Kathak Mahotsav Canada Proves Almost, But Not Quite, Ready
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Kathak Mahotsav Canada Proves Almost, But Not Quite, Ready

A festival showcases classical Indian dance, Toronto's local Kathak community, and its opportunities to grow.

The word taiyyari kept popping into my head as I watched two nights of performances at this past weekend’s annual Kathak Mahotsav Canada, a festival showcasing the Indian classical dance known for its dizzying pirouettes and furious footwork. And when you think of taiyyari, you have to also think of riyaaz.

In simple terms, taiyyari means readiness, and riyaaz is understood as practice. But like any practitioner of an art form will know, the meaning goes much beyond that.

As other dance writers have noted, Rina Singha’s concern that Kathak is an endangered form of dance is largely overstated, and this festival provides ample evidence for why that’s the case.

Singha is the founder of Rina Singha Kathak Dance Organization and, with the help of a handful of volunteers, organizes the annual gathering of Kathak dancers in celebration of the art and beauty of Kathak. This support of Kathak made her a pioneer in opening Toronto up to a world of dance traditions, as she brought the dance form with her when she moved to this city 50 years ago and insisted it deserved a place on the mainstage. Due in large part to the efforts of Singha and others, a community of Kathak dancers has kept in touch with each other and the tradition.

However, I hope this community is also able to help each other rise of out of mediocrity. Because at Kathak Mahotsav Canada, there were only a couple of performances that truly moved me to give a heartfelt ovation, even as others were quick to give a standing applause.

Here we come to taiyyari and riyaaz. Those seeking to master the Indian classical dance of Kathak know these terms intimately. There’s the daily grind of practice that eventually brings you to a point where you are able to complete one or several pirouettes without faltering, where the sound of feet laden with ankle-bells are symphonic and not a cacophony, and where you are able to forget performance and be in the moment. A mere arch of an eyebrow is not enough to convey bhaav (emotion), and props often do more to highlight weakness than provide a diversion. All of the performances at Kathak Mahotsav Canada were more or less proficient. But this was a festival, and not a student showcase or a show put on for family and friends.

Still, the festival did offer its moments of splendour. It was a pleasure to watch the young student Tanveer Alam, who performed with—and overshadowed—Pooja Kulkarni, who founded and teaches at the Mudra School of Dance. Alam attacked the footwork of his pieces, and emphasized the complexities of the rhythms. His lines were beautifully extended, and there was intention in his movement, even though he didn’t perform any narrative pieces.

Similarly, it was delightful to discover Nisheeth Nirjhum Proshanti, who has trained with Singha for several years now. Over the years, Kathak has become increasingly preoccupied with choreography that emphasize lines, head-spinning turns and thunderous footwork. Proshanti brought some of the art form’s old world charm to the stage for her solo turn. She was convincing conveying emotion, while maintaining concepts of nazaakat (delicacy) and ada (grace).

Alam and Proshanti would do well to look towards Deepti Gupta, who brought grace to stage, as well as a level of confidence that comes with maturity. Accompanied by live musicians, Gupta brought effortless skill and mastery as she performed an invocation to Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god.

Panwar Music and Dance Productions brought the second evening to a rapturous close, where their exuberance helped overshadow niggling issues with their dance. They performed the Jaipur gharana of Kathak, a more flamboyant style than the Lucknow gharana, which is more concerned with grace. (Hemant and Vaishali Panwar are originally from India, and have trained at one of the best Kathak institutes there.) The trio on stage was Vaishali, who teaches Kathak, and two of her students. Hemant didn’t dance, instead taking on the role of lead musician. True to form, Vaishali performed with more vim than rigour, making me wish she finished her pirouettes with as much elan as her footwork.

The greatest disappointment, however, lay with the Usha Kala Niketan group. The quartet led by guru Usha Gupta came from Edmonton to participate in the festival. Like many Kathak dancers today, Gupta seems interested in exploring the Sufi tradition. There are certainly commonalities between Kathak and Sufism, in the way both traditions explore whirling mysticism. But I saw none of that in their performance. If the dance is to be stripped down to lines and movements, then the dancers need to execute them every time. That didn’t happen. Moreover, there was a strange aspect of Bollywood to their performance, making me feel like I had mysteriously wandered onto a reality dance TV set.

The festival this year was dedicated to Maya Rao, who was one of the leading exponents of Kathak, and is considered a pioneer in Kathak choreography. Rao’s daughter Madhu Natraj, who is based in Bangalore, India and is currently on a North American tour with her dance company, also performed as part of Kathak Mahotsav Canada. Her performance gave attendees a rare treat to watch a contemporary work rooted in tradition.