We meet Manjari Chaturvedi, who aims to honour rather than shame the female Kathak dancers of India’s past
Kathak dancers: why they were more than just 'dance girls'
Kathak exponent Manjari Chaturvedi is a storyteller above all else. It’s a surprising way of identifying oneself, particularly as she’s a renowned Indian classical dancer, but for Chaturvedi, dance is the language she uses to tell tales. And while her dance helps her stand tall in the subcontinent, the performances also draw flak from conservative quarters because she colours outside the lines.
“Kathak is the language I’ve learned all my life,” says the 43-year-old dancer. She’s in the midst of a hectic schedule of classes, rehearsals and performances, apart from running her non-profit SufiKathak Foundation. “Now I use it to create my own narratives. It’s still classical dance because my gestures, postures, movements aren’t a departure from the essential genre. But I have incorporated other styles as well, which I believe have enriched my craft.”
Chaturvedi has spent years studying to prepare her performances, diving deep into research and travelling around the world in her search. Her study of Sufi mysticism for well over a decade led to the creation of Sufi Kathak – a blend of classical Kathak and Sufi traditions – which is a whole new genre of dance. Today, through her foundation, she is spreading awareness, as well as teaching future Sufi Kathak dancers. “Each performance is a research paper,” she says. “I don’t write essays, I dance them.”
The result is mesmerising recitals, much of which remind us of meditating whirling dervishes. “History records show that [Sufi poet] Baba Bulleh Shah used to dance,” says Chaturvedi. “In one piece of work, I wanted to recreate that scene – a saint in ecstasy.”
Trained in the Lucknow Gharana (Kathak has three main gharanas or forms) under Arjun Mishra, she was already teaching and performing professionally by the time she was in college. Nevertheless, she completed her master’s in environmental science at Lucknow University upon the insistence of her father, who was a space scientist. “Twenty years ago, it was difficult to imagine making a decent living out of professional dance,” says Chaturvedi. “My father never stopped me from pursuing dance, he simply ensured that I had a Plan B in place. He insisted on my independence and not marriage, which I am so thankful for.”
That well-developed streak of working independently and passionately following her ambitions have borne fruit. Today, not only is Chaturvedi the only exponent of Sufi Kathak, but also a respected guardian of oral traditions pertinent to her field. This enables her to fend off critics as well, who raise issues with her wearing black or leaving her hair open for a recital, both of which are frowned upon. “People tend to get stuck within fixed lines,” she says.
More recently, in an attempt to revive dying traditions and highlight the contributions of female Kathak dancers over the past two centuries, Chaturvedi has been passionately working on The Courtesan Project. While she is currently writing a book on the subject matter – still a work in progress – her performances have shed light on the courtesans or tawaifs of Indian courts, the significance of their artistry in the development of Kathak as a classical dance, and how they were the sole bearers of Urdu culture for the greater part of the 18th and 19th centuries.
“I wish to change the narratives surrounding women who danced in courts and salons during that period,” she says. “We call the male dancers ustads [masters or teachers], but the women are nachnewalis (dance girls). I want to change that.”
Kathak was born from the ancient art of kathakars (storytellers) or travelling bards, who used to travel around India depicting folklore and tales. With roots in Natya Shastra, a Sanskrit text on performing arts, it grew during the Bhakti Movement in India, but developed much of its current form in the Mughal courts and with Nawabi patronage, thanks to women knows as tawaifs, who passed down this oral art form generation to generation, and who were prestigious exponents of music and dance.
Their art was a blend of poetry, music, dance and gestures. They were relegated to the margins when the British took over India, associated mainly with prostitution, instead of being credited for their artistic brilliance. Kathak was reborn after independence as a classical dance, but in middle-class and elite circles as stagecraft.
“There are so many biographies of ustads, but no books on the tawaifs,” says Chaturvedi, haunted by the shocking gaps in performative history in India. “Why has gender interrupted art? My project is about those female performers and artists who never got their due.”
The dancer’s courtesan performances are unique, particularly stunning in terms of facial expressions and delicate, almost fragile movements, which were integral to the dance of the tawaifs. There’s romance in the air, a feeling of amour, flirtatious yet never missing a step – Chaturvedi’s renditions are dreamy moments in time. And it’s this beauty that makes the most effective argument towards highlighting the craft of the courtesans.
“We don’t even have the names of most dancers of those times, they’re buried in history,” she says. “And the families of legendary tawaifs don’t want to talk about their mothers and grandmothers as tawaifs. It’s a terrible loss.” Alongside Sufi Kathak and The Courtesan Project, Chaturvedi also premiered O Jugni Punjab Di last month – a synthesis of traditional Punjabi folklore with the poetry of Baba Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah at Kingdom of Dreams in Gurugram. A first of its kind, where Punjabi folktales (in the Jugni tradition) are narrated through Kathak, Chaturvedi terms it a tribute to the transgressive feminine in Punjab folklore. She will be performing a show on November 7 at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai, accompanied by Ustad Ranjhan Ali from Punjab, popular actor Balkar Sidhu, and Vikramjit Singh Rooprai.