An evening of kathak in baithak format, a profound experience: ‘Milestones’ by Aakriti Foundation, Gurgaon
Mastering a classical art form is not for the faint hearted. That was amply demonstrated during Saturday evening’s baithak at the home of my kathak guru Jayashree Acharya and her husband Shiv Shankar Ray, who is an accomplished and well known tabla exponent.
Before a mixed audience of rasiks, curious neighbors and parents of children who were already under the tutelage of one of the several accomplished gurus present, Aakriti Foundation had laid out ‘Milestones’, a clever program designed to seduce, educate and enthrall. The foundation is driven by three artists passionate about the power of the arts, the duo of Jayashreeji and Shiv Shankarji as well as danseuse Sushmita Ghosh.
Anchored by Sushmitaji, the program attempted to unravel the complexity and beauty involved in the apparent effortlessness that the audience sees in a performance of kathak. Through a demonstration by beginner-level students, little adorable children, she set out the basic pattern of the dance, the ta-thei-thei-tat aa-thei-thei-tat footwork based on the 16-beat teen taal rhythm. With the help of Anandi, a more senior student, Sushmitaji demonstrated how this simple pattern can attain more complex variations and how the dancer can improvise within the confines of the beat cycle. Making the audience count along with her and a small demonstration by Shiv Shankarji on the tabla helped cement the lesson and bond us onlookers deeper with the art form!
What followed was an impressive recital by Mahika Nair, a young disciple of Jayashreeji who has been under her tutelage for a little over four years. Not yet a teenager, Mahika’s poise and confidence combined with her technical prowess and abhinaya showed a maturity far beyond her years. Through her performance, I could see not just the talent but also the sheer hard work of her and her guru yield fruit on stage. Their closeness and shared sense of excitement was evident and added an extra flavor to the show.
The guest artist for the evening Shikha Khare is an exponent of the Lucknow gharana of kathak and a guru at the Kathak Kendra, New Delhi. I felt a twinge of regret for those few who had left the program before Shikhaji came on, for they had surely missed a treat! Eloquently, Shikhaji’s excitement at the opportunity to perform in the baithak format was obvious. Before she started, she explained the benefits of viewing a performance in this ‘mehfil’ style of performing that was prevalent during the time of the royal patrons, how you can see the minute details, relate closely with the dance form, really internalize many trivial aspects that can otherwise be missed in a stage show and how the artist and the audience can enjoy an interactive session this way. Her short performance exemplified all these aspects. I particularly enjoyed watching her eyes and expressions, which kept us all absolutely glued!
I’ve been learning kathak from Jayashreeji for a year now and I am intrigued by how much individuality the dancer brings to the her art. I am aware, of course, that a lot of that stylization comes from the taleem that a dancer receives from her guru, or gurus. And here too, Shikhaji’s performance was an education as she was able to pinpoint what aspects of her dance were imbibed from which of her gurus. Once again, it struck me that beyond talent, it is the dedication and complete submission to one’s guru that makes for true classical artist, in the Indian tradition.
I made it a point to take both my kids, Udai and Aadyaa to see the show. For Aadyaa, the highlight was when Shikhaji assumed the role of Radha and pleaded with Kanha to let her go home. My little one is a Krishna Bhakt, and she absolutely loved that piece. Udai was captivated by the jugalbandi between Shikhaji and the tabla. Both of them were reciting snatches of bols and whirling around the carpet for a long time after we got home! That, after all, is the entire point of the baithak format, in which art is not far away but accessible; not seen, but imbibed; not enjoyed but savored. The evening had a profound impact on me, and my children. These are the experiences that make life more meaningful, beautiful; that motivate me to be a better artist myself and dream the dreams I have for my children!