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Sufi Kathak: Dance of the soul!

January 2011
Sufi Kathak: Dance of the soul! Aleading exponent of Indian classical dance, Manjari is acclaimed globally for being the creator and only performing artist of Sufi Kathak. She has combined the mysticism of Sufi traditions with classical Indian dance to create this stunning new school of performance. Thus, setting a historical step in the fi eld of performing arts through the creation of an entirely new art form that is wholly original and, yet, follows the precedents of 700 year-old mystical traditions. So much so that Sufi Kathak is now a living tradition that integrates the rich heritage of poetry, literature, mythology, philosophy with spiritual and emotional thoughts. Manjari avers, “My own quest for the inherent spirituality in dance led me to this style and form. Something… Some force… Someone that makes me dance.” In this eventful journey over the last decade, Manjari has performed Sufi Kathak in more than 200 concerts all over the world including Europe and the US, Australia, the Middle East, South East and Central Asia at locations as prestigious as Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi and the Sydney Opera House.

Conceptualized and crafted by Manjari, Sufi Kathak has taken 13 years of intense work in Sufimusic and classical dance and is representative of the great Sufitraditions of the subcontinent. She traveled extensively to countries like Egypt, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan and worked with artists from Iran, Turkey and Morocco to study the music and dance forms related with Sufi thought. Manjari refl ects, “In Sufi Kathak, I incorporate the mystique of Sufi sm… the moving meditation… thereby blending both the Hindu and Muslim divine traditions.” Bred of Manjari’s knowledge and experience, Sufi Kathak melts the philosophical depth of Sufi poetry with the narrative beauty and grace of classical Indian dance to evolve a unique dance form that uses classical dance to narrate and interpret Sufi poetry. She explains, “Sufi Kathak covers the delicate nuances of expressiveness… alluring grace in movements… uniqueabhinaya to the accompaniment of spiritual poetry and music such as the rhythm of Qawwalli…”

Even as Manjari is renowned for her efforts in creating Sufi Kathak, it has been an arduous journey for her as she traversed a path hitherto untraveled in classical dance. But in doing so, she shaped the emergence of a new art form based on a thought that, till now, was not extensively used in dance! This led to the inception of Sufi Kathak to center solely on the concept of the formless Almighty. Manjari elaborates, “My dance form spans from earthly romance of Hindi folk to the evolved Sufi imagery of love in Persian poetry, from a beloved in fl esh and blood to the abstract presence of the Almighty, from a form to formlessness.” SufiKathak brings out the nuances of Sufi music and poetry through the language of body, which expresses the rapturous heights of spiritual ecstasy. “While in existing classical Indian dance forms, there is a focus on a beloved in fl esh and blood, in physical form, it is the abstract presence of the Almighty that becomes the focal point for the Sufi Kathak dancer. The dance thus becomes a communication of the Self to the Almighty of the union that is desired between creation and Creator, or soul with Spirit,” says Manjari. It is this, which makes Sufi Kathak the Dance of the Soul!

Following the tenets of Sufisaints who varied the language of their poetry with the changing terrain of their travels, Sufi Kathak uses many dialects instead of one dominant language. “The poetry used in Sufi Kathak, has a history of always being sung, but never danced to. With dancing to this poetry in Sufi Kathak, comes a responsibility of the dancer to interpret and portray the poetry in its truest sense,” stresses Manjari.

In her peerless journey, Manjari seamlessly blends her dance with diverse cross cultural music in exciting collaborations. Her defi ning efforts have enriched the dance form with new dimensions such as a series of distinguishing music. By aligning Sufi Kathak with the Sufi music of Rajasthan, Kashmir, Qawwalli of Awadh, poetry of Bulleh Shah of Punjab, spiritual music of Iran and artists as different as Tim Ries (of ‘Rolling Stone’), Dhaffer Yousef and Ustad Shujaat Hussain Khan, Manjari has created for it a wider repertoire; one which was earlier never a part of any classical dance traditions.

A notion she has learnt and taken forward given the strong knowledge of her roots, and constant efforts to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity. Trained in classical Kathak of the Lucknow gharana by Guru Pandit Arjun Mishra, Manjari embodies the Awadhi ethos of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb comprising an intermingling of Hindu and Muslim cultures. She subsequently learnt the nuances of other classical Indian dance forms – the base being the Natya Shastra – a doctrine fundamental to them. An experience further honed with her work in Nrityagram in association with Guru Protima Bedi and Guru Kumudini Lakhia. Developing the detailing of expressions under Smt. Kalanidhi Narayan and Smt. Priyadarshini Govind, Manjari imbibed the art of abhinaya to be instructed in the use of mudrasfrom the Bharatnatyam genre to enhance Sufi Kathak.

Through more than a decade of Manjari’s dedicated endeavors, Sufi Kathak, now, has its own visual entity separate from other Indian classical dance forms. “It is a misconception to say that SufiKathak is a form of Kathak, or is Kathak learned in Sufi tradition. It is a complete dance form with its own identity and thought process,” says Manjari. The poetry is separate, the use of language and movements, musical genre and even the costume, jewelry and aesthetics are all specifi c for a Sufi Kathak dancer. For instance, the representative color for the Sufi Kathak costume is absolute black with silver or gold edgings, depending on the poetry of the mystical traditions to be followed in the dance. Manjari elaborates, “The costume color is decided upon through references of states of mind, uses of metaphor and other symbolism in the poetry. Although an array of colors such as mustard yellow, green and red may be used – each particular to its relevance, prime signifi cance is given to white and black because of their purity and completeness.”

But for Manjari, her dream is not just to nurture the dance form she has created but also to take it forward, with an added deeper involvement with the arts. She founded the Sufi Kathak Foundation, a non-profi t registered society, to create awareness for Sufi Kathak and other related ancient performing art traditions. The Sufi Kathak Foundation aims to promote spiritual dance and music and world cultural unity, also initiating children and orienting the youth to become self-employed through arts – dance and music, and evolve a humanist outlook. The society’s mission is also to provide fi nancial, technical and medical assistance to retired artists as well as needy students who are committed towards Sufimusic and dance.

Sufi Kathak by Manjari Chaturvedi transcends all religions to become a link bridging God and the devotees; taking one far away from materialism. Tantamount with serenity, piety and divine power, it is attracting the new generation at the international level, dissolving barriers as an example of unity in diversity. Truly a symbol of amity in times as trying as ours, Sufi Kathak breaks manmade boundaries of caste, creed, religion and nations and connects hearts through poetry, music and dance – thus creating a universal communication… a prayer!

The author is a reputed writer. 

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