instruments. He wanted to be a vocalist, but luck brought him to Kathak dance and today he is in the forefront of Kathak scene amongst young male dancers. Abhimanyu's Kathak stands out for his command over tala and laya. He prefers to perform numbers that suit his virile personality and temperament and avoids effeminate movements. His 'Purushochita ang,' the form suitable to a male dancer, creates strong impression. Jaipur gharana parans, lay ki bant, parans with the beauty of Dha, flawless, breathtaking chakkars and exquisite movements of wrist were executed with finesse. At times it generated a feeling of sound and fury when he warmed up. But the element of sawal- jawab, the repartee between him and tabla player created excitement.  

Of late Abhimanyu has developed his own way of telling story, highlighting the story telling element - Katha of Kathak dance. He has a melodious voice, and he sang with emotion about the game of dice incident from the Mahabharata. Sometimes rendering the dialogue, narrating the story through vachikabhinaya, his enactment was dramatic and impressive. His impersonations of characters of Duryodhana, Shakuni, Yudhishtira, Draupadi and Dhushasan were full of bhava. Rajesh Pandey (vocal), Akhilesh Bhatt on tabla, Ghulam Mohammad on sarangi and Salim Kumar on sitar as accompanists highlighted Abhimanyu's recital. 

Kathak by Malati Shyam of Kathak Kendra was full of joy. She dances with abandon and her graceful endings, covering of the space, invariably reveal what thorough training she has received from Birju Maharaj. She has internalized the beauty of movements and knows how to engage the attention of the audience to the subtleties of Kathak. With spirited padhant, recitation of the mnemonic bols, Malati executed nritta, pure dance numbers with élan. Displaying the gait of peacock, Mayur Gati, revealing face through a variety of ghunghats, veils, then again performing parans, taking 27 chakkars - 9 each, three times - Malati moved on to Fagun Hori. Enacting abhinaya to various stanzas of Hori, she created the mood of the festival of colours. There was a fine sense of humour when Gopis dress up Krishna as a Gopi, such liberties are taken during Hori and is   allowed as fun! Accompanists Shakeel Ahmed Khan (tabla), Nasir Khan (sarangi), Salim (sitar) and Indu Prakash (vocal) are all versatile musicians and their support was in perfect sync with Malati's dance. 

Malati Shyam
Chinmoy Das of Agartala
On the second day, three male dancers performed in the beginning. Local artist Chinmoy Das from Agartala has received training from Bipasha Sarkar, Biharilal Singh and Umashankar Chakraborty. At present he is receiving advanced training from Ashim Bandhu Bhattacharjee in Kolkata. Chinmoy Das is a lecturer in the local Government Music College of Tripura. It was a welcome gesture to showcase the local talent along with artistes from other sates. His dance has an old world charm. He has a good grip over the idiom and executes movements with dignity. During tatkar, footwork the   tintinnabulations of ghunghroos was impressive. It was evident that the polish which one sees among the metropolitan dancers with greater exposure, will also be seen in his dancing with more experience. For abhinaya, he chose a ghazal in which a lover gathers the letters of his beloved and keeps them as a precious prize, only to immerse them into Ganga in the end! A certain unaffected feeling of innocence was seen in the rendering. Local accompanists Debabrata Ghosh (vocal), Shubhankar Ghosh (sitar) and Narayan Biswas  (tabla) lent him adequate support. 

From Delhi, Harish Gangani, son of Kundanlal Gangani, the Jaipur gharana maestro, followed Chinmoy Das. Harish has studied under his father and later on under his brother Rajendra Gangani. Personable, energetic, thorough in his understanding of Jaipur gharana technique, he has good stamina. He also has wide exposure and experience and is at present teaching at Kathak Kendra's South Centre in New Delhi. Opening with Shiva stuti, he executed ekapada bhramaris, chakkars, pirouettes lifting one leg, and unleashed several parans, showing his mastery over nritta, pure dance, with emphasis on virile element, the hall mark of Jaipur gharana. The permutations and combinations of various mnemonics and tihais of his father Kundanlal and Jailalji's, Sunder Prasadji's bandishes, compositions, were a delight to watch. In his dance also, one noticed the old world charm of Kathak. Taking 40 chakkars, he won rounds of applause from the audience. His dance was replete with technical nuances of nritta and the fund of traditional knowledge he has is praiseworthy. Most of the accompanists were from Kathak Kendra and some invited artistes/accompanists had stayed back. Therefore there was a certain high standard seen in the accompaniment of music during solo performances. 

After Harish Gangani, Lucknow based Surendra Saikia took to the stage. An Assamese exponent of Kathak, Surendra Saikia is a versatile dancer with a long period of training in Lucknow gharana. He studied under Vikram Singhe who had in turn studied under Acchan Maharaj. Surendra Saikia has mastered the technique and his graceful bodily movements were arresting, revealing the nazakat, delicacy and khoobsurati, the beauty of the Lucknow school. After the prayer, Surendra showed the various ways of standing while dancing; Acchan Maharaj's Aamad, the indescribable grace in the gat of Murali, flute, Mugat, crown, and carrying a sword. One rarely gets an opportunity to see such numbers. In Gat Nikas, he charmed the audience with gait of a swan and an elephant and showed what the gurus of old generation have bestowed a legacy on him. He also performed one paran he had studied from Rohini Bhate which had catching utplavanas, the jumps. While dancing tatkar, he amazed the audience with sound of one ankle bell out of more than two hundred he was wearing! Ravi Nagar (vocal), Nasir Khan (sarangi) and Arun Bhatta (tabla) as accompanists were in fine fettle and added to the charm of his dancing. He deserves to be seen more often in festivals. 

Harish Gangani
Nandini Singh
The last artiste to perform was the redoubtable Jaipur gharana dancer Nandini Singh, trained by a galaxy of gurus like Hiralal, Sunder Prasad-ji, Devi Lal and Durga Lal. She is known for her balanced nritta and abhinaya. Despite a heavy figure, when she started performing, it was like a magic. Light on her feet, she moved with such grace and ease that one wondered at the rare phenomenon. Doubtless the evening belonged to Nandini Singh. The beauty of her face and the expressions it registered, the delicacy of the movements and the impact it created left a lingering impression. There was authority in whatever she performed, to wit, the nikasi ka andaz in three laya, off beat tatkar, do mukhi paran, pancha mukhi paran, which are rare gem like items and it was a sheer delight to relish them! 

Her abhinaya showing her visage through various types of veils, and in particular the way women in Rajasthan see through ghunghat using fingers to peep through had the 'audience eating out of her hands.' They applauded her art with admiration. Her prayer in lasya, the graceful mode, in praise of Tripura Sundari, the presiding goddess of Tripura, consort of Lord Shiva, was evocative. Concluding with Hori, she transported all to Brindavan where Lord Krishna and the Gopis play Hori. She was ably supported by Indu Prakash (vocal), Nasir Khan (sarangi) and Shakeel Ahmed Khan (tabla). It was the highlight of the festival. 

On the third and final day, Assamese exponent Bipul Chandra Das from Guwahati performed. He trained initially in Jaipur gharana under Kundanlal Gangani and then after obtaining a scholarship he trained under Birju Maharaj at Kathak Kendra in New Delhi. He also accompanied Birju Maharaj within India and abroad taking part in various dance dramas, choreographed by Birju Maharaj. Now he is settled in Guwahati since 1987 and runs his institution Mridanga training young students in Kathak. He is also a lecturer at the State College of Music, Guwahati.  

His dancing is delicate, gentle and graceful. After the invocation 'Shantakaram bhujaga shayanam' in praise of Vishnu, he performed some compositions in teen tala, Aamad 'dha taka thunga' with impress of Birju Maharaj, displayed the movement of a serpent in Gat nikas, showed Nav ki gat, the boat gliding on the river, and performed Bindadin Maharaj's bhajan with episodes of Ahalya coming to life with touch of Rama's feet, Lord Krishna saving Draupadi from humiliation and Krishna lifting mount Govardhan. Like others, he also displayed tintinnabulation of one ankle bell.  

Bipul Chandra Das
Rani Khanam
Rani Khanam from Delhi, who performed after Bipul, is a name to reckon with in Kathak. Trained for more than 15 years from her childhood under Reba Vidyarthi and then under Birju Maharaj, she has excellent command over technique and is a brilliant dancer. She runs Aamad - Kathak Dance Centre in East Delhi. It is an accredited centre of Kathak Kendra. 

She rendered the stuti 'Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu' creating iconic images of the Goddess with great ease and a feeling of devotion. Moving to nritta, pure dance she performed to teen tala. The speed with which she executed the footwork had excellent clarity. Her thaat, the graceful bodily movements were arresting. She has internalized the graceful style of Birju Maharaj and evolved her own style.  Also the movements of the wrist as developed by her are an absolute delight to watch. Her padhant, recitation has feeling and with one parmelu using various sounds of bird etc, she created an amazing soundscape. In bhava parmelu how a nayika offers grain to the bird, the bird responds with happy sound and the bird flies away - such images were presented with imagination. Similarly, she created images of the raindrops, lightning, then rain and so on, using the mnemonics in a highly imaginative manner. 

Dancing to the song 'Jadu bhare tore nain' - enchanting are your eyes - she chose an episode of a nayika drawing a painting of her beloved hero, and employed similes of the quicksilver movements of the fish and deer to describe the magic of the eyes, the eyebrows which resemble a bow and danced imaginatively, communicating the main statement that the eyes are enchanting! The anaghat tatkar had the subtlety and stamp of authority. She would do well to cover the stage in terms of space, as often being very close to the mike reciting padhant, her dancing looked restricted. She is a brilliant dancer and transcends the heavy figure in a trice, once she starts dancing! Shakeel Ahmed Khan on tabla, Nasir Khan on sarangi and Rajesh (vocal) had excellent rapport with the dancer. 

The finale was by Malabika Mitra from Kolkata, with special accompaniment by the tabla wizard Sabir Khan. Malabika had received her initial training from Pandit Ram Gopal Mishra in Jaipur gharana. Later on, she studied from Pandit Om Prakash Maharaj, a disciple of Lacchu Maharaj in the Lucknow gharana style. She also took training under Birju Maharaj and Vijay Shankar. She has an arresting stage personality, is blessed with a large pair of eyes, which she uses for abhinaya with advantage and has solid technique. She has over the years won a reputation as a leading dancer. Sabir Khan belongs to Karamatulla Khan saheb's tradition. The very nature of Kathak demands that any tabla player should be able to accompany a dancer, even if they did not have any rehearsal. Listening to the recitation of mnemonics, the bols, he should be able to reproduce them. 

Malabika Mitra
Their scheduling as a final performance had generated excitement. Beginning with Shiva stuti, Malabika performed thaat in teen tala, rode tukde and gradually progressed to complex technical numbers, first reciting the bols, which allowed Sabir Khan to follow. Tisra jati chalan, paran jodi aamad, bedam tihai and chakra bhramari toda etc were executed competently. At times on account of lehra, there arose some difficulties in accompaniment, but soon they overcame the problem and the audience was under the spell of Sabir Khan's playing and Malabika's dancing.  

In gat nikas, she displayed the graceful nayikas, mugdha, madhya and pragalbha, three types of women according to their temperament. And the piece de resistance was expressions using eyes - raising upwards it turned into prayer, raising sideways it showed affection/love, looking with a cross feeling suggested anger and so on. Malabika also performed Jaipur gharana nritta numbers and in praise of Tripura Sundari she chose her ferocious mood reciting Kali paran. The vocalist Anand Gupta assisted her in padhant. Sabir Khan also delighted audience by paying Karamatulla Khan saheb's bandish, composition. Since the spring season is nearing, Malabika also performed compositions of Hori reciting kavits and dancing to the song by Surdas. The playing with colour had as usual, the evocative mood of the festival of Hori. 

The three-day festival ended on a happy note with appreciative audiences who expressed their gratitude to all the visiting artistes. Sadhana Srivastav, the ace compere from Delhi introduced the artistes and activities of Kathak Kendra with customary finesse for which she is known. Dinesh Poddar, the lights designer from Kolkata, enhanced the performances with imaginative lighting. The stage design with three arches by young set designer Kailash filled the backdrop and the flower arrangements with the lamp had Kathak Kendra and Sangeet Natak Akademi's signature. Geetanjali Lal thanked the local organizers and leading lights of the city like painter Swapan Nandy, who is also a mime artist, his wife who is a painter and also musician, and others who honoured artistes with flowers. Kathak Kendra, had put up an exhibition of music CDs, books etc published by Sangeet Natak Akademi and there was a brisk sale as it was easily available and also at a discount.  

Kathak Kendra, New Delhi, Director Mr. Dasgupta, musicians, artistes and the staff with their efficiency acquired over the years, all deserve praise for such a laudable effort on their part to take Kathak to these regions. 

Dr. Sunil Kothari, dance historian, scholar, author, is a renowned dance critic, having written for The Times of India group of publications for more than 40 years. He is a regular contributor to Dance Magazine, New York. Dr. Kothari is a globetrotter, attending several national, international dance conferences and dance festivals. He has to his credit more than 14 definitive works on Indian classical dance forms. Kothari was a Fulbright Professor and has taught at the Dance Department, New York University; has lectured at several Universities in USA, UK, France, Australia, Indonesia and Japan. He has been Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific (2000-2008) and is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. A regular contributor to www.narthaki.com, Dr Kothari is honored by the President of India with the civil honor of Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi award.