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Sketch a Wave Upon the Sand!

Sketch a Wave Upon the Sand!

5 December 2011

Teaching Indian classical dance’s technical vocabulary using imagery

This October, the celebrated Indian classical dance maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj, accompanied by Saswati Sen, his renowned disciple, artist, interlocutor and co-researcher, visited the UK to give workshops and performances. “Maharaj-ji,” as he has been respectfully addressed from a relatively young age, has shifted paradigms in Kathak with his performance, compositions and choreography and, above all, by his pedagogy and his training of performers.

On behalf of DANCE magazine, South Asian Dance Faculty member Chitra Sundaram spoke with the revered septuagenarian guru about his book Ang Kavya, which exemplifies his innovative approach to teaching. It is now a widely used textbook for Kathak in dance schools in India and abroad, as well as for the ISTD’s Kathak examinations. 

“How do you teach a child to move its hands and arms in dance? By demonstrating it. What do you do when the basic hand-arm unit is really a complex movement that requires, say, the coordination of the eyes, line and angle of chin and nose, arms, hand, shoulder, torso, and feet? You break it down and demonstrate the parts. And then how do you teach a child to put it all back together, such that the whole movement is greater than the sum of the parts? Should one leave the student to figure it out through repetition and discovery? Or, can you teach an idea, right from the start, so students begin to at least correctly approach the movement?” Such were the questions that Maharaj-ji began to ask himself, many years ago, he says. The descendant of a proud and long lineage of dance and music artists from the famed city of Lucknow, Maharaj-ji, is now 70-some years young. Born to a family that enjoyed royal patronage, he had begun performing as a child in British India.

Saswati, who has learned from him, taught for him, and watched and shadowed him for several decades, captures the impact of Birju Maharaj’s art and ideas simply: “One may truly speak of ‘eras of Kathak,’ and identify them as being ‘Before Birju Maharaj’ and ‘After Birju Maharaj[’s arrival].’”

The young Birju, of course, was not allowed to speak up or question as he trained. His teachers were famous, respected musicians and teachers of Kathak; besides, they were his own father and uncles! 

So, why take on these ‘how-to-teach’ questions? I ask him. “Because,” he says, not without a trace of humour, “throughout my years of training (taleem), I was given instructions like ‘Raise your hand!’ (haath uppar karo), ‘Drop your hand!’ (haath neechey karo), ‘Turn it and raise it up!’ (usko gumah ke uppar ley jao). And I thought there must be an easier way than this [to teach] a moving hand gesture.” 

Led by the ‘hand’ – especially in Kathak

Why this attention to hands? Perhaps because hand gestures or hasta have meaning? They do, but only when used in the narrative-expressive context or abhinaya1  mode. Equally, when used in the non-narrative, ‘technical’ or ‘pure’ dance mode called nritta, hand gestures are decorative, and necessary embellishments.2  Perhaps more significantly, it is because in each of the several South Asian classical dance styles3, the hands are used in a formally distinctive way. 

And if we understand the word ‘way’ as also implying path or route or journey, we see that in teaching, learning and performing, ‘hand’ becomes a short form not just for the fingers, palm and wrist, but also includes the arm, elbow, upper arm, shoulder and even the torso and down to the feet, as it were, ie, the movement, or at least its energy, must ideally flow through them all. One might even say that the journey of the hand takes into its embrace the line of the head, nose and eye as well. Thus one arrives at the signature dynamic of a particular movement and of the dance style. It is what illuminates and visibly hallmarks a style’s formal presentation – and the artistry of a dancer. And, arguably, nowhere is this truer than it is in Kathak. 

Kathak’s Mughal history, bringing its riches from Persia especially, endows the dance with its renowned crowd-pleasing arsenal of fretwork rhythms, scintillating footwork and breathless pirouettes. But suffice to say that Kathak is a dance that is now technically differentiated from all the other highly stylised Indian classical dance styles, above all, by two features: its artful naturalness or ‘naturality’, and the idea that the movement entirely serves and embodies the rhythmic construct. This impacts a lot of things. One could arguably say Kathak sketches and paints (and so does Maharaj-ji, actually!) and the other forms etch and sculpt – and this has nothing to do with dimensionality, but rather a lightness of being.

Kathak’s natural, upright stance, with feet just somewhat turned out, soft hands and minimal gestures stand noticeably contrasted to the other forms with their plié and markedly decorative gesturing. This ‘naturality’ implies there’s little by way of visibly difficult held-positions in the form that demands or distracts our attention, and so the flow or journey of the arm, the wrist and the hand and feet, and their embodiment of the rhythmic structure become of paramount importance. 

In other words, for a student of Kathak, figuring how-when-where a physical movement gets to the ‘right’ place and achieves aesthetic trueness is like finding precision of pitch and note on a fretless instrument. (In fact, to achieve trueness, Maharaj-ji speaks of moving one’s hands as if articulating the distinct notes of the melodic scale as the hand gesture travels up and then down. To children he speaks of the lift, ie, elbow which takes the lower arm and hand, smoothly, steadily upstairs and downstairs!) 

Ang Kavya – a poetry of the body

Ancient texts exist, so why a new one? I ask him. “Yes, but,” he points out, “it was only when the epic poem Ramayana written by the sage Valmiki4  in scholarly Sanskrit was retold by the saint Tulsidas5  in the language of the ordinary folk, that people at large came to truly possess it. And because the seed is not the tree (ie, the textual idea is not the bodily performed dance). The tree comes forth from the seed, it grows branches, on the branches flowers blossom, each with its own features. Thus, in movement, we must ask: What is the hand saying? What is the elbow saying? The shoulder, torso, foot... what do they say? Ek ek ang ki alag kahani and they must all come together in harmony, and become whole, contained, meaningful like a poem, kavita...” 

In other words, in Kathak, a hand gesture in a ‘final’ position, is not relevant by itself but only as the ending point of a particular journey, which must precede it. But how to teach the poetic meaning of an essentially technical movement? You couldn’t get it really, unforgettably, just by watching and imitating, it seemed. It was proving rather elusive.

Maharaj-ji’s ‘solution’ for transmitting this poetry has proven unerringly fit-for-purpose. Admittedly, it is to convey his own analysis of Kathak’s traditional vocabulary of movements and arm and foot positions, as well as his own additions to Kathak’s lexis – so the old texts would possibly not be up to the task. Still, it is as innovative as it is inspired, and as bold as it is simple: names have been devised for movement vocabulary units drawing many from familiar ‘moving’ images – ‘flame,’ ‘waterfall,’ ‘flag,’ ‘flowing water,’ ‘embrace’ – such that the ‘poetic feeling’ of the movement is also be reflected. Additionally, the movement is also notated by a simple line drawing tracing the journey of the arms. 

Thus, Srota – ‘Waterfall’ (see illustration 1). The end pose shows the dancer leaning back with arms outstretched downwards from the shoulder. But the hands have begun their journey above the head and down the front, ‘falling’ like water over the torso – and ‘waterfall’ captures both movement and feeling. (Maharaj-ji got the idea for the name ‘waterfall’ from a wave-making 1970s Lintas advertisement for Liril Soap he says disarmingly, for he wanted the ‘feeling’ conveyed by the young woman in the waterfall in the ad!)


Similarly, Umang – ‘Joy’ (see illustration 2). The end pose has both arms lifted and the head back, but to get it ‘right,’ what needs to animate the journey and final pose is the feeling of joy. No mistaking that for almost similarly lifted arms in a pose called ‘elephant’s trunk!’ The names help capture and guide small shifts in hand positions, which make a big difference.


Names, games and mastery

“Although names are given to nritta hasta or abstract gestures, they are meaningful in day-to-day life, so it is easy for children to understand and relate to and use it in the exact manner as is reflected in the name,” points out Saswati. Maharaj-ji has also created little nursery rhymes – like chhanda or verses with fun words and names of children’s favourite food items; it makes the little ones giggle but they also memorise passages without realising that they are mastering complex time-keeping underlying the fun, adds Saswati. Likewise, Maharaj-ji enjoys creating bols or sound-syllable combinations set to rhythmic patterns that capture resonances from animals, nature, games, emotions, situations etc. Audiences everywhere adore and enjoy his demonstration of these humour-filled technical compositions in his performances.

Clearly Kathak movement and technical vocabulary is “poetry not prose” according to Maharaj-ji. He wanted to impart his evolved ideas as foundational building blocks in teaching and learning, so children and young performers could be taught movement structure and quality. This would otherwise take them years to discover for themselves, and he preferred that they spent the time more usefully perfecting the material with a vision of it in their own mind and body. In the ethos of a gharana (lit. ‘of the House of’...) wherein the ‘family jewels’ viz., training methods, knowledge and repertoire, are zealously guarded and handed down with care to chosen disciple-inheritors, his mission to publish his ideas for everyone’s use was unusually generous.

“It is now a widely used textbook for Kathak in dance schools in India and abroad, as well as for the ISTD’s Kathak examinations”

Delineated in his book Ang Kavya (pron. ‘ungg-kaav-ya’; ang: body, part; kavya: verse, poem, poetry), it was a first ever such endeavour in the history of the several centuries-old Kathak dance. Prior to this, Kathak shared old texts with other dance styles, but which had no names for Kathak’s quite differently evolved movement vocabulary. Ang Kavya has been hugely welcomed by teachers and students alike, avers Saswati: “It made life so much easier than saying ‘Do the hand movement from ‘ta-thei-ta-ta-thei’ and get no feeling to go with it. Now we can say: ‘Do the lavashika (flame)!’ and they get it.” 

“How often it is that when I have just exhausted myself dancing with every part of my body, someone will come after the show and say ‘I loved your hand gestures,’” laughs Sujata Banerjee, Chair of the South Asian Dance Faculty. Perhaps they were on to something after all.

Chitra Sundaram 

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