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The New York Kathak Festival 2020 goes on-line
- Rajika Puri

May 3, 2020

Watching the on-line presentation of this year's New York Kathak Festival - which I'd urged organizers to put together the minute I heard that the actual festival could not take place this year - I was delighted to discover how thoughtfully it had been done. Not only did they assemble 13 presentations that followed the format of their live festival, but also included their usual compere - the charming Pooja Bharadwaj - who, in videos painstakingly recorded at home, enticed us into each offering and its contents. This was one of the first of such ventures put together for an audience locked down because of the global pandemic. Thus, it involved dancers performing in their homes around the world: Trinidad, Singapore, Delhi, San Francisco, Toronto, Leeds. As it progressed, I became more and more impressed by the young dancers themselves, each of whom demonstrated a sense of 'ownership' of the form. They seemed to know their Kathak, and to present it from a place of deep understanding.

While the 16 slots curated for this year's live festival had included group works as well, due to the isolation of lockdowns, the 11 dancers on-line were all soloists. Each presentation was shot with a single static camera in the hallway or basement area of a dancer's home. Called the New York Kathak Festival, participants are actually from all over the globe. Most, though young, introduced their works with a professional air. As a Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancer, I love the way that in Kathak even beginners are taught to speak the bols and lyrics that go with movements they're being taught. The conversational style of kathakaars as they introduce their toras, tukras, parhants, and even share an anecdote about a composition is so much more inviting than the often pretentious diction - and even condescending tone - of typical Emcees talking down to an audience.

The livestream began with a sitar solo by Indrajit Roy-Chaudhury, especially composed for the festival and filmed outdoors in front of a flowering tree, followed by the first dancer, Priya Persad in a Shiva Vandana, and an exposition of the fourteen-beat dhamar. With the strength and clarity of her footwork, this confident shishya of Pratap Pawar - from San Fernando in Trinidad and Tobago - captured both the energy of Mahadeva as well as the intricacies of the complex taal. Next, Amita Batra gave the first of many 'modern Kathak' presentations set to music that's not usually associated with Kathak, in this case Breathing Under Water by Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale. While her mukhaabhinaya and choreography were quite charming, her form belied the ballet training we were told she had undergone. I confess that I find it difficult to watch dancers - especially young ones - who are not only overweight but also unsteady on their feet as was, too, the next dancer, Jersey based Ruee Gawarikar. She did however eventually draw me in with her Khade rehiye more Shyam that was as intimate as it was understated.

Pooja Bharadwaj

Indrajit Roy-Chaudhury

Priya Persad

Sunena Gupta

Next, another modern Kathak presentation -set to a collage of music including Meerabai's Barse badariya sawan ki - was presented by the lovely, lithe, Sunena Gupta, student of Singapore's Mulla Afsar Khan. This was the most uplifting of the offerings, perhaps because with it the young choreographer raised a prayer for a planet cleansed and re-born after its current scourge. Her beautiful costume, with its rainbow of colours, captured the hope expressed by a work called After the Storm.

Brittny Chandra's Tabla was also a contemporary piece that captured an inner journey. Her music - Jon Brion's album Punch Drunk Love - brought energy to her fluid wrist-work and swift chakkars. She was followed by Tanveer Alam from Toronto - the only male dancer in the show - a student of Kumudini Lakhia's shishya Sandhya Desai - in Invocation. Though he danced in a cramped living room, he conveyed an inner fire gained from his training at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. Next, Wisconsin based Anindita Neogy Anaam gave us her response to a lively recording by Ravi Shankar's students of his Raag Sandhya, followed by a dance set to Hand Pan by Aramir Lombardo. Farrah Yasmeen Sheikh, a student of Chitresh Das, performed another 'modern Kathak' work to a recording that included herself on manjeera and vocals. Many of the talented performers for this festival are musicians themselves, thus, well placed to explore new avenues within the structures of this classic form.

Brittny Chandra

Farrah Yasmeen Sheikh

Shivangi Dake Robert

Seetal Kaur

The last three performers: Pallavi Degwekar Shaikh, Shivangi Dake Robert, and Seetal Kaur struck to more conventional formats, with the latter accompanied by her husband Kaviraj Singh on santoor and vocals, and her brother Upneet Singh on tabla. Though each dancer works traditionally, they also demonstrate how multi-ethnic and 'open' the tradition is. Not only are two of them Maharashtrian, but the last group - all Sikhs from Leeds in the UK - ended with an experimental Marathi natya geet! Each dancer brings to Kathak her own ethnicity's musical sense (Pallavi sang in her own accompaniment) as well as a clear understanding of the classic form. With her swift turns, and graceful intermittently held poses, the Maharashtrian Shivangi - in a Taraana composed twenty years ago by Pandit Birju Maharaj - brought us the very flavour of a Mughal court.

Although the program went on a little too long - the last presentation, albeit with live music, was over half an hour - it was enthusiastically welcomed by a continuous feed of encouraging comments from Kathak fans confined in their homes around the world. And instead of the 550 or so people who'd have seen it at the Ailey Theatre in New York, it has to date been watched by over five thousand people from all over the planet.

Bravo team (all named in the final credits) and kudos to all the performers, dancers as well as musicians.

The livestream of this year's New York Kathak Festival is still available

Rajika Puri, trained in Bharatanatyam and Odissi, now performs her special brand of 'danced and narrated stories' (Sutradhari Natyam), and also lectures at festivals on Indian dance and theatre. She is co-curator at several major dance festivals in New York.

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