Punarnava: A landmark in Kathak 
- Sunil Kothari
e-mail: sunilkothari1933@gmail.com 
Photos: Ashwini Chopra

April 27, 2009 

Punarnava, choreographed by Kumudini Lakhia for the Repertory Unit of Kathak Kendra, New Delhi, was staged at the Kamani Auditorium on 15th and 16th April 2009. 

Indeed a landmark in Kathak, Punarnava, this latest choreographic work by Kumudini Lakhia is, to use the cliché, 'a feather not only in her cap but also of Kathak Kendra.' They commissioned her for the new production for Repertory of Kathak Kendra. With the renowned musician Madhup Mudgal and lights designer Gautam Bhattacharya, the production left nothing to be desired. It had the best elements of each collaborator and was embellished by the repertory dancers, who shone like dazzling diamonds!

It is to the credit of Kumudini that she drew the best out of each dancer, including three guest artists Sanjukta Sinha, and the couple Hemant Kalita and Moumala Nayak. The concept and costumes are by Kumudini. The teamwork was exemplary. 

Selecting the traditional composition of Bindadin Maharaj, 'Niratata Dhang,' which is a 'lakshana-geet'of Kathak dance, Kumudini revisited it with Kathak as it is practiced and performed today. She gave it a contemporary and original touch, with her imaginative approach, each stanza seamlessly flowing into the next and the configuration was absolutely riveting! There lie the choreographer's gifts. 

As is known, all Kathak dancers learn this song. Since it poetically through the images of Radha and Krishna epitomizes the essence of Kathak, its characteristics, movements, nritta - pure dance, bols - mnemonics of dance and also music, complicated talas, intra-forms like 'agraferi' - moving forward, 'kavach' - revolving, 'palta' - changes, 'gat' - the expressional numbers,  'tihais' - the concluding three movements, 'toda' - pure dance short  number, 'tigun' - triple speed, 'thirkan' - the tintinnabulations of the ankle bells, and literary concepts, it is studied as a routine. 

But delve deep into it and you come out with jewels. That is what Kumudini did. Though the tune of the song is so deeply embedded in the psyche, she convinced Madhup to change it to suit dance; as dancers change so many dance numbers, he can change the ragas, embellish it with notes that go hand in hand with dance. Madhup did a superb job and each time one stanza was over, one went back to 'niratat dhang' the way he has  composed it melodiously. 

I have dwelt upon the technical structure of Kathak. It is necessary. For once one knows that this is the material at a choreographer's disposal, one would like to see how does she look at it now? And gives it a contemporary relevance.  At the very outset I must confess that I was surprised to see the dancers looking like the well trained, flawless ballerinas of Bolshoi Ballet Company of Soviet Union and could put in shadow the corps de ballet of Royal Academy of London! Dressed in eye-caching, aesthetically designed costumes of muted colours with different  shades, and the way they executed movements, cast a spell on the onlookers. Of course, the music and lighting played their magic. But the dancers moved with such grace, fluidity, with bodies tuned and willing to fall into many shapes. All movements were Kathak movements but at times when the dancers looked upwards, or entered the stage with lightning speed, stood in graceful poses, or spun like spinning tops, you watched with bated breath! 

Opening with Radha Krishna duet, describing the locale of Brindaban and Yamuna river and wonderful ambience, the gopis dancing joyously, forming circles, groups evoking beautiful visuals, youth coursing through their bodies, one was watching the web of enchantment woven before one's eye.  And in contrast in Dhamar when the four male dancers entered like warriors, the mood was set for Tandava, the vigorous dance of Lord Shiva! Dhamar in all its splendour captivated our attention. The kavit, the iconic images of Brahma playing conch, Narada veena, Shringi reciting swaras (notes), Shiva with crescent moon on his head and Ganga flowing, playing damaru (drum)! Ah, it was sheer delight watching the manly stances full of valour and pride. 

Exploring thumri the stanzas describing the physical beauty of Radha, 'Brijbhan nandini,' the dancers circled joyously as it were moving heavenwards with exquisite lighting. No wonder, as the poet sings: "Krishna's vision charmed away the birds and heaven showered flowers."

In the next sequence, wondrous and memorable, the four male dancers and four female dancers sat casually on the platform and recited bols in various ways, challenging, complimenting and then taking turns, danced them away with breathtaking chakkars and energy.  They could have been anywhere. In Brindaban, or a playground in any metropolitan centre.  Keeping the Kathak elements in tact, Kumudini in this sequence invested the Kathak form with contemporaneity. The playfulness and consequent joy were reflected in the dancers' group work, and it came through in a telling manner. The colourful kurtas, in varying shades of greens and blues were a feast for the eyes. The group of male dancers with one female dancer charged the audience with their energetic dance, chakkars, pure dance numbers, tatkar, footwork. The female dancer Sanjukta Sinha was more than a match for the male dancers in terms of energy and danced with aplomb. Kathak arouses audiences, who when they watch such energetic dance with such speed, applaud lustily! Well deserved applause. I join them: "Bravo, Bravo!!"

There were clever incorporations of 'ghunghat ki gat,' the gopis looking through the veils at Krishna, Krishna and gopis dancing with sticks, the dandia raas, performing, clapping and spreading joy. Even the image of Radha and Krishna in embrace, with Krishna's dark arms resting on Radha's bosom, as if they looked like the serpent 'bhujang'! 

The elements of music, the musical number tarana, with the same mnemonic syllables and interspersed with pure dance movements, criss-crossings, moving in horizontal plane, diagonally, coming together, and dispersing, was brilliant to say the least. Dressed in white costumes the dances looked full of energy, enthusiasm which was contagious.

The finale saw dancers receiving scarves from one gopi when Krishna and Radha shower blessings upon them. Kumudini interpreted it as handing over and passing of the tradition to the next generation. It was a multi-layered presentation capable of such interpretation and in keeping with the mood of the song.  The dancers display an attitude of a devotee, a sadhak, on a journey of Kathak, or just say 'dance.'

When they bowed to the audience concluding the 70 minute presentation, the audience gave them a standing ovation. The entire production is so well choreographed, and attention to details in all compartments places it in a class of its own. The sophistication, the flow, the execution, the music, the visuals, all pointed to one fact about how Kathak has moved today in an exciting direction. Those who had seen it six decades ago shed tears recalling their time and applauded Kathak in such a new version; those who only danced as a mere routine number got enriched with such interpretation. An open-ended form, Kathak has scaled great heights in the hands of choreographers like Kumudini. She is a rare artiste and has given Kathak a direction, rooted solidly in tradition and taking from it with tremendous confidence, instilling among the dancers and audience, love for dance.

The brochure is well designed with dancers in a group, in costumes which are bereft of the shiny material and are in pleasing browns. The requisite information is given in a nutshell, with a precise choreographer's note. Sadhna Srivastav did her compering with customary finesse. The sound system, under the careful supervision of Deepak Singh was perfect. Since the music was recorded, the sound level was maintained correctly. The present director D Dasgupta, the staff, and all connected with various activities to support the choreographic work have contributed to the success of the presentation and creation of such a high order. Kumudini rightly acknowledged their support.

Kathak Kendra deserves congratulations for adding such a gem of a work to their repertoire. If the training of the present repertory dancers is any indication with their  ability to adapt to the demands of choreographers like Kumudini, the repertory has a bright future. They will have to resolve the issue of who will head the repertory and maintain this work with its strength. Punarnava, 'new again' if translated loosely, is bound to go places and will be performed in major cities of India and would, I am sure, be seen abroad in major international dance festivals.

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.