Ashok B. Kelkar





Yes, it’s hard to believe it, but Rohini is already sixty.  It is time for a looking around, a looking in the round.  Let’s start with Kathak; after all that’s what Rohini is all about.


            Kathak is a form of dance, and what a form!  Kathak is only a for of dance. It may have been a form of telling a story (katha), but that’ not the point. It is a form of dance.  Kathak finds its  peers in other forms of dance, not in forms of theatre, not in other forms of story-telling.  Indeed, as Kathak-dancers keep telling us, it doesn’t even have to tell a sotry, Kathak can take the form of abstract dance (nritta). The business of dance is to be dance-like.  What is it to be dance-like.  What is it to be dance-like? Before one answers that question.


            What is it for dance to be?  What does dance consist in?  What is the stuff, the material that dance is made of?  The question is an easy one, but not on that account to be lost sight of.  Dance is body movement for us to see.  Dance is movement; still postures are certainly available to a dancer, as punctuation marks so to say; but still postures with no context of movement are only tableaux vivants, live pictures; they are a form of theatre, not of dance.  Dance is body movement; not just any movement, but body movement; dancing dolls or Alexander Calder’s mobiles are moving bodies, forms of sculpture,  not forms of dance.  In dance what persists in time, what occupies space, what offers a spectacle is movement, not bodies.  At the same time dance movement is body movement; the movement of a warm, throbbing human body, and so a movement that draws us into empathy.  We not only see dance, we inwardly dance ourselves.  We see dance not only with our eyes, but wit our whole bodies—that is, if we really see it.  (Rohini once complained to us that too often we fail to see Kathak and that we merely hear it.  To put it more strongly, for some Kathak dancer is only a percussion instrumentalist whose feet rather than fingers play on the drum surface, so to say.) why does one say then that dance is not only a visible art, but an audible art?  Audible sound, whether made by the hands or feet or by musical accompaniment, will certainly enhance the spectacle, but music is here only so much additional raw material that is expected to submerge itself into dance.  Dance persists in time, it is temporal art.  Music, because of its capacity to make us feel time in a chosen manner, helps to mark dance time.  Nothing more.  (certain forms of gymnastics, the ones that go well with musical accompaniment, come closer to being dance-except that stop short of being a form of art.


            Body movement never ceases to remind us that it is the movement of a warm, throbbing human body.  It is never merely movement; it is gesture; it says something.  When dance gesture show close kinship to theatre gestures, we speak of dramatic dance (nritya) as distinct from abstract dance (nritta). But  this is not the whole picture.  Even abstract dance is made of gestures, gestures that say things.  Even the non-theatre gestures that go into dramatic dance, the non-abhinaya movements of nritaya, say things.  And these are things that presumably abhinaya- gestures, cannot quite say.  That’s why the non-abhinaya gestures are these, whether in nritta or nritya.  In short, all dance gestures, theatre gestures or otherwise, say things, convey certain modes of feeling and making and doing.  Do you feel like feeling fine?  Have you forgotten, because of persistent ill-health, what it is to feel fine?  Watch certain forms of dance; they will let you know once again what it is to feel fine.  I hope I have made my point by now that dance, being a form of art, has not only a characteristic material, namely, body- movement-for-us-to-see-and-empathize-with, but also a characteristic content.  If dance sometimes tells us a story, it does so because that provides it with an occasion to covey its content.   If dance sometimes tells us a story, it does so because that provides it with an occasion to convey its content.  The story, like the music, is incidental to dance.  When the dancer lingers over a moment in a story, we enjoy that, and do not feel like saying, hey, get on with the story.  (Most probably we already know the story anyway.)  if there is a moment of suspense in the story, dance will let us savour it, convey to us what it is to feel suspense.


            Did I say that body- movement-for-us-to-see-and-empathize-with conveys a certain characteristic content?  Sorry, I shouldn’t have said ‘conveys’, I should have said ‘embodies’.  (The pun is entirely intended !)  Dance, being a form of art has not only a characteristic sort of material and a characteristic sort of content, but also  a characteristic medium that not only fuses the material and the content but also creates a world to draw us into.  What sort of a world is this dance created world?  It is a world that persists in time, it is a world of rhythm-marked time.  It is a world that occupies space, it is an arena.  (the music world), it will be recalled, has rhythm, but no arena.)  But above all it is a world of force, a world of forces acting I an arena through rhythm-marked time.  Dance never lets us dwell over appearances.  (Like music and like the story, the visual elements in dance, the colours, the textures, the lighting are incidental; that’s simply the arts of painting, sculpture, architecture lending a sisterly hand to dance.  They, the visual arts, certainly let us dwell over appearances, dance constantly reminds one of the forces behind the appearances.  (Dance is not only a spectacle to look at but to empathize with.)  Forces of evil?  Possibly.  Forces of good?  Probably.  (The incidental element of story telling helps these forces to get a foothold in the dance-created world.)  But even abstract dance embodies for us such forces.  Recalcitrant forces, docile forces, overwhelming forces, soothing forces, overwhelming forces, pulling together, pulling apart, pulling at a tangent.  Rhythm, arena, forces together constitute the medium of dance.  The dance-created world is world of virtual power.  (Susanne Langer had the right insight.)


            We have answered two questions.  What does dance consist in?  And what does dance consist in?  In answering these questions we hope to have also said what it is the business of dance to be like, which  was our original question.  Kathak is a form  of dance.  Being a form of dance, it is a form of art.  (that’s  what led us to ask those questions about the material, the content, and the medium in the first place.)   Being a form art, it is a form of life (to use to Wittgenstein’s classic phrase).  What sort of a form of life is Kathak?  What is the peculiar language that Kathak speaks and that allows us to distinguish it from its peers, namely, other forms of dance, such as Bharatnatyam, European Ballet, Lavani, or Modern Dance?  Kathak Scholars never tire of reminding us of its courtly ambience, the ambience of a decadent court at that; or of its early association with the kirtana in the temple.  But what matters to us twentieth-century lovers of Kathak is not its history, but what potentialities that this history has natured into Kathak, what sort of language that history has left for us to exploit and understand.


            Briefly, Kathak is a language of freedom and order.  Sometimes it is freedom that lets us draw sustenance from order. Some-times it is order that lets us be truly free.  (The evolution of Kathak from temple dance to courtly dance is in some ways parallel to the evolution of Dhrupad and Dhamar, the temple music, into Khayal  and Thumri, the court music.  There is the same infiltration of freedom, khayal, individual exercise of imagination into a very orderly, restrained  form of life.)  Mind you, this is not a  tame reconciliation of freedom and order.  At its best, Kathak is a very passionate form of life, holding freedom and order in high tension.


            We should all be very grateful to Rohini for letting us see this in perspective…see what Kathak is truly all about.  She rescued it from its historical encrustations.  Live history enriches art; dead history merely smothers it.  How could she do it?  Could she do it because, being a university-educated dancer, she was aware of history as history and of Kathak as art?  Could she do it  because she put us in a time machine and let us see Kathak in its kritana days?  Could she do it because, being equally inward to Hindustani music and the sahitya, she wanted to integrate these more fully into her dance?  Could she do it because, also being a dance teacher that took the teaching very seriously, she had to make Kathak speak to her young citizens of twentieth-century India?  All of these are certainly true answers in their own ways.  But all these answers ultimately flow from a singly answer.  She could let us see that the language of Kathak is a language of freedom and order because for her Kathak was not just a form a dance, but a form of life.  The way of Kathak spoke to her because it was congruent with her way of life, or rather because it helped her to see what her way of life was really like.  It was a way of freedom and order reconciled in high tension.  It let her see that the apprenticeship in the Mughal Court with an audience unaware of a  stylized language of gestures freed Kathak to improvise much more readily.  It let her see that, in spite of its long stay at a decadent court later, Kathak had not totally lost its temple austerity.  It let her see the intimate way in which music and sahitya could  enrich Kathak.  (Like music, poetry too can serve as material.)  It let her see that the best way in which Kathak  could flourish in her dance academy, Nrityabharati, was by creating an ambience of freedom and order among her pupils.  But, what is more to the point, it let her create her own choreographic style in Kathak which not only embodies temple content, courtly content, and twentieth-century content, with equal ease but also let use see, once again what Kathak  is all about.  Hers is a style that combines a taut and often complicated rhythm with a  free-flowing obinaya.  I suspect that she is only beginning to see what Kathak could truly be like in future.


            No matter, after all she is only sixty!  




            This was published in Arohini: in honour of Padita Rohini Bhata, Pune: Rohini Bhata Gaurava samiti, 1984, p.83-6 A Marathi version in Anupubh Mon-June 1985.