Finding my feet: One Dha at a Time

Why is it that terms like ancient, centuries old practice, and exotic have held an iron grip on the western world's attempt to consolidate South Asian classical artforms? 

For Kathak dancer
Shivani Jatar, it's time to move away from this outdated discourse. Instead, she wants to see Indian classical dance and its practitioners acknowledged in the context and relevancy of the present day and not just suspended in the past. After all, she explains, “we are contemporary people of a contemporary nation. We don't reject, dismiss, or shed our history. Instead we carry it with us seamlessly into the present. It's this plurality that I hope One Dha at a Time will show.” 

In just a few days, SAA-uk's last dance show of the year ‘One Dha at a Time' comes to the stage. Offering four Indian classical dancers the freedom to explore their dance specialism in the context of an ever-evolving world, they will share the discoveries, questions, and challenges they face as they ruminate over their practice and what it means to make it their very own.

We sat down in conversation with the show's producer Shivani. It was an eye-opening and, at times, tumultuous journey as we discussed everything from feminist issues of the present day to the overlooked legacies of nautch girls. Here is your exclusive look at why Shivani brought the concept of One Dha at a Time to life.

Kathak has been a part of Shivani's life ever since she was 5. From being at times the only student to show up to classes, taking Kathak examinations a year earlier than intended, and completing her Vishaarad in Kathak before heading off to university, it wouldn't be far-fetched to say that Kathak is in her bones.

Navigating her way through the world of Kathak was not a clear-cut journey as a young woman surrounded by the modernity and urbaneness of 21st century life. “Kathak emerged in different parts of North India”, she explains. “It is heavily influenced by the language, culture, history, and politics of that region. Take for example the thumris we performed to that spoke of going to the ‘panghat' (riverbank) to fetch water and bathe. This was not something I could relate to. To be embodying ‘chhed-chhad' (physical acts of flirting between man and woman) when I, like so many *Indian women, experienced sexual harassment daily was uncomfortable to say the least. So, my need to look at Kathak from a contemporary lens came from the need to reconcile my reality to my dance.”

She's reluctant to define what her Kathak is. With inspirations, histories, and interpretation to draw from so vast and technicoloured, what it may be to her today could be indistinguishable from what she makes of it tomorrow.
While this fluidity of expression fuels her creative practice for the most part, it brings to surface its own set challenges. She shares, “staying true to my intentions without erasing the histories and the identities of its original practitioners is something I am working on. I continually remind myself that Kathak is bigger than me, and anything I create is only a spec in its vast, continuous evolution.”

Within the Kathak cosmos, there is a particularly vivid point of inspiration for Shivani. That is the stories of nautch girls. It was them, the strikingly skilled and admired dancers, who had played a significant role in shaping the cultural and social life of 18th and 19th century India. 

History has been far from kind to their legacy, and oftentimes memories of nautch girls are grossly corrupted, that's if they are remembered at all. We can trace this back to several culprits. But the one that is glaringly clearest is colonialism and the remnants of its language leeching into present day. “When foreign authors (often male) wrote about Indian cultural practises, they employed an imperial gaze objectifying the performers who were females”, Shivani explains. “Their critique also extended to male performers who didn't adhere to Euro-centric standards of gender as well”. 

What had long been a revered and artistic means of expression suddenly was seen in the realms of sinfulness. Facing the same fate, the graceful and talented women who embodied the artform were painted with the same demonising shade. An Anti-Nautch Movement spread like wildfire across India, expediated by Christian missionaries and Indian social reformers. The consequences were such that nautch girls were forced to leave behind their profession, their art, and livelihoods, bearing the mark of a tarnished legacy in their lifetime and beyond.

Within the pedagogy of Kathak, Shivani notes that female voices have been extinct. Throughout all her years of training, mentions of nautch girls, courtesans and tawaifs, all of whom contributed so much to the artform and Indian classical arts as whole, were never uttered. 

This erasure of female voices is one Shivani refuses to accept within her own dance. Sharing a glimpse of her creative process with us, she explains how she comprehends her Kathak in a contemporary context, one that allows her to look beyond the confines of patriarchy and towards a female empowered present and future. “I take inspiration from the tawaifs”, she says. “I ask myself how I can employ this female or feminine gaze in my practice. If the male gaze is about objectification, the female gaze is about empathy. I believe my work, like that of the artists of One Dha at a Time, is an example of what artists are concerned about today”.

After months of journeying within their respective dance forms, this Saturday, Maryam Shakiba, Kavya Iyer, Jyoti Manral and Debanjali Biswas will be taking audiences into their world. There they will show Indian classical dance in a new light that challenges outdated assumptions and reductive stereotypes of India, Indian arts, and artists. “We are curious. We are educated. We are multicultural and tolerant”, she says. “Our diversity of styles, methods, practises are our strength. It is time people acknowledge our development as a society and as a people which is also evident in contemporary artistic practices”.

We can't wait for you to see what all four artists have in store for you tomorrow. If you haven't already, it's not too late to get your tickets here
See you tomorrow at Seven Arts, Leeds at 8pm!
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