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Interview: Sanchita Abrol on KATHAK as a Dance Form

Like most classical forms of performing arts in India, Kathak - a traditional dance also has a fascinating story behind its origin. Counted amongst the ten most important and popular dance forms from India, it is said to be originated from the traveling bards of ancient India who would tell stories while traveling from one region to another performing, dancing and imitating at the same time. The stories were generally derived from myths, legends or the ancient epics.

Kathak as an art form survived centuries and became popular during the Mughal reign in India too. During the British rule in India, it suffered as other foreign cultural aspects took over. Post independence it continued to grow through oral traditions. Kathak as a dance form both excites and intrigues as the stories, emotions and moments are expressed through both physical dance movements and also through facial expressions. For many it combines an element of acting alongside and that's what makes Kathak dancer particularly riveting to watch.

According to scholars the origin of Kathak in India can be traced to 400 BCE.

Today in modern India the dance form is still preserved and presented as one of the most enlightening art forms and institutes teaching kathak have popped up all across the world.

To shed some light on the beauty of this art form BWW caught up with Kathak exponent Sanchita Abrol,

Sanchita is a disciple of venerated Kathak Maestro, Padma shri Guru Shovana Narayan.

In early 2014 Sanchita founded Rasadance, an organization in Australia building a bond with the centuries old tradition of story-telling through dance. Sanchita has performed on the international stage, most notably Ganges-Danube Cultural Festival of India in Hungary 2016, ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) Festival of India in Italy 2016 and ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) Festival of India in Morocco 2016 among others.

Here she talks about what makes Kathak a dance form so distinctive that it continues to grow across continents

1. Tell us about the philosophy behind kathak as a dance form. How does a dancer through movements display varied stories

As the name suggests, Kathak, is derived from the Sanskrit words 'katha' (the story) and 'kathakar' (the story-teller). This centuries old tradition of story-telling is one of the most comprehensive and expressive languages of movement in the world. To me, it is my identity. I feel blessed to be trained under Padma Shri Guru Shovana Narayan, to understand the sensitivity behind each movement, which makes dance a unique experience. Exploring a range of moods or 'Navrasas', I can say that Kathak reflects the complete essence of life. The creative yet sequential movements of 'Nritta ang' combined with the expressions and intricate movements from 'abhinaya ang' leads to a journey that reveals the sentient self.

To dance is a complete process wherein the dancer becomes the story and the dance becomes a story line. Innate movements, intense footwork, intricate rhythmic patterns, incredible pirouettes and emotionally stirring mime are the remarkable essentials of Kathak, which help the dancer to tell any story with utmost simplicity.

All aspects of 'karanas' (the act of doing), 'bhangis' (body postures), 'charis' (movement) and 'bhramaris'(pirouettes) are utilised in Kathak. Especially, if we talk about the tempo, Kathak is the only dance form that has the opportunity of moving from the 'ativilambit laya' (slowest of tempos) to the 'atidrut laya' (the fastest), which embellishes a dancer's performance and establishes the difference in moods while putting a message across in no seconds.

2. You have performed at international stages too, do you think Kathak as a dance form needs a lot of exposure so people abroad also understand it. According to you what are the most popular classical Indian dance forms abroad

By the grace of God, I started dancing professionally at a very early age, and since then I have performed at many international platforms like Ganges-Danube Cultural Festival of India in Hungary 2016, ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) Festival of India in Italy 2016 and ICCR Festival of India in Morocco 2016 among others. In early 2014, I founded 'Rasadance' an organization in Australia building a bond with the centuries old tradition of story telling through dance.

As a dancer, I keep trying to get better. Whether it is a close gathering or a performance at an International stage, each performance needs to be done in a certain way and Kathak is a unique dance form, 'a universal language of movement' that maintains its beauty even in improvisation, which makes it easier for anyone to understand.

However, dancers may interpret improvisation in a very narrow way. By improvisation I do not just mean creativeness in movement, but also exploring and understanding the embodied art within the broader context of performances, presentation, rhythm, philosophical narrative, different cultural ideologies, representation and re-presentation. Though I believe in traditionalist form of Kathak, yet my training has provided me the skills to utilise the traditional Kathak in this sphere of improvisation to engage with vast audience outside India. I believe for further promotion of Kathak abroad, this is where the gap needs to be filled; each Kathak exponent needs to expose kathak within this entire sphere of improvisation to connect with audience, while maintaining its uniqueness.

Well according to me, most popular Indian dance forms abroad are Kathak and Bharatnatyam.

3. Learning kathak is a lot of hard work and requires perseverance. How many years does the disciple take to go through the training. Tell us about your background and how you began your career in kathak.

Yes, it goes without saying that learning Kathak requires perseverance, dedication, sincerity and endurance. Over that it also needs your Guru, family and your partner understanding your passion and encouraging you at each step to perform well.

There is no time limit in which you can become a skilled dancer; in fact there is no end to this training, it's a lifelong continuous process. Generally you can say 6-7 years are minimum required, however even after becoming a professional dancer, there are more journeys ahead.

My family hails from Jammu and Kashmir. My dad is a Paediatrician, my mother is a teacher by profession and my sister works with American Express, all are from science background. As the youngest, I always enjoyed following my elder sister. My sister was learning Odissi dance and I used to accompany her to her dance class. I always tried to imitate her movements. That's when my interest in dance developed.

When I turned 5, I began my learning in Kathak, my initial training was under Guru Ved Vyas ji. Soon I gained prominence, winning dance contests at District and State level and receiving nomination to perform at prestigious events such as the South Asian Association for RegionAl Cooperation (SAARC) & Asia Sammelan.

My journey with my guru Padma Shri Shovana Narayan embarked when she came to perform in my old town. A paragon of excellence, her graceful dancing left me spell bound. Even though she didn't realise from that very moment, I acknowledged her as my guru from the core of my heart. Since then, this relation has grown further. Sending me to Delhi everyday for dance class was a tough decision for my parents, especially in the prime age of schooling. However, after meeting in person, her welcoming nature, made my parents and I feel like being part of a pleasant family. Now more than two decades have passed, yet it feels like the first day of my dance class.

In addition to my diligence in Kathak, I have tried to perform well in academics too. I was a district topper in AISSCE (All India Senior School Certificate Examination) and a recipient of Amul VIdya Bhushan Award 2009 for scoring highest marks in Economics and Accounts. Later I completed 'Bachelors of Commerce (Honors)' from the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi and 'Masters in Public Policy and Management' from University of Melbourne, Australia. I intend to continue my tryst with Kathak for life alongside balancing my academic and social goals.

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From This Author - Zofeen Maqsood

Zofeen Maqsood is a lifestyle and entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. She has written for some of biggest newspapers in the Indian subcontinent and for American publications.... (read more about this author)