Shefali Jain

“Kya Baate Hai”

As the airhostess’s voice faded out and the lights dimmed for take-off, I was left to the silent din of my thoughts. For months I had been frantically preparing for this international conference on Kathak, a classical Indian dance form, and after a frenzied weekend, I was finally able to let it sink in. Birju Maharaj, Kumudini Lakhia, Pandit Tirath Ram Azad, Saswati Sen … names that had been rattled off for many months were starting to trigger a faint sense of reverence. Though once famed and admired dancers, these celebrities of yesteryear now provoke the same response in India as old ‘60s songs do in America: nostalgia among adults and cluelessness among teens.
So although I grew up in India, I was completely ignorant of the beauty, depth and richness of Indian classical music. My grandparents had said for years, “It is our culture and traditions that makes us better than the West,” but frankly it had become cliché and I was bored of it. Indian youth were looking to the West for answers on philosophy, religion, fashion, music, and even food. I could not name a single Indian instrument but had memorized the entire McDonald’s menu.
On the opposite side of this battle were these once-famed dancers, a living legacy of India’s rich musical tradition, fighting for the next generation’s attention and for the preservation of their art form. Some dancers tried to create fusions between Kathak and flamenco, which usually led to confusion. Others tried to eliminate the story-telling aspect of dance, an identity of Kathak, and rather use the dancers’ bodies to create abstract images. Speed replaced the graceful nuances of the dance in an attempt to momentarily enrapture a fast-paced world. India was fighting for an identity as globalization took its toll.
On the final evening of the conference, sitting in the auditorium of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, I realized the prevalence of this “identity crisis”. After three days of Kathak performances similar to those of the Nautch girls in the Moghul courts, the grand finale was supposed to be the leap forward – a jamming session between traditionalist Pandit Chitresh Das and tap-dancer Jason Samuels Smith. As the two dancers walked onto stage, I immediately noticed the stark contrast – Chitresh Das in a stylized, feminine gait and Jason in an urban strut. While Pandit Das was wearing a crisp black tunic and a row of bells on his ankles, Jason was geared in blue jeans, an oversize T-shirt and black tap shoes.
As the initial applause settled down, I awaited breathlessly for the informal jam session to begin. Das began by dancing a complex mathematical rhythm through swift yet clearly defined slaps of his feet. Jason repeated this flawlessly by merely listening to it in that one moment. Then their roles interchanged and Jason challenged Das with rhythm. Each time the pattern was slightly different, building up a tangible sense of tension and excitement. Sometimes Pandit Das would play the drums and Jason would improvise or rap on the backbeat.  This mesmerizing, cross-cultural exchange of rhythms was met with the murmured “Wah!” or “Kya baate hai” from the Indian audience and hoots and hollers from the tap regulars. I was clinging to the edge of my seat and my eyes were gleaming as a feeling of pure ecstasy rushed throughout my body. My excitement did not need to be expressed.
I continued to tap my feet throughout the night for an uncontrollable fire had been lit inside me. It was not a passion for jazz or tap or salsa or bhangra like my peers, but rather for a 2000-year old dance form of India, Kathak. Over the weekend, I had realized that the true beauty and richness of the dance lay in its ability to change and adapt to diversifying audiences. Chitresh Das used its inherent quality of improvisation and rhythmically complex footwork to cross cultural boundaries and jam with tap-dancer Jason Samuels Smith. Kasturi Mishra did a beautiful piece in which she used her body as a paintbrush to make geometry come alive. Her upper body seemed to move laterally across the stage and was combined with controlled breath, side-to-side motion of the neck, eyes and eyebrows, and the occasional glance that pierced through the audience. In a choreographed composition, Aditi Mangladas brought a poem on the simplicity of nature to life. She used her gracefully bending fingers to mimic the autumn leaves falling down across the mountain gently and soon blanketing it. Then to depict the night settling in, she used her footwork to show the stars turning on one by one until the whole sky was filled with a colorful cacophony of sound. Birju Maharaj danced rhythms that were reminiscent of those in nature, such as a mother duck with ducklings following her and a peacock dancing in the rain that he brought to life with only his footwork. In his old age, his gentle expressions, subtle hand movements and pure love for Kathak resonated as loudly as Chitresh’s flurry of footwork.
For me, Kathak was no longer ancient, no longer a dance form reserved for the reenactment of Indian mythology.  Incorporating Hindu and Muslim aspects, jazz and tap rhythms, single and double pirouettes of ballet, Flamenco-like fluidity, improvisation, and storytelling like that of the Kabuki, it was constantly changing and completely in the moment. Kathak had come alive!
Ironically, it had taken a two thousand mile airplane trip and eight years in America for this passion to be born within me. Placed in a cultural hotpot, I was forced to look within my culture, my heritage and myself. Many of my fellow classmates have emigrated from foreign countries and they all express a conflict brought on by the clash of two cultures that are poles apart. Yet as I walk through the hallways of Lexington High School among a sea of students of all nationalities and ethnicities, I feel a greater sense of identity and a connection to my heritage.


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