Learning kathak from the maestros: Struggle & satisfaction

I’ve only been learning kathak for some three years, a very small amount of time when I compare it to those who have been immersed in the dance form throughout their lives. As my guru Jayashree Acharya tells us, this is a journey of constant, lifelong learning. Once you embark on it, it has to be with an attitude of submission and determination.

There are also times in your learning when you are asked to make a leap of faith, as we were this past weekend when Deepak Maharajji, eminent kathak exponent and son of the illustrious Birju Maharajji, spent some time with us in workshop mode. I’ve watched him perform at various points in time and have always been struck by his energetic style, an interpretation of his guru’s taleem (broadly, teachings, but far more..). He is a very masculine dancer, but watching him up close helped me appreciate other aspects of his dance, notably abhinaya (experession) and his effortless relationship with sur and taal (melody and rhythm).

Deepak Maharajji during the lecture demonstration that he concluded the workshop with

Deepak Maharajji during the lecture demonstration that he concluded the workshop with


_DSC8622Before getting onto the floor myself, I watched Deepakji teach young children (among them my little one Aadyaa), who were completely engrossed in what he was saying and demonstrating to them. It was wonderful to see them pick up little nuances, one imitated the flick of his wrist, another copied the guru’s stance for the sam! When I was in the workshop, however, I found myself struggling quite a bit. One part of my brain was trying to understand the sequence and details, another was recognizing patterns to imitate. I remember thinking about how much more instinctive younger students were while they learnt and I willed myself to dance by instinct, let myself go and, at the guru’s instance, simply enjoy the experience! For the entire hour we learnt from him, I was ecstatically happy.

Teaching the young children. Notice how he is the centre and they are all around him, absorbed completely in the act of learning

Teaching the young children. Notice how he is the centre and they are all around him, absorbed completely in the act of learning

The energy in his movements was something the children caught onto, I noticed

The energy in his movements was something the children caught onto, I noticed

Performing the pieces they learnt

Performing the pieces they learnt

Jayashreeji and Barunji help the children interpret and revise the pieces

Jayashreeji and Barunji help the children interpret and revise the pieces

Our lot, enjoying the struggle!

Our lot, enjoying the struggle!

_DSC8531Perhaps I can recall only snatches of what we were taught. Those students who had learnt for longer and those who had better grasp of kathak, would be able to reproduce more of course. What I did take away was an enhanced involvement with kathak as an art form, a deeper sense of understanding, a certain attitude and the importance of linking movements with a narrative, a story. And a feeling of being blessed with a higher, almost sacred knowledge.

I saw the face of my guru Jayashreeji’s light up many times through the day, delighting in the moments of joy created by, not just the dance, but the interactions of artistic minds. I’m nowhere in that league, but I was privileged to observe and participate in such an atmosphere of unbridled creativity. For that chance, I have to thank my guru and my destiny….I can only hope this experience seeps into the way I dance! Let us see…

Unpredictable is the new normal

Monday morning. Tough workout to infuse energy into the week. Driving back juggling three phone calls. At home, there is suspense about whether the house help will turn up. Meetings requests are pinging up on my calendar. I nearly forget about breakfast.Thankfully, the kids went to school without event.

This is normal. My normal. And it’s going to be like this for the rest of my life. Deal with it, you moron!

How many of us, me included, go about our lives complaining about things that are perfectly normal? I wonder sometimes whether food toxins have been tampering with our levels of stress tolerance? Or is it just that the illusion of progress is also about expecting everything to me efficient, predictable and planned?

Maybe we need an intervention, something that helps us enhance our ability to be flexible. Something that trains our minds to think of constant fire fighting as the new normal. Unpredictability as the new schedule. It’s possible, I suppose. I’m working on it!

The Voice inside my head

“You can’t keep reblogging other people’s posts, no matter how interesting or relevant they may be! Where’s all the original writing?”, hissed the Voice inside my head today. I didn’t listen. Gave it the Royal Ignore. I’m usually good at that.

But it was terribly persistent, that Voice. Call it The Conscience, that entity whose existence Udai completely denies on a conceptual level!

So why am I not blogging enough? God knows a zillion thoughts mill around my head. My comrade in arms, my iphone 4S, poor baby, is aging and no longer able to keep up with my demands for clicking photos of interesting sights from a moving car! But that’s a poor excuse. I’m just worded out nowadays. Writing for a living does that to you. It takes away all my verve and when I sit down to write on my blog, that wonderful non-judgemental space I am most comfortable in, my second skin, no words come to me.

When I was writing everyday, I would open the ‘New Post’ tab and sit in front of the blank screen till the words flowed. But now, the other voices in my head, the demons, start reading out a long list of deadlines and commitments. Too much clutter! I need to emerge from it, I know.

And so I thanked the Voice and began to type. It’s not that hard. It may not make sense, but I can fill the page regardless :)

‘Wake up call’ day!

Over half of January has gone by. 2014 is shorter by half a month!

It’s been a ‘wake up call’ sort of day for me. And the thoughts in my head have been about looking ahead. I’m making a conscious effort to break from the past in the sense of not spending too much time ruminating over the last year, what it was like, what I learnt, etc. That stuff is important, but I tend to overdo it and get dangerously into the zone of procrastinating over stuff I need to get done NOW and in the future.

So, why so dramatic? What am I waking up about?

A few really important things.

1. Finances: I’ve opted for flexi work and consultancy the last many years and the kids have been a cushy excuse. I can’t look at joining work full time immediately, for various reasons. But I realized that my flexi work often took up as much time as full time work and paid me very little. So this year, I’m going to be a little more hard-nosed about money. That, of course, also goes for my spending, as I gear up to apply for PhD programs this year and hope to slide back into student life over the next few years!

2. Priorities: Being superwoman ain’t easy. It’s also stupid! I’m taking Rahul’s advice in 2014 and focusing on ME. Of course, it doesn’t mean everything else fades away, but there will be times I will make choices that appear completely out of character. All those of you out there who think I already am a self-centered *****, get ready for more of that! No apologies.

3. Productivity: A big part of my self-improvement drive this year hinges on this. Managing my time better and also meeting targets set for myself will be critical for me to achieve my goals. To begin with, I’m betting on being more self-aware of my schedules and less scatter-brained as I’m juggling many things as usual. Accountability to myself is also something I will be very careful about. I’m one of the most self-delusional beings on the planet!

4. Focus: This is the toughest one and should have been the first, but I’m under-confident. It’s in my nature to segue here and there and I love the experiences that emerge from those distracted journeys. But I’ll have to change some of that this year.

So you can see. 2014 begins on a very different note. My list looks a lot more like the ones in self-improvement books. Already, it’s not sounding like me, but someone else. And I’m intrigued, amused, impressed, motivated and also a little bit blah about it already! Hmmm…

Is venting overrated? Can I find ‘balance’ and ‘poise’? #randomthoughts

There are days when I wake up to a sense of turmoil. It’s not always triggered by a negative thought or event, but the only way to quell that feeling is to express myself, either by talking or writing. 

This morning, I squinted at my phone through my bleary, sleepy, myopic eyes to scroll down my Whatsapp, then Facebook, then Twitter. And I realized the entire world is in the same boat. No one can deal with their turmoil and it’s out there for everyone else to deal with! Everyday, as we read all the stuff people share, we do so in the spirit of online sisterhood (or brotherhood), in a sort of large embrace that includes all the people on our TL who need to vent!

Are we losing the ability to sort out our own thoughts internally before expressing them to the world? In putting thoughts out there and soliciting feedback on half-baked ideas, are we not wasting other people’s time? Are we so devoid of poise and self-contentment that our online universe becomes the sounding board for our emotional experiences?

For me, I know I need to work on this bit. I need to strengthen that internal mechanism of thought, rumination and find my balance. Its one of those goals I have for myself and I know, its contrary to who I am as a person. But then, we all live our lives trying to be someone we consider ideal!


Weekend workshop: A fitting start to a delightful week of the classical arts ahead!

You know you aren’t so young any more when you are too tired to sleep at night after a few hours of intense dancing during the day. But you know you are young at heart when you wake up the next morning eager to begin again!

This sums up my experience of a 2-day kathak workshop held in Gurgaon at my guruji’s home. Shrimati Roshan Datye, eminent and senior disciple of renowned guru Late Smt Rohini Bhate came from Pune to teach us, bringing into my consciousness a whole new level of nuance and detail, enhanced attention abhinaya and an awareness of the theoretical aspects of natya that bind kathak to the great performing art forms across India.  It is this sort of exchange promoted by the guru shishya parampara that, in my view, demarcates the mundane from the truly meaningful in the world of the classical arts. My sincere gratitude to my guru Jayashree Acharya and to my daughter Aadyaa’s kathak guru Sushmitaji for giving us such a wonderful opportunity.

So much to learn, so little time! So thankful for the opportunity...Pt. Birju Maharaj, showing us the nuances of kathak and how we can relate it to our lives. 14th Oct 2013

So much to learn, so little time! So thankful for the opportunity…Pt. Birju Maharaj, showing us the nuances of kathak and how we can relate it to our lives. 14th Oct 2013

Smt. Roshan Datye who taught us for 2 days. A lady full of grace and energy

Smt. Roshan Datye who taught us for 2 days this past weekend. A lady full of grace and energy

Mere ghungroo...earnestly trying to learn, but a long long way to go...

Mere ghungroo…earnestly trying to learn, but a long long way to go…

Over two days, Roshanji taught three batches of students, ranging in age from about seven all the way up to 40! And at least 80 in number. She taught all three batches distinct stage-appropriate compositions. But beyond the compositions themselves, I was impressed by her own energy levels, her attention to detail and her innate ability to be a good teacher- a robust communicator who knows when to pick up the pace and when to slow down and her instinctive use of humor to highlight concepts or lighten awkward moments! Kathak thrives on analogies from our daily lives. A few days ago, we were blessed by the presence of Pandit Birju Maharajji (also at my guruji’s home) who also presented numerous examples of how kathak is drawn from simple everyday actions and emotions. Roshanji took forward that line of thought for me, helping me form many links inside my head, never mind that the body will take many more years of riyaaz to actually translate that understanding into graceful movements!

1240221_10151712498407851_1100834892_nThe two-day workshop set in motion a week of celebration of the arts by the Aakriti Foundation, run by a group of erudite artists including my guruji. This is an annual festival called Tasmai and is dedicated each year to a great artist this year Smt Rohini Bhate, Smt Datye’s guru. On the 22nd at the Habitat Centre at new Delhi, we look forward to none other than Pt. Birju Maharajji grace our festival with his presence on stage, preceded by a performance from the students of Nritya Bharati, Pune. On the 23rd, Pt. Sarathi Chatterjee and the Kedia Brothers will take the stage also at the Habiat Centre. The festival draws to a close on the 25th with dance performances by Maharajji’s children- for the first time, we will get to see both Deepakji and Mamtaji on stage and I really look forward to this. Students of Jayashreeji and Sushmitaji will also be on stage at Epicentre, Gurgaon on Friday the 25th. For those of you in Delhi and Gurgaon, there is plenty on offer. Do come forward to support the arts, for the love of beauty but also for the sake of the continuity of parampara (traditions) that are, as Roshanji reminded us yesterday, at least 3000 years old!

Oh, the many hats I wear!

Photographs by Udai

Photographs by Udai

Oh these many hats I wear! Sometimes I stand in front of my cupboard of hats, the one I open and these hats all come cascading out, in myriad colors and shapes, in several sizes to fit my small head that can sometimes get very very inflated!

This feminist hat is the one that really intrigues me. Should I really be wearing it, this particular hat? I can’t sometimes really make out what color it is and whether it even fits me. Me, who is alert to every hint of patriarchy in my life and yet ever ready to succumb to so many irrational patriarchal constructs that no one forcefully subjects me to. Me, who cannot break out of the mold I find myself in and yet am some sort of free spirit. Not trapped, just reluctant to test the power of my wings.

And then there is the do-gooder hat. That one is also a bit too big, always slipping off and perched at an angle when I walk around with it. I need to grow into that one. Right now, it seems like a tool to feed my ego and make me feel happy about myself, collect the pats on my back, bask in the light from my own self-created halo…

The leadership hat fits well. But I have nowhere to wear it, so it just sits there in the cupboard with an expression of longing stuck on its smug face. The researcher hat is getting a little worn, but am thinking whether to acquire a new one that would take me many more miles. The traveller hat is a happy hat, one that gathers dust for months and then, all of a sudden finds itself living in the suitcase. The artist hat is in a happy place, regularly worn and oh so comfortable. The thinker hat is also overused and I know it needs rest from time to time. The entrepreneurship hat is somewhere at the back, a little crushed and in need of repair. Many others are in there, I’ve even forgotten their names and we don’t speak with each other any more. Or rarely at any rate.

The one I really like is the friendship hat though. That one is magical, always changing color to match my mood, always throwing new surprises and warm when I need warmth, cool when I need to take it easy. With that one handy, life will always be a tad more than tolerable!

‘Sense of achievement’ and other modern lifestyle myths #rebellion #peacewithself

Is it real? This pursuit of success, this definition of the success of your day by how much you ‘achieved’?

Is it possible? This idea that a productive worker can be, well, productive for five continuous days and then collapse into rest and recuperation for two days, only to emerge doubly productive on Monday morning?

Is it twisted? When I set out to check off a long to-do list and end up working on something that just crept into my horizon mid-day?

Is it sad? When you have so many things on your mind that you no longer know who you are and how you should prioritize your life?

I have no answers and there are days that I could kill myself with my sense of inadequacy and bemoan my lack of drive till the cows come home. But then, I know we live in a world where standards are created for the ideal and humans are expected to be machines. I should be happy to be inadequate, for am I not more human that way? I should celebrate my lack of drive, for that is the day when the best ideas often take seed in my brain.

There’s so much more to life than failure and success. Let me not waste precious energy and undergo unnecessary heartache trying to define my life using the lens that was built for someone who is… not me!

Guru, guidance and learning #selfimprovement

It is Guru Poornima today, the full moon and last day of the Ashad month in the Hindu calendar. Widely celebrated to honour Guru Vyas, it is also the time to pay respect to the guru.

Who is your guru? Or who are your gurus? It’s open to interpretation, what a guru means to each of us. A teacher, a guide, a mentor, someone you look up to for guidance, someone whose benevolence is in itself a teaching, someone who is free to tell you the blunt truth, in front of whom your ego does not exist. Above all, someone who helps you change for the better, define your goals, achieve them, then redefine them yet again. A guru keeps you on the path to self attainment, saves you from yourself when you lose focus and give up.

We all need a guru or more to face up to the challenges life throws us. Yet, we are taught to be self sufficient to the extent that seeking help or speaking of our fears are seen as a sign of weakness. My first lessons in humility and self introspection came from my parents, who are regarded as the ultimate gurus in the Hindu tradition. I remember clearly my mother asking me if I was vain when she caught me preening constantly before the mirror when I was maybe nine or ten! In her criticism of my lack of focus or her rebukes for my lack of organisation, I see now her attempts to guide me. By setting high standards herself, she ignited in me a passion for life, a hunger for information and analysis. Daddy taught me balance, that quality he had in plenty and that he patiently inculcated in those around him as well. The ability to listen to others, to empathise, to always be ready to learn. I saw him practice these and imbibed as much as I could.

So many role models! My grandmothers Ajji and Amamma, both strong intelligent wilful women ahead of their times in many ways. Today I feel like they still have so much to teach that we, caught in our lives, are failing to learn. My grandfather, Vava, a man of learning and passion, who took me under his wing when I was very little. Aunts, uncles, cousins, relations.

As I grew older, friends became gurus too. One taught me the art of keeping secrets, another inspired by his selfless sharing of knowledge. A friends reckless spirit drive me to discard inhibitions. Another taught me to love unreservedly. Every day, Rahul inspires me to not judge my loved ones. I can go on and on.

In the arts, the status of the guru is more defined, especially for those of us who learn any of the classical Indian art forms where ‘guru shishya parampara’ is still a live tradition. My music gurus, Aaba Thali, Milon Debnathji who will always be Masterji to me and now Shanta Mishraji, I am eternally indebted to you for the gift of Sur, Taal and Sadhna. My kathak guru Jayashree Acharyaji deserves a special mention, for the immense positive energy that she brings to my life.

I fill my life with gurus because they help me stay centred and fulfilled, but also because they do not let me get complacent. However modern life gets, certain simple gestures and traditions always affect me profoundly. Touching the guru’s feet, for instance, might seem old fashioned to many. But in that instant, when I bend and submit myself, I let go. And when I rise and my guru beams back a smile, I am filled with light and pride. I know all is well with the world!

My emotional bond with art is also my tool for positivity

I feel blessed today by my good fortune in finding not one, but two gurus to guide me through my journeys in art and self-development. For these are intrinsically linked and I see that clearly more than ever before in my life.

Let me back up. Culling out lessons from the experiences of friends, family and my own, dealing with the stresses of urban life and staying positive in the face of multiple pressures are the most oft repeated challenges we face. For those who put all their eggs in one basket, by choice or otherwise, it becomes vital to excel in their chosen area of concentration, whether its the home, the workplace or a serious hobby. My strategy has been to diversify my risks so to speak and is in line with the fact that i do have multiple interests and I may say talents that I can pursue. For many years, I focused on studying and music suffered. If I turned to music, a full time job would mean it would get little attention. If I left it, my guilt would kill me. I would stare longingly at salsa dancers and die to learn. I would go to performances all alone and cry bitter tears of remorse.

In my thirties, in the middle of struggling to balance home and career, raising young kids, something snapped inside me. On an impulse, I joined Shiamak Davar’s dance classes, after a gap of ten years! As I learnt to take time out for myself and got back to dance, my confidence grew. Three years later, I started learning kathak, for the first time in my life. I also tried various music teachers till I found my current guru. Between music and dance, both of which I pursue earnestly and purely for self-satisfaction, I found the self-confidence to explore new avenues at work, to think creatively, to approach problems with a positive attitude. If a particularly tough tukda (technical piece in kathak) can be mastered by being attentive and through practise, if my voice can hit that high note that eluded me last year, then issues at work can also be tackled.

Today, I find myself far more centred than I have ever been before. Even if things don’t go as planned, if I don’t meet my expectations in one area of my life, there are other things happening to compensate. I had this vital insight this weekend, that I had been deploying this as my stress management and positive thinking strategy! Whatever works, I guess!

This morning, I had the fortune of interacting with two talented artists. Nishi Singh, a kathak exponent of the Jaipur gharana who weaves the nuances of the Lucknow and Benares gharanas into her dance thanks to her training under several gurus was invited by my kathak guru ji Jayashree Acharya for a lecture demonstration with us students. We were doubly fortunate today to meet Vidushi Mamta Maharaj, daughter of Pandit Birju Maharaj, who also visited the studio. In watching her love for her art and her versatility-she played the tabla, sang and danced with equal ease-I was reminded that love and passion, and an immersion in the arts can bring a fluidity to life that mere hours of tutelage and practice cannot. Mamtaji’s message was one of emotion, of the need to connect to your art through your emotional side as much as through the intellectual side. To me, it is a validation of the emotional bond I have had with music and dance for years. There was a time when I would be ashamed of crying at a performance or being too emotional to sing on certain days when Masterji was too harsh in me. But now I know those were the signs that the bond is there for life.

I sit out hearing Udai go through his music lessons inside. There are days when I see his tears of frustration at not getting his notes right. And I hope with all my heart that he forms this bond just as I have!