Kathak from Katha meaning story. Katha kahe so kathak kahave. I have heard this phrase from the time I first became interested in Kathak as art form. The phrase is in a vernacular of Hindi from Uttar Pradesh, the home of Kathak. It means ‘he who tells a story is a storyteller’, a kathak. The dance and the dancer are one in the same word.
I have been fortunate to study at the feet of the great Kathavachaks of our time, Pandit Birju Maharaj, his nephew, Guru Munna Lal Shukla, Dr. Maya Rao, Pandita Rohini Bhate. All revered gurus whose deep study and creative genius enriched the tradition of Kathak and Kathavachan. These great gurus have told countless stories, many known and beloved, others new and strange. With a single gesture or the arch of an eyebrow a river flows or lighting flashes through the sky. I have reveled in the presence of countless performances by these great dancers admiring the depth of their interpretation. Through apparently simple stories they conjure divine wonder, deep emotion or even philosophical concepts. How would it be possible for me to tell these stories in Canada, I always wondered?
So, after many many years I had the tremendous good fortune to do a true Kathavachan in Canada. After nearly two years in the creation and evolution, and several configurations, the City Room at the NAC in Ottawa was the site of a Kathavachan, Canadian style. It could not have been more appropriate.
The poetry was by Mevlana Jellaluddin Rumi. A parable from Rumi’s Masnavi, it is the Story of The Merchant and The Parrot. I opted for a format in which I told the story in Rumi’s words translated into beautiful English. With a little practice I was able to recite the lines while enacting the scenes with mudras and hand gestures.
I was fortunate to be accompanied by my dear friend S. Mushfiq Hashimi from Afghanistan who sings Rumi’s lyrics in the original Persian. His music awakens the true soul of the poetry and allows the dance to unfold. The apparent simplicity of his composition is perfect for Kathavachan and belies the tremendous philosophical and rhythmic complexity of the text.
Add to this the incredible tabla accompaniment provided by Kiran Morarji, from Mississauga, who migrated here with his family from Africa. With live tabla I could explore the full dynamic of Kathak’s rhythmic repertoire. The parrot takes flight and the merchant goes on a journey with rare traditional Kathak compositions played on tabla and interpreted through the ghungroos and movement.
The total effect was true Kathavachan complete with narration, song, rhythm and gesture. The audience was everyone who wandered into the City Room that day. Children and elders, artists and tourists, people from many races and languages. But for a time we were all in the dance together. Kathak was just its pure self… telling a story from Persia about a Merchant that went to India… in English and Persian… with musicians from Afghanistan and Africa and a dancer from Ottawa. The Silk Road had truly reached Canada.