Her eyes twinkle,there is animation in her voice and a quickness in her steps as Kumudini Lakhia,renowned Kathak exponent,teacher par excellence of dance and an explorer forever in search of more effective ways of artistic expression through dance,bustles around the premises of Kadamb,her dance institution,near Parimal Garden in Ahmedabad.
A mild January sun lay in strips and the winter breeze tried to make impression of being nippy,like a night watchman hitting fours towards the close of the play in cricket.The warmth all around was well-matched by that in Kadamb,which has been the training centre for hundreds of students over the past 25 years.She has also earned enormous credit as a thinking,socially-aware dancer who has a statement to make in whatever she is creating.
The guru at Kadamb,Kumudini,started on her search of finding artistic expression of the inner yearnings of her soul much earlier.
It was more than half-a-century ago in December,1944,that still in her teens,she burst upon the professional arts stage with a scintillating performance in Allahabad.
Born on May 17,1930,in Mumbai ,Kumudini started learning kathak when she was hardly seven or eight.She was educated in Lahore and in Allahabad and was trained in kathak by gurus such as Shambhu Maharaj of Lucknow gharana,Pandit Sunder Prasadji of Jaipur gharana,Radheylal Misra also of Jaipur gharana and Ashiq Hussain of Benaras gharana.She learnt Bharat Natyam from U S Krishna Rao and Ram Gopal and got an Indian government scholarship for advance training in kathak for three years from 1958.She has travelled in more than 40 countries giving performances over the past half a century.She came to live in Ahmedabad years ago after getting married to Rajnikant Lakhia,a businessman and connoissuer of arts himself.She was given a padmashri in 1987 for her contribution to arts and Omkarnath award in 1990,but these are but two of a huge number of honours and awards she has been bestowed upon.
As she surveys an illustrious career,Kumudini feels happy,but she has not had enough everything in dance yet."I need another 50 years to transfer into dance forms many ideas that are surging through my mind", she says.
She does not remember much of the maiden professional performance in Allahabad,a culmination of rigorous training of seven to eight years,except the fact that it was held in the Senate Hall of the university and among the 3,000-odd audience sat titans of classical Hindustani music such as pandit Omkarnath Thakur,Narayanrao Vyas,Achchan Maharaj,Gudai Maharaj and others.
Kumudini has no recollection how the day was,or any other details that many others would have remembered in every nitty-gritty. "I did not know that my first professional stage experience was going to be a landmark. I only remember some of the big names seated in the auditorium,and the fact that I was not afraid",she says,her words not at all sounding pompous or arrogant.
Looking back today, she thinks that the only thing that bothered her at that time was that while every new comer should be a bit apprehensive on such an occasion,"I kept wondering why I was not apprehensive at all".
In retrospect,she can only say that perhaps it is not in her nature to be over-awed."Mind you, I do get irritated,and even excited,when, say,someone is performing badly in a group. I do not get perturbed at the defaulter as a person but at the errors,the shapes,forms. Then, I even scream." The serene temperament perhaps had a lot to do with Kumudini becoming eminently successful as a teacher, an eminence that is competing with her prowess on the stage as a Kathak dancer with a difference-- the difference being that she always tries to project her own ideas through the traditional forms,rather than sticking to repeating ad nauseum the age-old Radha Krishna themes without anything original of the artist coming through,or totally delinked from the society in which she has lived, its problems, joys, hopes,aspirations. It was Kumudini who brought a new social awareness of Kathak among the masses,and it again was she who inducted some social awareness in the dance performances she composed and choreographed,sometimes annoying the orthodox.
Which was the most memorable performance of hers in the past 60 years ? With a characteristic flourish,Kumudini says this is a very difficult question to answer because I do not approach my work in that manner. One always learns a bit more,sometimes making corrections,sometimes influenced by something that happened during a performance,adding something more in the next one, and yet more in the one after that.
She says that as a human being,one is growing in whatever area of work or discipline."I also have the urge to live fully,to better the quality of whatever I am doing and this keeps me conscious of my growth.I always feel every performance of mine,when it is over , becomes a memorable performance because with every single one I am growing.I do not say that everything I do has to be good or is always good.It has to be different since I have given a little more of my creativity to it; I draw something more from every moment and I give something more to every new expression of art." One cannot decay or vegetate if one has concern for one's self,both in body and mind.That could happen to only those who are lazy.Otherwise,every day in a life time is a new experience."Every night a different moon comes up,in different shape; every morn a different sun rises,with different intensity."What is the secret of her continuing search for better and better quality ? Kumudini laughs: "There is no secret.I am in love with my work, in love with life and I want to go on and on till my last with all the speed that I am capable of."
In corner of the room a typewriter is chattering away in a muffled manner.A phone rings,but Kumudini does not seem to notice it. She turns to Moulik,one of her more known disciples: I am repeating one of my oft-repeated remarks to my students.It good to be a bad original than to be a superb photostat."The guru whose disciples get ahead of the teacher is a good guru.
Over the 50 years she has been performing,she finds a big change has come over."When we started out,the dance was available to a few select people -- available not in the sense of economics but in the sense that few people were able to go out and enjoy a classical dance or appreciate it.There was a limited awareness.There used to be a handful of students with renowned gurus learning dancing in those days -- two or three in a batch. Today there are hundreds of students who want to learn.More and more people now want to change their life pattern to understand,to be able to appreciate,the art forms like the dance. They now understand better the place of arts in life. You see, art never lets you down. Money lets you down,politics can let you down,people do let you down,but art never lets you down.Once you have befriended an art it is always with you,and becomes a great source of strength to an individual- just to sit back and enjoy music, or go watch a dance performance or see a painting. Things aesthetic create not just a sense of beauty,but also of refinement,fulfillment".
She does not view this refinement or fulfillment merely from the point of view of an artist or performer."This awareness is available to everyone. If you can enjoy a good dance,appreciate a lovely painting and feel happy at good music,that is just wonderful. It is what I call accretion of rasa that is important and rasa (artistic communication or artistic communion between a performance and and audience) results from this aesthetic awareness.When I talk of art I talk of rasa,from the point of an aesthetic expression."
There is much more awareness now than it was there half a century.More people understand the value of arts in our society.She does not subscribe to the belief that in this age of technology arts are retreating. "I do not think the arts are retreating.You see, technology is growing at a much faster rate than arts and that is all. Arts too are growing but not at the rate of technology growth,but I do not believe that arts are in peril because no society will allow arts to die.No society can survive without arts.Societies and individuals never allow anywhere this to happen."
Her own dancing in the grammar of Kathak has grown over the years into some newer manifestations that many see as dilution of the classical system.She pooh-poohs this criticism,especially that she has gone away from the tradition."I am a cent per cent traditionalist with an open mind",she asserts. We in India,whether in dance or behaviour at home, we tend to confuse orthodoxy with tradition. She is against orthodoxy. "Our traditions teach us that keep your windows open and let the winds of the world come through into my house. Gandhiji was a traditionalist,not an orthodox." The first of her such composition to allow maximum new winds to come in was Duvidha, a woman's dilemma between being modern Indian woman,like Mrs Indira Gandhi was, or a docile housewife who would not even eat till her late coming husband came,whether or not half-drunk.
She says people erroneously think that a dancer should have good figure,waist and so on. "I feel it is the birth-right of anybody to dance.Anybody can dance; animals dance why not human beings?What is a dance? It does not mean to move hands and legs in a particular way, wear earrings. There is a different meaning in my dictionary.In Duvidha I explored this in the early seventies."
That was the turning point in Kumudini's journey on the art path.She changed,her kathak changed."Tradition is grammar,not the language.Using the grammar of kathak I make artistic statements about the society,its problems.I live in a society ,am a part of it and therefore think about all the conflicts,dilemmas,drawbacks and weaknesses it has. I have a statement to make on these and I make one of these from time to time through expression of my soul-- my language --into the grammar of kathak. Why not in any other grammar but kathak ? Because I happen to know that grammar; had I known some other grammar I would have done it through that too."
Kumudini has almost become an activist in artform.Her art must reflect like a mirror what is happening around. I am not going to dances about Radha,Krishna or Shiva and Parvarti because that amounts to repetition of someone else's art form,language,done again and again.A critic once said I had divorced Krishna--kathak as a dance form has been a Vaishnav tradition.But it is not so.My Krishna lives in my soul and he is not an external attachment.His is an itnernalised existence and therefore I would not dance at the bidding of what might be an external bidding. I dance according to my internal bidding,according to my Krishna."
Kumudini is so emphatic on this individuality that she says that her creativity can be triggered only if she has a statement to make.Then,she tries to make that statement through the artform of kathak because that is the grammar she knows very well.
The name,Kadamb,she gave to her dance school is also deliberately chosen. "I do not want to become a massive tree (under which nothing grows). I want to have a tree that is strong of bark,of beautiful colours,of fragrant flowers and leaves."She comes to Kadamb around ten in the morning and stays put upto at least 7.30 in the evening, teaching,training,composing.In the growth of the institution a disciple of Omkarnath,Atul Desai, the noted musician has made an immense contribution,something Kumudini warmly acknowledges and appreciates.Kadamb has several batches of students undergoing training throughout the day.The rooms,spaciously laid out,equipped with mirrors and musical instruments,having all the facilities for thorough riyaz hum with the music and echoes of dance for better part of the day.Each of her student is not just a kathak dancer,but a human being learning artistic expression through a dance form called kathak.
For sometime now,she has also been toying with an idea to experiment a dance form that would eventually emerge as Gujarat's own classical dance. "Gujarat has its folk dances such as garba,but no clasical dance as south India or eastern India or north India have.This form,she says, cannot evolve overnight.It will require a group of scholars in history,geography,culture and even environment coming together to determine on its primary form and shape. It would do no good to lift one step from here and another from there.It will take a long time to evolve.That is why perhaps Kumudini is talking of her need for another half a century; maybe she will need more,maybe in the available years she will make only a beginning. But it promises to be a good beginning, a thorough beginning, a Gujarati grammar for its people's own artistic expression.