The Best of Kathak

Afficionados of Kathak, the classical style of north India, are indebted to the London based Pratap Pawar Triveni Dance Company for maintaining the highest standards of training and programme presentation.

Musical accompaniment was provided by an ensemble led by Pt. Vishwa Prakash: tabla, guitar, santoor, sitar and vocals.

  • Review in Dancing Times of the July 2000 performance of Kathak Shringar, by Reginald Massey

Pratap Pawar is Akhram Khan’s Kathak guru and over the years he has invited leading lights from India to perform in Britain. On July 9 at the Bhavan Centre’s renovated Mountbatten hall in West Kensington the packed auditorium was regaled with dance that was at once exciting, sensuous, tender and heart rending. The star was Birju Maharaj, India’s leading Kathak guru and performer. However, Pratap Pawar, Sawasti Sen and the young Mahua Shankhar were lustrous in their own particular ways.

Pawar’s touching interpretation of a well known poem by Zafar brought tears to the eyes of many in the audience, mine included. ‘Zafar’ was the non de plume of Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal emperor of India. After the collapse of the poorly planned uprising, or ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857, the emperor was exiled to Burma. There the old man wrote his heart out, mourning his fate in memorable verse. With death fast approaching he lamented that his makwer had not granted him for his burial, a mere two yards of land in his own beloved country. Pawar’s description of the verses in choreographic terms was invested with moving sadness. Earlier, his electrifying display of footwork to an eleven beat time cycle followed by his own composition within the parameters of two and a half beats brought the house down.

Saswati Sen, like her senior colleague Pratap Pawar, is a disciple of Birju Maharaj. Her Vasant Taal, a nine beat cycle, punctuated with incredibly fast chakkars, pirouettes, was enthralling. She followed this up with a traditional expressionistic piece based on a composition by the singer Girija Deva, a leading exponent of the varanasi gharana, school.

Improvisation and competitive footwork reached their high point when the four dancers appeared together in Tarana. Sometimes dancing in unison and sometimes individually, the torrents of applause and cried of ‘Vah! Vah!’ (‘Bravo!’) urged on to faster footwork, devilishly clever ‘give and take’ and amazingly intricate ramifications of rhythm.

Like a good wine, Birju Maharaj gets better with the passage of time. Age seems not to wither him, nor custom stale his infinite variety. A percussionist of distinction, he sings like an angel and paints with passion. And he has a wicked sense of humour, which came into its own when he gave what became, in effect, a lecture demonstration. His observations were brilliant. Through mime and the beat of his ghungurus, ankle bells, he depicted, for example, a telephone conversation or a trifling tussle between two friends, one a lively go-getter and the other a lazy good-for-nothing. Many of his conceptions, he said, were derived directly from nature; the song of birds, the varying moods of the wind and the sea, and the grace of wild animals. He demonstrated the innocence of a doe, the pride of a dancing peacock, the care of a hen for her chicks, the terrifying tiger in the forests of the night.

The art of Thumri Andaaz (the sophisticated manner in which a thumri, poem, is interpreted) was perfected by one of Birju Maharaj’s ancestors, Binda Din Maharaj, who graced the court of Wajid Ali Shah, the last kind of Avadh. The ruler, a Shia Muslim, was himself a musician and dancer of repute and often danced the role of the Hindu god Krishna.

Thumri Andaaz is sadly going out of fashion and Birju Maharaj is one of the very few artists who excels in it today. Sitting on a carpet with a shawl draped over his knees and feet, he first sang a thumri and then through the eyes, through facial expression, and through subtle movements of the arms and hands, delineated the various nuances of meaning. He enriched the undersatndings of the verses through physical metaphors, images, similes and conceits even as he sang the same words over and over again. He is a poet of gentle gestures, delicate dalliances, hints and deft suggestions. We could have sat there all night savouring his rich and fabulous feast.

Yusuf Mahmoud and Debashish Mukherfee (tablas), Elias Khan (saringi), and Rajesh Pandey (vocal and harmonium) were the first rate accompanists. The stage management and lighting was in the capable hands of Tom Castle and Dasha Mailk was the charming compere.