The 5th of May was an auspicious day for devotional gathering. This year’s Cinco de Mayo coincided with the first evening of the Holy month of Ramadan. And on this same day, hundreds of families, friends and fans of Kathakars (Hindi: storytellers) gathered at Regis College Fine Arts Center to witness the bi-annual student dances by Chhandika, Chhandam Institute of Kathak Dance. Together the dancers and musicians formed “Prakriti: Dances of Life,” a story centered in the miracle of creation: the universe springs from a single seed.
Kathak is a Hindi name for forms of classical dance and song attributed to roaming bards of northern India known as Kathakars or storytellers. Imagine something like Greek classical theatre where the performers are doing it all: singing, dancing, keeping track of polyrhythmic meter with their bodies and voices, all while revealing a complex story. Rhythmic feet are adorned with small bells (ghungroo), harmonized to the accompanying musicians. The complexity of this level of coordination requires intense focus and for that reason this form of performance also has yogic form known as Kathak Yoga.
The performance was continuously accompanied by classical Kathak musicians who remained on the side of the stage with the dancers, seated in a cross-legged row, as is customary. The band comprised of a harmonium, tabla (drums), Hindustani violin, sarangi (short-necked fiddle), bansuri (Indian flute), vocals and poetic narration.
Before the dancers arrived on stage we were told to imagine all we have come to know as contained within in a single seed. The action built from this simple start into a swirling dance of the stars, the sound of foot-pattering ghungroo completing the darkness. The narrator introduced each dancer as a god and goddess, one after another posing with hands, feet and sharp facial expressions, to transforming unmistakably into Hindu deities.
Dancers cycled on and off stage, each group, duet or soloist developing the story from the Big Bang, to the time when “Civilization Blooms.” In this progression, a group of younger girls illustrated in “Planet Earth Comes Alive,” the story of planting seeds, pollination and interconnectedness in the food chain through delicate hand movements that mimicked the flight of butterflies, and the bounce of a running deer and the textures of the earth. Amidst the rise of civilization, Kathakars illustrated the blooming of Kathak in 20th century in the United States, including a brief spoken intermission when the musicians and dancers explained the complexities of Kathak forms.
The musicians called upon a dance teacher to illustrate the technicalities of Kathak dance, perhaps in order to make clear the intricacies of these songs and dances. We learned that Kathak music and dance is based on a count of 16, counted in various ways, both ascending and descending, on and off beat, and sometimes counted simultaneously differently by musicians and dancers. The musicians as well as an expert dancer counted in English as they demonstrated a variety of ways of keeping rhythm. It was only at this point that I understood the intricate coordination necessary to dance the hands, feet, and voice each at a separate rhythm.
Following the demonstration, out came the largest group of performers to demonstrate Kathak Yoga, a polyrhythmic practice where dancers maintain intricate footwork (sounding with ghungroo), play hand bells, sing, and continuously rearrange themselves into spiraling mandalas. The audience surely recognized the intensity of this form, clapping many times during this single number.
The show closed with a final pranaam by all 94 dancers in the show, their colorful dresses, and garments now visible all together. We were told that each costume was handmade by friends of Chhandika’s founder in India, and arrived in Massachusetts just in time for the show. Deep appreciations bounced between dancers and musicians, and supporters in the audience.
While it was undoubtedly a student show, this was perhaps the best part about it, it had a more personable quality to it than the sterility of a perfect performance. Because of the diversity of skill displayed in each number, personality and talent stood out more, making it most interesting to note differences in the hands, feed and faces of the performers.
It is intensely refreshing to see art that has a devotional quality to it, where choreographers, teachers, dancers, musicians and audience gather for the purpose of recognizing lineage, celebrating the original teacher and Kathak icon Pandit Chitresh Das, and committing to an ongoing practice of sacred movement, song and storytelling.