Pali Chandra talks to Philippa Kennedy about kathak, an ancient Indian dance form she teaches to young girls in Dubai.
Passing the torch
Pali Chandra was about six years old when the path her life would take as a dancer was set. She was at a birthday party doing her best to frighten the life out of her little friends by making scary faces at them when she was spotted by an adult who happened to be a teacher of the Indian classical dance form known as kathak. There was something about the way the child moved and especially the way she used her large expressive eyes that persuaded the teacher to approach her parents and suggest that she should be sent to dance classes.
And although the prestigious Kathak Kendera Academy in Lucknow, which teaches the specialised art form, normally only takes children when they reach the age of eight, an exception was made for Chandra. As a child, however, she didn't appreciate the honour. "I was attending normal school during the day, learning the British curriculum and going on after that for three hours of training in kathak, five days a week. I did rebel sometimes. There were times that they would expect me to go at weekends as well and I have to say I resented it, especially when my friends were going to parties."
In fact she was so rebellious that she used to hide her ghangroo bells, an essential part of the dance an worn around the ankles, but her mother kept replacing them. "I remember hiding my ghangroo umpteen times and they were replaced. I would leave them in the car or hide them in my room. I never threw them away as there was always the element of respect for the bells, but one day my bedroom cupboard looked lopsided and when my mother investigated, out fell 16 pairs of ghangroo."
It was only when she began to perform in public and the audience responded to her graceful and expressive dancing that she started to take it seriously as a possible career. Now she is passing on her extensive knowledge to a new generation of young, mostly Indian, women in Dubai. The annual concert of Gurukul, the company she runs with her sister, takes place next Saturday at the Emirates International School, Dubai. Called Dancing Divas 2010 - Five Elements, it is a celebration of kathak based on the traditional elements of space, air, fire, water and earth, and features pupils from the classes Chandra runs at Ductac and Bur Dubai.
The performance will be divided into three parts, creation and co-existence, conflict and destruction and finally recreation and celebration. There will also be a fashion show inspired by the five elements. "The environment is an issue that everyone needs to be aware of. My own children are learning about it in school so I thought it would be a good subject to interpret," says Chandra as she takes a rest from a rehearsal held in a dance studio at Ductac.
Young Indian girls dressed in white shalwar kameezes with coloured sashes representing the five elements run through their paces, watching intently as Chandra shows them a particular hand gesture. Her knowledge of kathak is extensive and her passion for the traditional dance form deep, but when she was in her 20s she upset traditionalists by pushing the boundaries to their limits. In fact she was branded "arrogant" by many for daring to dance outside the parameters of century-old tradition. She explains: "The philosophy of kathak is very important. The word means storytelling. What normally happens is that you narrate stories from the past but we all know the stories and doing the same thing every time wasn't my cup of tea. I wanted to tell stories that inspired me now. For me, change is the fact that I'm alive.
"My mother used to say, 'Be like a mirror and speak of what's bothering people today.' This was a new thing and I was heavily criticised by many of the traditionalists. "They called me the arrogant dancer. They couldn't criticise me for my technique because I was a gold medallist so they attacked my modern ideas." Chandra and her sister grew up in Lucknow, daughters of a bank executive. Their mother was a trained classical singer but gave up her dreams of a career on the stage for the sake of her family. "She could not continue with her passion because of the amount of travelling my dad was doing. I think she saw her dreams being fulfilled through me," says Chandra.
After Guru Vikram Singh spotted her pulling faces at her friends, Chandra was enrolled at the academy and would dutifully attend afternoon dance classes after her normal daily schooling. The academy, which has branches all over India, teaches the pure form of kathak, one of the eight forms of Indian classical dance. Kathak, which originated in northern India, can be traced back to the nomadic storytellers of ancient times who used to perform in village squares, street corners and in the grounds of temples.
They would tell stories from the scriptures, embellishing them with hand gestures, facial expressions and stylised gestures set to music, and the dance form was developed as entertainment in the courts of the Mughal era. Says Chandra: "A lot of storytelling is done through expressions, some of it is just through the eyes. Learning the technique was a gruelling issue and we were trained right through from yoga to the technique of the classical dance form.
"When I started training I wasn't that serious about it. It took me a good 10 years to make up my mind. It was only when I began to perform and the audience started reacting that I thought about it seriously. "Then the government of India sponsored me to become a soloist. It was the audience who made me a dancer. I suppose I must have been a graceful child. I certainly came from a musical background and music is so entwined with the dance and I could sing almost anything we were doing so people found my dancing quite lyrical. Being sent to the academy was like being sent to the Royal Ballet School in the UK."
For Chandra and five of her fellow pupils, what they enjoyed most was the idea of spreading the word amongst underprivileged people. Between them they set about creating a lecture demonstration as a showcase for the dance. "Kathak is quite an expensive art form and what I enjoyed most was spreading the art amongst people who were not so privileged to come and learn. My mission was taking my dance to people rather than expecting them to come to an auditorium. What was very rewarding was that what we created just grew and grew, starting in my own city of Lucknow and spreading as far as London. We would dance in places you would never expect to find a dance performance. We performed all over India at symposiums at festivals from September to February in different parts of the country, where we would be paid because they were sponsored. We would collect money from performing, then we would put on shows for people who could not afford to buy tickets."
Chandra is the only one left in her group that is still teaching and is now one of the foremost proponents of the art. She danced at the opening ceremony of the Millennium Dome in London in a production involving 40 schools from London boroughs, performed for the queen at Westminster Abbey and at the Edinburgh Festival and venues all over the UK. Over the years she has received many plaudits for her work including the prestigious Lachhu Maharaj Award given to artists who acquire the skill and expertise of Abhinaya, meaning the art of expression. She is frequently asked to create lectures and workshops for institutions and foundations interested in the arts including Seattle University in the US to Birmingham, Oxford, Liverpool, Bradford, Westminster and Surrey universities and the London School of Contemporary Dance and Middlesex University in the UK, the University of Hong Kong and Wellington International School and Royal Dubai School in Dubai.
Chandra left India in 1992 a year after she was married to the software engineer Vishal Chandra, whose work took him to the UK. They have twin boys aged nine, Arya and Surya. For Pali it was an opportunity to explore ways of bringing kathak to a wider audience. The Indian Council of Cultural Relations asked her to promote her art form on their behalf and she was also approached by the Commonwealth Institute about starting outreach programmes similar to those she ran in India.
"I wanted to spread awareness. In India there were certain areas where it was difficult for me to be myself for fear of upsetting traditionalists. I do care about that, otherwise I might have been bolder. I was able to be freer in the UK. I believe that one should know one's own techniques from A to Z. Once you know that and are comfortable with it, that's the time you can move towards collaboration.
"My gurus gave me so much, it was limitless, more a way of life than anything else. It needs to grow when you are with a person. There's a language that the hands have all on their own and each movement and gesture is a symbol. It's not written down and mostly passed on by watching," she says. Four years ago her husband's work brought the family to Dubai, and Chandra and her sister, Somna, formed their own company, Gurukul. Somna is the director of projects for the company, which aims to enhance the practice, understanding and appreciation of South Asian art and culture across the globe.
In February, the company gave a highly acclaimed performance at the Hyatt Regency hotel and Chandra's dance classes are sought after by parents who want their daughters, and occasionally their sons, to learn a traditional art. "They often become so interested that I had to start an adult class, too. It's a lovely form of dance and incorporates some of the elements of yoga and stretching techniques. It leaves you feeling happier. Dance is a universal language."
- Dancing Divas 2010 - Five Elements takes place on Saturday, June 12 at 8pm at the Emirates Theatre, Emirates International School, Jumeirah, Dubai. Tickets are Dh50 and Dh75 and can be bought at Ductac, Mall of the Emirates (Tel: 04 34 14 777) or Spinney's Audio Video (Tel: 04 351 09 29) or Sind Punjab: 04 352 50 58 / 337 55 35 or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org