Monday, May 18, 2015

Of Kathak and the Mughal Empire

Anjali Mitter Duva's 'Faint Promise of Rain' isn't a genre I normally read. Am glad I did. It speaks of the trials and tribulations of a family and their four children, and their eventual paths in life. (Reviews herehere and here.) 

It also talks about kathak. The kathak is my favorite of all eight forms of classical Indian dance. It's absolutely mesmerizing in the way the dance tells a story. I was also curious about how it evolved from being a Hindu devotional temple dance into courtesan art in the Muslim courts of the Mughal Empire. 

Vividly describing the dance, its steps, beats and stories, this book spans seventeen chapters. The author said in an interview, "Coincidentally, the Indian classical music cycle to which kathak is often danced is tintal, or a 16 beat cycle, but everything is always brought back, in the end, to the first beat of the next cycle, i.e. the seventeenth beat. Seventeen beats, seventeen chapters. Thus the end of one cycle is the beginning of another, as it is with many things in life."

Protagonist Adhira was born on a rare night of rain in the summer of 1554, in the desert of Rajasthan, and the region's drought ended. Her father was the dance master at the temple to Lord Krishna just outside the citadel of Jaisalmer. He thought she would have a special destiny. In the family of four children, she was only one willing to continue her father's tradition dancing kathak. Her father told her to follow tradition and marry the temple deity and give herself to a wealthy patron.   After a rape by the temple priest, she did not want to stay in the temple or in the city even. By then, the court had stopped giving state pensions to temple staff and employees. Hinduism wasn't a priority in a Muslim court and in war-time. She found a way out of Jaisalmer with the Raja's retinue for his daughter's wedding to the Emperor.

"Of course. Please bear one thing in mind, though, as you dance. Our esteemed guest is of the Muslim faith. Do not offend him with inappropriate depictions of ... well, Muslims don't portray their god." Here the Raja looked pointedly at me, and then, seeing that I understood, past me at Padmini and Bapu. ... 
I pulled an imaginary veil over my face and opened my hands into a lotus flower, and suddenly Bapu wanted to laugh aloud. I was going to depict Radha, Krishna's consort, waiting for her lover. No one need know who the characters were. Radha could be a woman, earthly, of flesh and blood. The Muslim wold never guess the truth. I would perform before him and show him the wonders of Hindu dance and faith without ever seeming to do so. .... 
I stepped into the center of the dance space and bowed, holding my palms together in front of me. Ever so slowly, I brought my hands to my forehead, my mouth, my chest. Mind, breath, heart. I thanked our ancestors for their gift of dance, and in so doing I became Radha, thanking my Lord Krishna for my very existence. Radha, Krishna's favorite among the cowherding maidens. ...

Apparently this is the first set of four books of set against historical background, with kathak as a mention or a focus of as a way of life. The author's next book will take us to the mid-1800s of artistic Lucknow, where Victorian sensibilities of the British Empire deemed kathak immoral. The other two books will take us to Calcutta and Paris. Do women in then embrace traditional norms, submit to expected gender roles or rebel against them? I think this is the same question that faces women today in many countries.

In these times of political change, Adhira was determined to keep her faith and love for Lord Krishna, and carve out her whole destiny, leaving the temple and her home, making a new life in the Emperor Akbar's Muslim court. At the end, we learnt she was still alive in 1611 at the ripe old age of 57, happily married to the apprentice to the finance minister, with a horde of grandchildren in Akbarabad, but with limited motion from a bad fall after hitting her head on the stone floor.

For several months, I recovered under the care of Akbar's own physician. Movement has fully returned to my right side, and I can now walk the gardens with an attendant and correct my daughters when they dance. During those months, a flood of new memories arrived: Ma wishing I would eat the dried apricot she gave me, Mahendra crying behind a temple pillar while I sang, Hari searching the night for me, Bapu willing Manavi-ji to bless me as a devadasi. Lord Krishna took the dance from my body, but he gave me something in return: the story of my family, a story only I can tell.

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