Interview with Pallabi Chakravorty

Pallabi Chakravorty teaches Kathak dance and academic courses related to the anthropology of performance in the Department of Music and Dance at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, USA. Some of her courses are Politics and Aesthetics of Classical Indian Dance, Mapping Culture Through Dance and Tradition and Innovation: Contexts and Considerations.Founder and artistic director of the ensemble Courtyard Dancers, she is an anthropologist, dancer, choreographer, and cultural worker. She gives us an insight into the world of Kathak and the changing trends in India.

VP: You teach rather unusual courses in Swarthmore College. What made you take Dance as a teaching subject?

PC: I am interested in melding theory and practice.So in addition to dancing, I received a Ph.D in visual anthropology with a focus on Kathak.Using dance as a lens to engage in social analysis has been fascinating for me for various reasons: for instance,

Indian dance is not just about moving your body but it engages the mind in challenging ways.The rhythmic cycles in Indian dance and music are a union of beats, melody, and mathematics.Indian dance is also accompanied by sung poetry.For instance Kathak is danced to thumri, ghazals and bhajans.But these days Kathak has shifted from the emotive aspects of poetry.If you ask why—then you have to get into historical and social analysis.

VP: Please tell us about the Courtyard Dancers?

PC: ”Courtyard Dancers” is the name of the dance ensemble I founded just after finishing my dissertation.Even after thinking and writing about dance something was stirring inside me.“Courtyard Dancers” became my platform to engage traditional practices such as Kathak to speak to contemporary issues of our times.Through this organization I train dancers and we perform in various venues.It is my way of building community. It is not about touring and traveling to distant places.I have a sociologist and an ethnomusicologist in the core group.The people who work with me are mostly professional women and men who are interested in pushing the margins of classicism.But we do not compromise its aesthetic particularities.

VP: Was Kathak originally the dance of the elites (or it was performed for the elites?).

PC: It was performed for the elites in the royal courts of Muslim and Hindu royalty.The dancers or the courtesans (tawaifs) had special status. They were well versed in dance, music, social etiquette, and many wrote poetry—as embodied by the popular figure of Umrao Jaan

VP: Are there any changes that you have detected in treatment of Kathak as an art form from the 20th to the 21st Century? Could the Indian intelligentsia be playing any role in that?

PC: Kathak has been changing for a long time.Most of the changes prior to the coming of the British are very difficult to trace as there are few historical records.However, the miniature paintings give us some images.The colonial period has travelogues, photographs, and paintings that describe some of the performances but again nothing systematic. The anti-nautch (anti-dance) social reform movement of the 1890s was a watershed event. The dance was revived and reconstructed in the nationalist phase (1920s-1950s) within a Hindu ideology by the new elite of modern India.The most obvious change has been the democratization of the classical arts.

Stylistically, the solo form has been replaced mostly by group choreographyThe improvisional aspects of the dance are also diminishing.The expressive emotional content of dancing is being replaced by visual designs on stage and high speed.There is also high value attached to collaborative work or dance fusion of eastern and western forms.It also circulates globally and is often marketed as ancient tradition and exotica.

Change is inevitable.There are many good things about the practice of Kathak in the 21st century.There are far more opportunities today for dancers and a real presence of Indian dance in the global cultural scene.In that sense the intensity of classical training is very important. It teaches endurance and deep knowledge.It develops a kind of sensibility and an emotional aesthetic that are different than “item numbers”.There is no instant gratification.It sustains a person for a life time.

I think that Indian music and dance should enter the colleges and universities both in practice and theory.Let there be interactions between the performing arts and the social sciences and humanities.Indian dance and music studied in a serious way will allow the new generations to connect to their past so that they can better grasp and shape the future.

VP: Does the perception of Kathak as an art form differ in different parts of the country?

PC: There are stylistic differences.We have different Kathak gharanas (schools) such as Lucknow, Jaipur, and Banaras.However now a days there is considerable blurring of the regional differences.We also have something called Sufiana Kathak that is being popularized by some artists.It draws attention to the Islamic roots of the dance.Kathak is a great dance to showcase cultural pluralism, exchange and religious tolerance that existed in India much before the establishment of modern Indian democracy.

VP: Do you believe that an Artist has a certain special responsibility towards the society?

PC: Yes she does.But not necessarily by taking a moral high ground.

VP: What, do you think, is the biggest misconception that Indian youth carries with it today as regards to the Indian Dance forms?

PC: Well, I can only project.I think the youth today mostly know Bollywood dance.Many are not aware that the sources for Bollywood are the traditional folk and classical forms. The classical dances to them are museumized objects that have no relevance to their real life issues.Some also think that you can do an arangetram after learning for a few years (popular among Bharatnatyam students) or learn a few item numbers and that’s it—you know it all.

Compiled by

Shravya Jain