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Sastra, Shishya, Shah

September 29, 2016

In dance world, we often hear the word sastra or shastras. NATYA being most known and cited, forget the fact very few dancers in the country (except perhaps Padma Subrahmanyam who knows Sanskrit and its in-depth meaning and follows its tenets to a T, or the Dhananjayans) maintain its core essence, in form and use; in shape or size as NATYAshastra describes!

So to see eager students graduating from Sastra University of Tanjore, at a special ceremony, was interesting. I must confess had I not been invited as one of main guests, I wouldn't be privy to the proceedings because it was not a public event. Just parents, pandits of arts and President of the Music Academy N. Murali for the degree conferment of BFA and MFA students of Bharatanatyam of Shanmugha Arts, Science, Technology & Research Academy= Sastra University! Its Harvard returned Dean, S. Vaidhyasubramaniam looked humble despite high credentials but then this is Tamil culture. High thinking, simple living. Not much show just substance. Mahati Kannan, with bright shining eyes (shows tejaswa) sang in praise of Madurai Meenakshi by way of an invocation, followed by a short dance presentation by senior dancer Vasanthalakshmi Narasimhachari, MFA degree recipient and winner of this year's DIRECTOR SUBRAHMAYAM ENDOWMENT AWARD. All this, under the benevolent but stern watchful eyes of other Meenakshi-eyed of Madras, the one and only truly academically inclined star senior dancer-guru-scholar of India -- Dr. Padma Subrahmayam.

Sastra University degree function, Chennai

DIRECTOR became a first name for her father, who gave many an artiste a huge platform through his films in 1940s through 50s. He brought, hosted, fed many dance gurus who choreographed for his films like Vazuvuhoor Ramaiah Pillai, Kunchidapadam Pillai and Muthusami Pillai. In fact, the very land on which this Sastra degree function was held was once upon a time DIRECTOR Subrahmayam's studio Meenakshi, which was later bought by Jupiter Pictures from whom one reputed Malayalee gent Mr. Ramachandran bought it and he was also a popular cinema star called MGR!! He ruled Tamil cinema, then Tamilnadu itself, for long. And after him, this studio became the MGR Janaki College for women.

History is a continuous journey of milestones. As a student of Indian history, I simply love reconstruction. Just by calling oneself a dance historian, a quasi pr dance writer or fair-weather critic can't suddenly become a historian! For that the process and protocols of writing history has to be understood and known. I learnt it while pursuing M.A in Indian History at Delhi University (by default, I also came in the merit list) and by chance I was born to dance! So saw history being made last 50 years. I also suffer from photo memory so I can recall who was wearing what in 1962! Exactly what they said at dinner table and how much they tipped! I'm told science holds that many geniuses suffer from these traits too. Like Padma Subrahmanyam. She recreated karanas that existed for centuries and brought it centre stage. She then structured courses, workshops, even shows around the theme. Her followers are worldwide. Padukka's pull and pelf lead now bring many to this Sastra course set by her through Distance Mode dance education. It is amazing this course she has set has 100+ students while Baroda , Benaras, Pune, Delhi, Madras universities put together don't have that many! This when Gujarat offers free girl child graduation courses and Delhi doles heavily subsidized metro and bus passes. So the fact is CONTENT IS KING! Or queens like Padma Subrahmanyam MAKE content. It shows how quality of faculty makes the difference or one person's name and depth of works creates magic. Also, she brings other qualified talents to the course. Attendance is compulsory! Senior dancer Vasanthalakshmi Narasimhachari related on stage, an interesting aspect how disciplined and pucca Padukka (as many fondly call her) is. Doing her MFA, this senior dancer had just been bereaved by passing of her guru and husband natyachari Narasimhachari. So she called Padukka to opt out of exams as she was not focused. Padukka listened quietly and three days later sent schedule of exam, saying please report! Padukka reinstated in her the greatness of art above all and how it gives meaning to life. Even in death.

Dead they may be for centuries but their solid work far outlasted them. I'm talking of Amir Khusro and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.

No other province or territory in British India had such bizarre fate as Awadh or modern day U.P (Uttar Pradesh, though many living there call in Ulta Pradesh!) epic centred in Lucknow. The region was fertile, it had a tributary of Ganga called Gomti flowing through it and the head of Hindu culture, Kashi or Benaras was nearby. By some accounts, Avadh or Awadh was a continuation of Ayodhya, the Hindu kingdom of Raja Dasaratha whose eldest son Rama married Sita, the princess of Janakpur. In 4th century AD, it was part of the great Gupta Empire. In early 12th century, Qutbuddin Aibak defeated the ruler of Kannauj and thus, the Hindu hold ended and Muslim hegemony began, lasting till 19th century. Thus, traditions borne of many previous centuries amalgamated to become a new culture. This was the ultimate test of two great cultures meeting and merging seamlessly: Hindu and Islamic. Fusion at its best. Amir Khusro epitomises that culture.


Report in Times of India (click on image for enlarged version)
Rare archival materials
Courtesy: Mohan Khokar Dance Collection

In 1976, I got to enact the role of Amir Khusro in a ballet production by that name and loved to lip sync “kaafirre ishkan musalmani dara zarkaarni...” I got so busy with rehearsals that I forgot to attend college. St. Stephens was very unindian those days and followed no university rules, citing it was under patronage of Delhi diocese, not Delhi University! All in all, I lost a year due to attendance. Some think I'm getting back at my college by naming the yearbook I edit and publish ATTENDANCE! ( Not at all. The name ATTENDANCE came about because most dance journals had some sanskritised name like rasa, lasya, manjari, so father and son wanted something direct and international. Dance was critical to its nomenclature. A yearbook also implied what one saw and recalled in a year that was. Or had attended. Hence, attenDANCE.

The Amir Khusro show was so suspect in super critic, super historian, my super father's eyes (then Sect. SNA), who was very unsure of my talents on stage that he gently prevailed on the organizers (and choreographer Bhagwandas Verma) to change my name in brochure credits from Ashish Khokar to Arvind Kumar! Fortunately for us the show was a huge success, father had to attend since the then President of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, decided to grace as the chief guest. The President came to me in the end line up of cast and crew and bent half while giving me bouquet to honor the memory of the man who united Hindus and Muslims. Who gave Dehlawi - the language - of and to Delhi. Who was polyglot knowing 16 languages. Who served as royal librarian with 12000 books and could easily fetch a book when the king suddenly asked! Who wrote thousands of ghazals, nazms and thumris. Who created the biggest brand for India - Nuh Siphir . Who composed thumris and linked Afghanistan, Iran, India in 13 century. Who was born Abul Hasan Yaminuddin Khusrau in Ettah in 1253 to a noble of Lachchi tribe of Turkey. Whose mother was Indian! Who spoke in Sanskrit. Who introduced a new melody Sazgari by combining Puri Guru, Kangli and a Persian raag, a mixture of khatrag and ShahNaz. Who composed couplets, quibbles, mixing Persian with Brijbhasha. Who, who, whew!

In the mid 16th century, after succession of many small and big Muslim dynasties, the Mughals took over under Humayun and his illustrious son Akbar made Awadh a province or Suba, as part of his subedari system. The Mughals were great warriors but also developed a practical and first-rate administration system. Akbar introduced the Mansabdari system, under which a Mansab, or district was given out for administration purpose to a Mansebdar. Thus, Subas (provinces) came under Subedars and Mansabs (districts) under Mansebdar. This was the foundation of modern civil services, the IAS allied! 500 years ago, much before British even came to India, the genius of Indian culture infused with the Mughals, had created the best administrative service in the world. America was still living in primitive culture in the 16th century, unaware of and unexposed to any developed civilization. Europe was living in medieval ages, living in quasi-human habitat and in poverty ridden backward conditions. India already had a thousand years of history and heritage behind by then, the Vedic Age, the Golden age of the Guptas, Cholas, Cheras, Pallavas in south and empires and by 16th century had created many lasting monuments like Ajanta, Ellora, Qutb Minar, Taj Mahal and Red Fort. It also had established and created an administration process for the whole country, almost the size of Europe.

It was in this period that the official name of Ayodhya became Awadh. And today Awadh is Lucknow. Awadh was that time divided into 5 havelis, sort of units of district and these were Faisabad, Gorakhpur (Gonda), Bharaich (Nepal border), Khairabad and Lucknow. Today Lucknow is the capital of Uttar Pradesh and not a shining example of any exceptional merit but Lucknow was the most important citadel of culture in central India: it boasted of fine architectural splendours, art, music, poetry, literature and dance. But for this rich central kingdom, there would be no Kathak as it saved, nurtured, propagated and promoted the art form. It is in courts of Nawabs of Lucknow that the fine art of thumri singing came about. It was thanks to the climate and culture of Muslim etiquette that a wandering minstrel lore of katha form got stylized with courtly class and attributes. Lucknow is to north India, in cultural and dance terms, what Tanjore was to Bharatanatyam in south.

The British, forever seeking to extend their area of influence subsequently assisted the rulers of Awadh to hang on to territory in dispute with former rulers (created, in no small measure, by the clever and typical British policy of divide and rule), and indeed entered into alliance with the Nawabs, at whose court they placed a Resident, or agent of the Governor-General (whose sole task was to slowly fester problems that would give the British cause to annex the kingdom). The real change in relationship began in 1819 with an act that reflects little credit on the Honorable East India Company or, for that matter, on anyone else. It was in that year that Ghaziuddin Haidar, the then Nawab Wazir desired the title and dignity of kingship. He thus gave the British huge free fortune and licenses in addition to gold and diamonds and gemstones and thus bought a title from them. The British needed this money to fight the Marathas. Thus Nawab Ghaziuddin Haidar became the king of Awadh and crowned so in 1818. It was merely a title, not the substance of monarchy that he had bought or the British had conferred on him. His terms of engagement with the British remained the same. Thus, while for his subjects he remained a king, to the British he remained their vassal, at best on par with their authority, the Resident!

The beauty of this whole arrangement was that the British were granting the Nawab the possession and control of his own territories! This made the British realize how stupid local rulers were and they started a political conquest of India. All this while, it was through the East India Company that the British had economic control of India. With Battle of Plassey and then subjugation of Bengal, then Awadh, the political ambitions of the colonial traders shifted from being purely economic to political. The cunning British eyeing this central territory annexed Awadh in 1856. The 1857 Mutiny was first outcome of that against the British rule and the story of First War of Independence is too well known as also represented in persona of Mangal Pandey.

Satyajit Ray too made a film on the fortunes of this important province that became Uttar Pradesh with Lucknow as its capital. The film featured Amjad Khan as Wajid Ali Shah and Saeed Jaffrey, Mirza sahib. Richard Attenborough was General Outram who finally schemed to annex the kingdom from Wajid Ali Shah, who he claimed was too busy singing and dancing in court and playing chess! It was called Chess Players (Shatranj ke Khilari) and depicted the life and times of this richly cultured kingdom called Oudh by the British, who could not pronounce most Indian names easily so made Awadh into Oudh. It is the singing and dancing of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah that concerns us here. Thanks to him and his patronage, Kathak of Lucknow gharana came about and has given to India such illustrious gurus as Bindadin, Achchan, Lachhu, Shambhu and Birju Maharaj.

The Lucknow gharana of Kathak arose mostly in reign of Asaf-ud-Daula (1175-98) and Wajid Ali Shah (1847-56). While his reign was short, due to deceit of the British, his achievements were many. With their patronage, there developed, away from Benaras and Bihar, Mathura and Punjab, a distinct style of Kathak, today known popularly as Lucknow gharana. By accounts of British Gazetteers (and they were very good at book keeping and record keeping, like the French), it is established that there were over 100 kathakaars in Benaras alone (as per James Prinsep's 1825 census). Buchanan's survey of Behar (modern day Bihar) records 58 kathak kothas in main towns, in the period 1807-1814. As a student of history, these facts can be easily gleamed from archives and records.

With Lucknow as centre of a kingdom, many reputed teachers like Prakash ji, son of Ishwari Prasad, grandfather to Bindadin and Kalka Maharaj, moved from Handiya in Allahabad to Lucknow. Lucknow attracted many talents from other parts and thus the court was decorated with many gems. His sons Durga Prasad and Thakur Prasad were both prominent dancers of the court and Durga Prasad also taught finer aspects of Kathak to the king himself. While Kalka Prasad had inborn gift of rhythm, his brother Bindadin had poetic leanings and mastery. Their combination was formidable and in Wajid Ali Shah, found fruition. Bindadin was a great devotee of Krishna, hence his influence on Lucknow Kathak can be seen through this.

Wajid Ali Shah was devoted to Raas and dressed up as Krishna and played role of Krishna in court. Based on this, he created the operatic form Rahas, a form of Kathak that Raas dovetailed with and Rahas partook of. His dancing was so intense and involved that often he was mistaken for Krishna, to whom Wajid Ali felt he belonged. This was a classic case of Indo Islamic cultural fusion. These operas were performed in Kaiser Bagh, where an oblong shaped hall accommodated the king's favourites.

He was also a literary giant, having written scores of compositions and two lasting books - Najjo and Banni - both pertaining to Kathak technique and poetry. Several sketches detail each stance and position of Kathak body and in doing these treatises, the king also saved and shared with posterity the early evolutionary stages of Lucknow branch of Kathak. He also authored Saut-ul-Mubarak. These books showed how the form evolved in courts and how teachers of repute came from far and helped the king document a style which was a synthesis of Hindu and Muslim cultures.

These books were printed at his own press with his own seal, in Calcutta, where he lived in Matia Burj, after the British cunningly took away his throne and kingdom and deported him with an annual pension of mere 12 lakhs. These books were lithograph edition and each copy carries his personal seal (Mohan Khokar Dance Collection has a copy for posterity). In Banni, names of important dancers of the period are mentioned like Pir Khan, a musician who taught dancers like Kayam Khan, a dancer trained personally by the Nawab himself! Kalandar Baksh who trained royal ladies of the court and Haider Ali, Mohd. Hussain and Ghulam Abbas were all dancers who took part in Rahas and individual items.

Wajid Ali Shah was himself very involved with all arts and is credited with the creation of thumri, a form of music and poetry that can be easily used for dancing Kathak and singing. His pet name was Kaiser and he also created Kaiser Bagh, or palace for artistic pleasures! His thumris were created under pen name of Kadarpiya. Under his reign, the famous Urdu theatrical work Inder Sabha was penned by Amanat Mian (1815-58). Many such productions were patronized in Wajid Ali Shah's time and he was supportive of both art for elite, performed in court and art for common man, performed at large. Thus, under him both durbari and bazar art flourished and he can truly be called the Medici of India. His works form the bedrock for thumri and dadra compositions and with ghazals, he was instrumental in shaping Kathak as was practiced in the courts of the Mughals and today Wajid Ali Shah can be labelled as the Bharat Ratna of Lucknow Kathak!

Durga Prasad taught Nawab Wajid Ali Shah at whose court the following legendary incident, or something like it, may well have taken place. Durga Prasadji was in the service of the King, from whom he received a pension to help with the upbringing of his children. Also in the King's service was a great pakhawaj drummer Kodau Singh, who was jealous since his family did not share this privilege. When Kodau Singh made his complaint known to Wajid Ali Shah, it was decided that the matter should be settled by a contest between the dancer and the pakhawaji. If the latter were to win he would, as requested, receive the dancer's pension; if not he would forfeit his hands! Durga Prasadji became worried since he was getting old, and he feared that his failure to win the contest would ultimately bring about the end of his family tradition. At this point Durga Prasadji's gifted seven-year-old son Bindadin Maharaj stepped in to beg his father to allow him to compete instead, saying. "Since all this is happening because of me, it should therefore be me who dances in the contest." Durga Prasadji finally agreed, and in preparation for the contest Bindadin immediately embarked on the rigorous practice of rhythmic footwork to the exclusion of all else.

A month later everyone gathered in the court in an atmosphere of tremendous excitement. The young Bindadin began dancing in quick tempo and Kodau Singh accompanied him accordingly. Neck and neck they danced and played for twelve hours. Neither had gained the upper hand. The king had become restless and hungry but the court insisted that he not leave his throne even for a second. Bindadin suddenly doubled his tempo and continued relentlessly for a further four hours. He ultimately danced so quickly that his feet became a blur to the eye. Exhausted and confused, the pakhawaji lost track of the rhythm for a split second and committed an error. Bindadin had won. The line of Durga Prasadji had been saved! The king summoned Durga Prasadji and asked him to name his reward. Durga Prasadji merely said, “I want nothing but that you spare the hands of Kodau Singh.” His wish was granted, but the embarrassed pakhawaji disappeared from public view for quite some time thereafter, remaining in isolation and refusing all food until he nearly starved. Such was the fierce pride of a musician in those times!

The following anecdote illustrates Bindadin's imaginative approach. Wajid Ali Shah was holding court to a gathering of poets. One common diversion was for the king to suggest a particular scenario to which the poets would supply the reason it had come about. On this occasion, Wajid Ali Shah's tale was of a young woman who was found the day after her wedding to have the palm of her hand severely burnt. One poet suggested that, inexperienced, she had burnt her hand while preparing a light meal for her husband. Another said that she had burnt herself while lighting an oil lamp. All the other suggestions focused on the woman's practical inexperience in some way or other.

The young Bindadin Maharaj was then called upon for his interpretation, and he began to improvise a verse and to dance it.... The young woman is sitting expectantly on her bed awaiting her husband. She is prepared for a night of love, and yet she is experiencing the mixed emotions of joy, fear, and curiosity. At one and the same time her body experiences both desire and shame. The husband arrives: he begins to undress her, and out of a sense of modesty she quickly extinguishes the oil lamp by pressing her palm over the flame.

The story goes that Bindadin was rewarded handsomely for his performance with precious jewels from an often excessively extravagant Wajid Ali who was himself an accomplished dancer. Indeed, it is said that the King's toes twitched rhythmically in his sleep (Sharar 1975: 138), and that as a boy he would tap his feet incessantly: he was apparently partly deaf in one ear because his exasperated Urdu tutor once slapped him for tapping (Kippen 1988: 20). Wajid Ali choreographed many dance productions inside and outside the court, and strongly promoted the thumri vocal form which, when incorporated into Kathak dance, called for elaborate interpretations of the poetic content in order to highlight the multifarious meanings that could at one and the same time be spiritual and erotic. In this way, the abhinaya, or expressive element, in Kathak was encouraged and developed, and the acknowledged master of the thumri in dance was Bindadin Maharaj.

When Wajid Ali Shah was a young boy, some astrologers warned his parents that he would become a Yogi, and advised them that the boy should be dressed up as a Yogi on each birthday of his so as to counteract the effect of the evil stars. He established his famous Parikhaana (abode of fairies) in which hundreds of beautiful and talented girls were taught music and dancing by expert teachers. These girls were called Sultan pari, Mahrukh pari and so on. On each birthday, the Nawab would dress up as a Yogi with saffron robes, ash smeared on his face and body, necklaces of pearls around his neck, and a rosary in his hand, and walk pompously into the court with two of his paris dressed up as Jogans. Gradually he made it into a spectacular pageant known as Jogia Jashan, in which all citizens of Lucknow could participate, dressed as Yogis, irrespective of caste and creed. Later on, when his favourite venue Kaiserbagh Baradari was built, he began to stage his magnificent Rahas (a Persianised name for Rasleela) full of sensuous poetry, his own lyrical compositions and glamorous Kathak dances.

Under Wajid Ali's patronage, Kathak blossomed into a fine art. He was not only a patron of music, dance, drama, and poetry, but was himself a gifted composer. Diwan-i-Akhtar, Husn-i-Akhtar contain his ghazals. He is said to have composed many new ragas and named them Jogi, Juhi, Shah-Pasand, etc. What with the grand pageantry of the Rahas, Jogiya Jashan, dance dramas, and Kathak performances, Lucknow became the magnetic cultural centre where the most reputed musicians, dancers and poets of the time flourished and enjoyed his patronage and hospitality.

The art we see today was thanks to many influences that merged and meshed in the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and his early death (he was only 47 when he died in 1887) gave a death blow to the form because soon after him the kingdom was totally under British rule and all dance and music suffered or was diluted. Much of the kotha culture that came was an aftermath of this, when state artistes had to fend for themselves and were left on the street after Wajid Ali Shah or even seek employment in other courts, like Achchan Maharaj went to Rampur Court. Lachchu Maharaj migrated to Bombay where he taught film stars like Waheeda Rehman and Meena Kumari. Shambhu Maharaj alone remained in Lucknow until called to Delhi to join Bharatiya Kala Kendra. Now Birju Maharaj is the shining star of the Lucknow gharana in Delhi.

Amir Khusrau-Wajid Ali Shah seminar, Delhi

Art of dance was central to a great King like Kaiser, aka Wajid Ali Shah. Raja of dance was celebrated by Rani of Laxminagar, Delhi, aka Khanam herself a good dancer, who for once didn't dance herself! (most seminars organized by dancers are occasion and excuse to dance themselves or put their daughters and shishyas on stage), hosted a two day symposium on two important contributors :Amir Khusro and Wajid miyan. Excellent speakers like Updhayayji from Indore and Mirza sahib of Delhi who were first day's speakers under moderator Arshiya Sethi, opened our eyes to a wealth of information. Veteran critic Shanta Serbjeet Singh came to inaugurate the seminar which was thhoss (solidly meaningful). Rani assembled many worthies together. Her shishyas looked after logistics.

Shishyas today are bright, smart, quick but in a hurry to become a star often. They have no memory of our traditional knowledge because their parents never made time to tell them much or didn't know better. Most don't know simple proverbs or lakoktiya or muhavres. Like: A tree will take time to bear fruit. Overnight a plant can't become a fruit bearing tree. While most shishyas wish to arrive on the scene quickly, few have staying power. I meet two such butterfly sisters from Bangalore - all decked up in gold and silk, mind you at a student event of Sastra function! - and they ask me, “You live in Bangalore? What do you do? How come we have never attended your shows?” My inner answer is: “Is it my fault that you are not aware, informed, read newspapers or ANYTHING or are dodos or plain dumb?” But outwardly I smile politely and I'm humble enough to think I should say, “Sorry, my failing that my work in last ten years in the city of computers with 40 shows of DANCE DISCourse, giving 5 awards annually (34 recipients till date); hosting India's largest WORLD DANCE DAY gathering of 108 dancers; having platformed 700 dancers in past 7 years plus three columns in mainstream media (the Times of India, India Today and this widely read portal Narthaki where I've written for 15 unbroken years) add India's only yearbook on dance called ATTENDANCE now in its 19th year hasn't registered on YOUR radar! Then either you or I ought to be in another field.” NASA space? As butterflies they vamoose saying, “See you next time!” I don't wish to see such folks full of themselves but no clue or real interest in dance art, its education history or heritage. Such upcoming dancers are only interested in their own glory or gold! Shishyas have to be oriented properly by teachers. Teachers or gurus are doing jobs that most parents have failed to do in last generation.

Aurangabad's Parwati Dutta at IGNCA, Bangalore

That way shishyas of Chennai are real serious. Pune too. Or small town India, as Parwati Dutta coming to conduct a Kathak workshop at IGNCA Bangalore (that has woken from its kumbhakaranish slumber after a decade!) from Aurangabad tells me, “In non metro, small town India dance learning is focused.” She runs a dance gurukul Mahagami there as part of larger societal goals of an educational Trust and she has groomed and trained many village talents in that region, better known as entry point to Ajanta / Ellora. Small town students are devoted and dedicated; they don't have luxury of choice or even voice. Pune is another serious place for learning. Bless them!

A lover of history and dance, Ashish Khokar is author of more than 40 books, and is a columnist and critic for mainstream media like the Times of India and India Today. He edits and publishes India's only yearbook on dance ATTENDANCE (19th year) and teaches dance history and heritage at many universities, worldwide. He curates and hosts many Dance DISCourses and awards 5 annual awards. He is in charge of India's largest archives, the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection. He lives in Bangalore and Chennai.


If this is the kind of narrating history in our text books during college days, then I would have scored at least 80% in my Indian History paper @ Pre-Degree (against originally scored 45%.. just pass marks).
What a style ... narration.... content....information... La Jawab !!
- Siraj, Dubai (Oct 6, 2016)

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