Movement in Stills: The Dance and Life of Kumudini Lakhia
|Pages:||320 (Illustrated In B/W)|
|Other Details||8.8 inch X 5.8 inch|
I can never say I was born to dance," she says with a subtle hint of pride. Yet for this very reason, Kumudini Lakhia went on to become one of the great modern innovators of Kathak, a North Indian classical dance form. Such paradoxes compose the fabric of Kumudini’s life and personality—an upbringing in the waning days of the Raj characterized by a love for Indian art as well as British sensibilities, a temperament both warm and austere, and an ambitious energy as overwhelming as it is focused.
Like her life, her art itself came to embody an element of paradox—contemporary choreography within one of the most ancient dance forms in the world. A pioneer in her field, Kumudini confronted for the first time the possibilities and challenges of the modern stage, creating the concept of ’group choreography in Kathak dance. Her work, criticized thirty years ago as sacrilege, is now considered classic, and continues to inspire novel approaches to the dance form.
Unlike many Kathak exponents in the 1940s and 50s, Kumudini did not inherit the narrowly focused life of a traditional dancer. Instead, she was exposed to the modern world—attending an elite boarding school, developing curiosities ranging from agriculture to architecture, and touring Europe by the age of IS. Though studying Kathak throughout her life, her path to professional dance was shaped more by circumstance than tradition. Told through the refracted lens of writer and dance student, Movement in Stills offers a unique blend of biography and personal impression to depict the life and dance of one of India's great performing artists.
Reena Shah was born in Connecticut in 1075 and lives in New York City. She was a Fulbright Scholar in India from 2001-2003, where she studied and researched Kathak dance. She holds a B.A. in English literature from Columbia University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University. She is currently writing a book of short fiction and prose poems and working in the field of education.
The word ‘Kathak’ comes from the Sanskrit root word ‘katha’ meaning ’story’. The Kathak tradition, a North Indian classical dance form that dates back to Vedic times, is firmly rooted in the world of fiction, in this case mythology. The first Kathak dancers, or Kathakas as they were called, were essentially traveling bards; they visited the temples and towns across the Genetic Plains and spread mythological stories of Krishna and his world through words, dance, music, and mime. They were highly skilled and used their knowledge for practical purposes as well as artistic ones. While temple priests regarded these bards as useful vehicles to spread Hindu lore to the masses, royal families employed Kathakas as entertainers and would "while away their time listening to a long tale". (Kothari, 1989: 1).
As an oral tradition, early Kathak was handed down from generation to generation via the spoken word, and no doubt each new generation of Kathakas added its own interpretations to the profession. Among these performers, there were certainly some innovators-Kathakas who fabricated different gestures and composed new songs, artists who created hidden meanings in their stories to give audiences more than a sound education about Krishna's pursuits. Perhaps these Kathakas were mildly ostracized in the beginning for their waywardness, their desire for self expression seen as impudence by the community of Kathakas at large. Yet, if they were any good, over time these pioneers were probably accepted into the fold, influencing how the others told their stories too.
Of course, this is all speculation. We know little about the lives of the first Kathakas, their creative process, and their development as artists. But we can assume, based on our knowledge of the more recent history of Kathak that the art form they practiced was constantly changing depending on the performer’s background, temperament, and outlook on the world. Dances, like people, lands, and governments, are always affected by circumstances. The Kathak we see today has changed greatly over the past few centuries, never mind the last millennium. Historically, the form went through a great transition in the 16th and 17th centuries with the arrival of the Moguls. Kathak was integrated into the courts and its technical vocabulary expanded, influenced by Persian performers. Later, during the British colonial period, all Indian classical dance forms experienced a severe decline, and it was only in the early half of the 20th century, in tandem with freedom movements and calls for self-governance, that these forms were rejuvenated. Post independence, the government harnessed dance to help shape national identity, making classical dances cultural markers, ways to depict true ’Indianness'.
The above represents a somewhat academic overview of the evolution of the Kathak form. Within each major shift in the dance form's development, there were a dozen other, finer alterations that led up to these changes. All of them were catalyzed by people and their lives. In the historical perspective of Kathak, the individual dancers often get lost. They become conduits for an art that is much larger than their lives, which is true, but with a grand catch—22; the dance is also nothing without the dancers who shape it.
Kumudini Lakhia, born on May 17, 1930, is one of these dancers. Her involvement with Kathak spans more than 67 years and over the course of her career she has reinvented herself half a dozen times. Though beginning as a reluctant dance student, she became a well— travelled performer, a soloist, a teacher, and finally, a choreographer. At each step, she confronted the dilemma of working within the classical medium—how to maintain its traditional roots while finding ways to relate to it and make Kathak her own. Kumudini came from a non-dancing and surprisingly liberal family, but mastered Kathak through a variety of gurus who embodied the Kathak tradition. She developed an immense respect for this tradition, and in a 2002 interview stated, "As inheritors of their art, it was our responsibility to acknowledge its greatness and not violate its spirit, dilute or trivialize it." (Kothari, 2002; 85) At the same time, having been exposed to other dance forms, career options, and environments, she rejected the idea of becoming a passive receptacle for tradition. Kumudini the child dutifully attended her Kathak classes but secretly loathed the rote learning of movements and rhythms and quietly questioned the purpose of it all. Years later as a soloist, she performed the traditional repertoire but took mental notes about her performances, the things she liked and disliked. When she began to experiment with her stored up observations and ideas in the l960s, it seemed like a coup. But really, it was her first attempt at confronting the predicament of tradition in the modern world and making some kind of sense out of it.
Kumudini's inquiries have led to over 50 productions so far, and her most successful pieces are noted for their powerful subtlety. In the process of adapting Kathak’s traditional solo format to group presentations, she expanded Kathak’s intricacies to fill the modern stage her choreographies became intensely personal, aesthetic, and abstract visions that employed the dance form's rich technique to explore ideas about relationships, society, and conflict in the present world. As she developed as an artist, she became concerned with Kathak as dance rather than as tradition. She saw dance as more than mere showmanship and entertainment, and one of the first questions she posed as a teacher and choreographer was "Why? Why dance? Why move like this?" To this day, she has not found a definitive answer. It is difficult to exactly articulate why we dance and why we enjoy watching dance. But for Kumudini, the answer has been in the attempt, in asking the simple questions.
I first met Kumudini Lakhia during the spring of 200l at Salaam Bombay, a restaurant 0n New York’s Greenwich Street where she was holding a Kathak workshop organized by one of her students, Parul Shah (a Kathak dancer from whom I was learning and also a friend). By the time l arrived, Kumiben was finishing up the beginners class. She wore a salwar kameez and moved around the students, counting out beats and clapping her hands. They were practising the first four hand movements of Kathak, and her instruction was direct and specific but not overly elaborate. Her glasses sat round and large on her face, and her jet black hair was wrapped in a swift, clean bun.
When the class was over she sat down and smiled at me, a broad, warm smile that seemed at once shy and bold. Initial physical impressions of people have a tendency to remain with me, and with Kumiben that first smile, the nod of her head and the shadows that played on her face in the dim basement light, implanted themselves in my mind. l remember she was darker than I'd expected and smaller in stature than she seemed, her feet barely grazing the floor when she sat on the cushioned bench. l noticed her strong chin, its clear definition. It wasn't just her attractiveness that struck me. It was her style.
Our own class began with a new tukra, a basic Kathak composition. The first movement was a straight, sharp diagonal drawn by the arms. We were supposed to feel our entire bodies moving in one focused direction. The weight, she explained, should be in our thighs, not in our feet, so as to have both stability and quickness. Our heads should not bob up and down, and our arms should move in one line. She kept reminding us of that line. She was careful with each explanation, only giving us as much as we needed. We weren’t afraid to make mistakes; the fun was in trying to create the movements she showed us. We did each segment of the composition this way, in attempts, many of them. None of us spoke except to ask questions. Our focus was so concentrated that there was no space for anything else.
And yet 1 was hardly conscious of learning, of the fact that the room was crowded and we needed t o be mindful of our limbs. 1 felt Kumiben’s eyes on us and each fresh attempt was one 1 wanted her t o notice. It was like returning t o the kind of learning you experience as a child, not in school, but in the world.
The workshop itself lasted three weeks. She taught us a variety of basic techniques and compositions, building our dance vocabulary piece by piece. We learned a set of five tihais, two baants, and three tukras in three different speeds, a thaat, and a gat. The last day she recorded all of these pieces into a tape s o we could have it to practise. In between she all owed a gap of four avartans (16 beat cycles). It was a 15 minute composition and she spoke it entirely in one go, with out break. Later when I listened to the tape her voice sounded different, deeper and softer.
Kumiben was staying with Parul, who lived in the apartment below mine. One night 1 went over f or dinner; Parul and her roommate, Chinu, were making burritos and guacamole1 Kumiben was sitting on the c ouch in the living room reading a b o ok. She t old me she loved t o read but never had the time t o d o s o at home as she was s o busy. She seemed quiet, but not reserved. At dinner, the three of us—Parul, Chinu, and I—talked about our lives, about whatever it is we talk about, t old Kumiben things about our days, about how we live in New York. She listened and smiled, like some one who had been there a long time. She was unlike any other septuagenarian 1 had ever met. She watched us, took note of how we spoke, the way we moved, and her gaze was far from grandmotherly. She observed everything closely us, the room, the sounds of Washington Avenue outside—• sometimes tapping her feet, sometimes looking d own at them t o see what they were doing. Nothing escaped her and it seemed that she was storing away each moment, making it into something else.
When I met Kumiben she was 71, she is now 75. The numbers are misleading when juxtaposed with her energy, her bluntness, her comfort level around young people. Yet, when she speaks of her age, she isn't afraid of using the word ‘old’. 1t is hard t o imagine Kumiben as ‘old’ in terms of being infirm, despondent, resigned, and tired. The adjective needs a new meaning when affixed to her, a more literal meaning with fewer connotations. A number and nothing more.
A few months later I went to India on a Fulbright grant in search of Kathak. I didn’t really know what I was doing or what I would find. I had a vague notion of continuing my dance training while writing stories about Kathak dancers, and I had an even vaguer idea of who these dancers might be. My only absolute was that I wanted to study dance at the Kadamb Centre for Dance and Music, Kumudini Lakhia’s institution. That was all. I had no intention of writing about her work, much less writing about her life.
I arrived in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, a week after September 11, 2001 and met Kumiben the next day. We talked about the planes crashing into two towers in New York City and what it could possibly meant "It is impossible to think of anything else," she exclaimed. Both dance and writing felt far away from me during my first few weeks in India. I had frequent thoughts of returning home and often felt a strange homesickness inspired by tragic events.
But over the following weeks, something inspired me to stay. At first it was little things; hearing Kumiben have a loud exchange with her driver or watching her briskly straighten the folding chairs in the waiting area every evening before Kadamb closed. I discovered small details about her life, how she played hockey in boarding school, stories about her travels in the Middle East, memories of her mother singing. I began examining her productions, attending all of Kadamb's shows. When the troupe wasn’t touring, I watched video clips, the same ones over and over again. Some evenings I left Kadamb hearing Dhabkar, her first major group choreography, in my head and seeing snippets of it jumbled in my dreams. But mostly, I relished watching her work, especially during class and in rehearsals. My journal became a strange melange of observations about Kathak and about Kumiben, and at times I couldn't separate one from the other.
When I finally began the formal process of collecting reminiscences from both Kumiben and others, it became clear that her life was formed in layers. Though the top layer was always her artistic career, other layers began to come to the surface—her family life, her childhood, her relationships with her students. I was relying heavily on memories, especially the memories that people found most inconsequential and took for granted; the details about a particular performance, the way she looked as a child, the things she observed in passing. I also relied on my own powers of observation, which is perhaps the most exciting aspect of writing about a living person who is extremely active. I had the opportunity of watching her, talking to her, and making my own first—hand conclusions about how she worked and lived.
In the process, I became a part of Kumiben’s world, and it was nearly impossible to remain an observer and watch her through a glass wall. I was a student at Kadamb; I participated in Kumiben's classes; I built relationships with members of her family. Over the following three years, I pieced together the narrative of Kumiben’s life and examined the subtle genius of her choreography, but all of this was filtered through an outsider/insider perspective. For all intents and purposes, I was a foreigner in India and clearly an outsider when it came to the Kathak community. But at Kadamb, I became increasingly part of the school, learning from Kumiben while I wrote about her. At times, I wished for greater distance, a more objective view. But in other moments, I wanted to be even closer, without the formality that comes with a teacher—student relationship. I was caught in an in—between place in Kumiben's life—a student who observed her through a writer’s lens. The picture created in this narrative is influenced by both my distance and closeness to the subject and the art form she has helped shape.
The picture, however, is only partially complete, and along one edge, it bleeds into the present. Kumiben (Kumudini Lakhia, Kumima, Kumudji, Kumi) is waking up at this hour. She rises before anyone else and quickly sets about buying the vegetables for the household, pruning the plants in her garden, reading the newspaper with a cup of tea, and giving directions to the cook when he emerges from his room. She sees her grandson off to school and leaves for Kadamb a few hours later. The short ride from her home to the school is the quietest, most reflective part of her day, and she stares out the window, watching the street life unfold. Sometimes she points out a new building to Kalubhai, her driver, or asks him about his family. But mostly, she saves these few minutes for herself, keeping still and watching the rest move by.
|Part 1||Early Years||17|
|Part 2||Abroad and Beyond||45|
|Part 4||Choreographing Circumstance||125|
|Epilogue||Fragments in Present Tense||275|
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