A time-forgotten Kathak maestro has a blast
When the four-minute black-and-white recording comes to life, a tall, muscular dancer fills the frame with his startling presence. He sits with his right arm outstretched, fingers pointing and his eyes staring desperately into the distance. There is no audio track and you might think the video is frozen except that the hands of those playing the tabla, sarangi and harmonium are moving.
With infinite grace, the dancer retracts his arm, his eyes still scanning the horizon. The fact that he sings a song now silenced by time adds to the emotion – a nayika in a state of eternal expectation. The title of the recording tells you that this is Kathak’s favorite thumri about love and the desire to play, Kaun Gali Gayo Shyam.
Apathy has erased not only the sound of this film, but also the much-deserved recognition by one of the greatest Kathak dancers, gurus and scholars of the 20th century, Mohanrao Kallianpurkar. In a story dominated by the gharana’s flamboyant stars, the self-effacing colossus who quietly broke creative and social barriers is now reduced to, at best, a footnote. Few know him today, except for dance historians and mainstays of the early to mid-century. As for young people, even those who learn to dance to his program, texts and compositions do not know his name.
Amad (approach), a documentary about the master’s creative genius directed by author Mani Kaul for the National Center for Performing Arts, survives only in damaged places. An excerpt from thumri bhaav (directing) on Kaun Gali and part of a dance class he conducted are among the film’s few remnants that have survived half a century of neglect.
“He didn’t get his due,” said Kumudini Lakhia, 92, a legendary dancer both for bringing a new creative aesthetic to Kathak and for speaking out against the sacred cows of the form. “Nobody talks about a Mohanrao gharana, although they all dance his works. Few people even bother to recognize his compositions on stage.
A few Kathak scholars and dancers attempt to right this wrong, especially the second and third generation beneficiaries of his immense teaching skills. Nearly four decades after Kallianpurkar’s death, they are stepping up efforts to document his fascinating life story and his unique place in Kathak history.
During the pandemic, renowned kathak dancer Shama Bhate, her shishya Shama Bhide and arts scholar Arshiya Sethi have been working on a thoroughly researched book on the life and art of the maestro. Title Non-Gharanedaar Pt Mohanrao Kallianpurkar: The Paviour of Kathak, and enriched with his writings as well as video clips accessible by QR code of the dancer and his students illustrating his work, the book hit the market in January. A few months later, Poornima Pandey, one of the few of his students active on the dance scene, and his shishya Ruchi Khare publish another tribute in Hindi, Yug Drishta: Pt MS Kallianpurkar, Kathakacharya.
Together and individually, the books reveal fascinating details about the master, including the amazing premieres he achieved. He was the first nationally acclaimed non-Gharanedar Kathak dancer, fusing the best of the two main styles, Lucknow and Jaipur. He created a pedagogical and performative scheme for an art that was historically open and transmitted orally through the fantasy of the masters and, thus, shifted the focus from lineage to art. He also choreographed some of the most rhythmically complex kathak works and ballets to literary themes that deviated from the usual Radha-Krishna theme.
“I would call it the pataka (flag bearer) for non-gharanedar dancers,” Shama Bhate said. “He paved the way for dancers from all walks of life to enter the field. After him came Kumiben, Maya Rao, Padma Sharma and many other legends. My Guru Rohini Bhate, who was one of his great disciples, brought the dance to Maharashtra, especially to Pune, where Kathak is now so vibrant that the city is now recognized as a gadh (hub) for the form. The Bhate School of Dance in Pune, Nad Rooptook the first big step towards recognizing Kallianpurkar’s legacy in August 2013 by organizing Sansmaran, a festival of his works and followers.
To understand why Kallianpurkar’s foray into the gharana-related field of Kathak constituted a revolution, we must take a look at its historical and social development. Today, dancers from diverse backgrounds roam styles and experiment with freedom and ease, but in the early 20th century when it entered the form, it was still a cloistered, clan-centric tradition.
The form we now know as Kathak formed in the 1930s and is an amalgamation of multiple rich traditions – performative storytelling by the “Kathaks” (tellers) of the Krishna/bhakti tradition, art centered on the music of very talented tawaifs and various folk and ritual currents.
The anti-nautch movement was at its height in the 1930s and the form had become the monopoly of the traditional Kathak clans. One of them was led by Bindadeen Maharaj, a dancer in the court of Wajid Ali Shah. Known as Lucknow or Awadh gharana, it was marked by fluidity, grace, imagination and nuance. The other great center of Kathak was Jaipur, characterized by virtuosity and vigour.
It was into this rich but chaotic and idiosyncratic world that a quiet 20-year-old from a progressive family of bankers, lawyers, academics and doctors entered, says The Paver of Kathak. The youngster from Hubli had watched the Sundar Prasad dance of Jaipur gharana in Bombay and was seduced enough to defy family conventions and seek a life in the dance.
A quick learner, Kallianpurkar helped Sundar Prasad set up and run the Bindadeen Maharaj School of Kathak in Girgaum in the 1940s, creating a thriving center for art in the megalopolis. “I remember seeing him dancing when I was 9 years old when my mother took me to school,” Lakhia said. “He was so gorgeous that I only had eyes for him.”
Impressed by his talent, the musicologist SN Ratanjankar asked him at the age of 26 to head the dance department of Marris College, now known as the Bhatkhande Music Institute, in Lucknow. It is here that the dancer shone not only as a teacher, but as a pedagogue and administrator, investing Kathak with discipline and system.
“Here is an Indian classical dancer who was thinking academically in the 1940s, working out definitions, establishing Kathak vocabulary, a program, researching seminar documents, clearly articulating an art that had hitherto relied on the oral tradition of transmission “, said Bhide. . “If there is today a uniform definition of what is aamad, kavit, uthan – hitherto vaguely defined – it is because of him. I would say that a large part of the kathak manuals that we now refer to were his work and the institutionalization of kathak although this is not recognized.
Although Kallianpurkar remained immersed in the management of Marris College, he continued to nurture his own passion for Kathak. He sought guardianship from Achhan Maharaj, who had inherited the Lucknow gharana mantle from his uncle Bindadeen Maharaj.
The most important element he brought to Kathak, says Lakhia, was discipline. Kathak is described as khula naach (open format) – unlike Bharatanatyam with its set margam (path) – which allows room for improvisation but also leaves room for clutter. “It’s a form where you can learn and just go haywire with your performance because of the temptation to show yourself on stage, more and more chakkars, more and more footwork,” she said. declared. “He was a disciplined dancer himself, though his skills were multifaceted – abhinaya, footwork, movement, vocabulary, he had it all. And you see that in his students too.
Dancers and scholars today point to an even more unique trait: Kallianpurkar learned from legendary Old World masters, who ushered Kathak into a new phase, but whose social behavior remained feudal. On the other hand, he himself remained cosmopolitan, eclectic and unfailingly courteous throughout his life. He was the first of the modern Kathak gurus, free-giving, open to new ideas and new ways of learning, teaching and playing. In a way, he was a bridge between a bygone era and the new, democratic one, says Bhate.
“He accepted all the rules of the old system for himself but did not impose them on those who followed him,” said arts scholar Arshiya Sethi whose first encounter with Kallianpurkar’s legacy dates back to to 1989-90 when she saw her student and a current guru. in Kathak Kendra, Subhash Chandra, dance. “He was modern, maverick, inclusive. He was himself a gurubhakt but he did not expect gurubhakti from his students. It was so well done, the rare aspects of Kathak, the breath controls the micro-muscles at work.
Contemporary Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas remembers being drawn to these qualities as a teenager. After retiring from Marris College, Kallianpurkar remained active as a guru, holding masterclasses and workshops at the National Center for the Performing Arts, Kathak Kendra and at the famous Lakhia dance school in Ahmedabad, Kadamb. It was on the balcony of the Mangaldas’ house that Kallianpurkar first taught the students of Kadamb, a then fledgling institution.
“He was a sadhak (researcher) himself, but as a guru he was very open-minded, erudite and comfortable with the reinterpretation of his works by dancers”, recalls Mangaldas. ” I made it myself. And he was a treasure trove of materials, of fascinating and unpredictable complexity. For example, he could work mnemonic syllables like ta thunga in infinite fractional fashion, sometimes spacious and light and at other times fast and dense.
Between the 1940s and 1950s, Kallianpurkar choreographed kathak ballets with unusual, often literary themes. This included works based on Tolstoy War and peace; The dramas of Kalidas Shakuntala, Vikramorvashiyam and Meghdoot; and Bhavabhutti Malta Madhav. Among his most offbeat works was a choreography for contemporary dancer and scholar Uttara Asha Coorlawala, Ushas Sukta.
Dancers who now watch his incredible work are amazed at how little is known about him. The last word on this goes to the irrepressible Kumudhini Lakhia:
“It was too simple, no politics, no publicity and that in an area plagued by politics. He was not into ‘hamara gharana tumhara gharana’ debates, he kept it straight at all times. He spoke softly, didn’t argue, didn’t brag… but public mein aana chahiye thoda (you have to show off). And remember, the organizers were hanging on the khandani.
Malini Nair is a New Delhi-based writer and editor. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.