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Redefining Kathak

Kumudhini Lakhia created a new idiom in Kathak by moving away from the beaten track. A profile of the dancer, who was in Chennai recently.

LABEL HER a rebel, revolutionary or simply adventurous. Forty years ago, as a young dancer on the threshold of popularity, Kumudhini Lakhia dared to defy die-hard traditionalists by calling solo Kathak performances as mere gimmickry and devoid of artistic values and dignity.

And she didn't stop at that and got down to redefining the dance style by giving a fresh look to its movements, music, make-up and attire. A dance form that was born in the durbars of Mughal emperors suddenly came alive in her hands.

In her words: "This exercise was traumatic in the beginning. We talk about dreams coming true but with me they were not dreams, they were nightmares. Fortunately for me, these nightmares took the form of imagination. Once I overcame the initial fear, I found that I enjoyed the process as much as the outcome. I discovered a whole world of movement, from within and in the space outside."

Kumudhini pioneered choreographic productions or group performances in Kathak, which stood out for their visual beauty. Her maiden performance in 1942 was followed by several solo recitals, "But at one point, I couldn't relate to the dance form or my gurus' mindset. The inner turbulence made me restless". She was eager to free Kathak of its chakkars (rounds) and fast footwork routine. And wanted her art "to evoke wonder and soothe the soul."

The old guards raised a hue and cry. "I knew I was tampering with egos and not with aesthetics. So, I remained unruffled in the face of opposition and rejection. Kathak has an in-built creative system which one can exploit to break the monotony. There was no need for me to look elsewhere for inspiration. The dance ballets I choreographed were known even during Wajid Ali Shah's time. Dancer Menaka too specialised in them. Like a poet, once you master the vocabulary, you can fit in your own thoughts easily".

This eclectic and non-dogmatic approach made Kumudhini's style strikingly vibrant. She went a step further, by adding gamak of the music to the bols to lend them bhava and bring about some changes in the patterns of presentation.

Not content with the Radha-Krishna repertoire, the mainstay of Kathak, she began taking up poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, Niranjan Bhagat, Sarveshwar Dayal and Uma Shankar Joshi.

Clarity in communication and simplicity of thought being the aim of her artistic endeavours, Kumudhini even changed the Aharya (costumes). She did away with the cumbersome attire, heavy jewellery and gaudy make-up and colours. "I hated anything overshadowing the natural beauty of the movements".

Her reformist approach includes even her dance school `Kadamb', in existence since 1961 at Ahmedabad, where she encourages her disciples to even question their guru. Thus, removing the superfluousness in the guru-sishya parampara.

In fact, she is modest enough to admit that she started understanding her art in its totality only by working with her students. As long as there are gurus like her, there will be no dearth of creative and thinking youngsters.

CHITRA SWAMINATHAN

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