March 2020 In Dance

by MINA RIOS Kathak’s Rhythmic Journey of Emotion

WOMEN OF INFLUENCE from around the world have made significant achievements over the centuries; yet, the stories of their triumphs are often overlooked. Fortunately, propo- nents of some lesser told historic events dedicate themselves to bringing these stories to light through their art. In honor of Inter- national Women's Day this March Kathak artist Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, founder of Noorani Dance, will present The Forgotten Empress , the story of seventeenth century Empress Noor Jahan, the most influential Indian woman of her time. The forthcoming production conceived, choreographed, and danced by Shaikh, will be performed on two Bay Area stages in late February and early March with exuberant theatrics, live music, and multimedia. The Forgotten Empress first premiered in Lahore, Pakistan in 2017, in the very city where Empress Noor Jahan is laid to rest. The Forgotten Empress is the fascinating true story of Empress Jahan, a rare, brilliant, and gifted empress of many talents. Empress Jahan attained unprecedented equal power and authority to her emperor husband for a time, essentially becoming the de facto ruler of the Mughal Empire while her husband presumably dealt with alcoholism and opium addiction. Discerningly well versed in the complex gestural language of Kathak, after perform- ing with Chitresh Das Dance Company for many years, Shaikh found her own artistic vision through stories of history, politics, and social relevance. She says, “I believe I’m drawn to these topics because they move me personally due to my family history and being a Muslim woman dancing this form, and especially now that I work so frequently in Pakistan. However, I also feel a sense of responsibility in using my privilege as an American to shed light on these topics through the medium that has been gifted to me. I’m also a proponent of learning from our past to inform our present and change our future – for the better.” By tradition, a Kathak artist is a soloist virtuoso with the supreme ability to portray all character roles (both male and female), enact every character emotion using facial expressions, dance, and elements of mime, demonstrating a capacity to transport audi- ences. Kathak, derived from the Sanskrit word “Katha” – meaning “story,” is native to Northern India and asserts three main schools of Kathak – based on the regions from which they originate; Lucknow, Jaipur, and Banaras. Before long, stories began to integrate elements of both Hindu and Muslim culture. Shaikh’s introduction to dance began at age five with the study of ballet and jazz, along with baton twirling, offered at the same dance school; all three of which she continued her training in until she was eighteen. In Shaikh’s experience, she found baton twirling to be an invaluable medium for developing technique. And while training in ballet and jazz, Shaikh developed a solid foundation in movement and choreography, team building and competition, body aware- ness and teaching, and an avid appreciation for her mentors. In 1996, midway through her fresh- man year at San Francisco State University (SFSU), Shaikh discovered Kathak dance through the Classical Indian dance master, the late Pandit Chitresh Das, who happened to be teaching the first university accredited Kathak course in the country. Shaikh’s decision to pursue a dance form she knew little about was a choice based on her desire to feel closer to her culture and help overcome certain cultural insecurities. To her advantage, Shaikh’s previous dance training and familiarity with the music of India at home helped dispel any lingering doubt about this newfound pursuit. One 14 in dance MAR 2020

day a week the lesson included a 50-minute lecture, followed by two separate days of 50-minute dance classes. While Shaikh continued her educational pursuit toward a degree in Women’s Studies from SFSU, she embraced the lifelong com- mitment to learning the Kathak tradition through her instructor Das. Shaikh recalls, “I was so challenged by so many aspects of the form and completely taken by the teach- ing style of my GuruJi (also referred to as Pandit or Das). Pandit was faithful to its classical foundation – Kathak as a way of life, a service to society, and a path to self- knowledge.” Shaikh’s teacher Das was a child prod- igy schooled in two of the Kathak tradi- tions, Lucknow and Jaipur, both of which he taught his student disciples. His performance career in India led to international acclaim, eventually bringing him to the United States in 1970 through a Whitney Fellowship with a commission to teach Kathak at the Uni- versity of Maryland; thus, serving as an inte- gral part in bringing Kathak to America. By 1980, Das established his own school, the Chhandam School of Kathak and the Chi- tresh Das Dance Company. As a student, Shaikh says, “My GuruJi gave limitlessly to his students, and for the most part that was the case for me most of the time. The way GuruJi trained my peers and I was to maintain a standard and style that he developed, but he also kindled our individual styles and strengths simultaneously.” She continues, “GuruJi had this uncanny ability to be what he referred to as a ‘modern Guru in training.’ He was a traditionalist in so many ways – old school, hard core, often steeped in tough love. His lessons existed on and off the dance floor. But then he could be this super laid back person to hang out with, laugh with. He was able to identify the potential in each of his students, and this is something I try to do with my students as well. He knew how to push and protect just

to engage with the musicians without him always being present to direct them or me.” To perform as a Kathak soloist, four ele- ments must be mastered; all of which are equally important: ‘Tayaari’ (technical readiness), ‘Laykaari’ (rhythmic virtuos- ity), ‘Khoobsurti’ (beauty and grace), and ‘Nazaakat’ (delicacy/refinement). In the years that followed, a shift occurred in Shaikh and her GuruJi’s rela- tionship. Shaikh explains, “In 2014, I decided to attempt to navigate this path on my own. I needed to take risks, learn from them, not feel controlled by others, and keep moving forward. GuruJi and I did not part on good terms, and generally speaking, stepping away from the Guru is most often frowned upon in traditions such as Kathak, but carrying the dance forward on my own felt like the best way to continue to honor his teachings, and enable me to discover my own artistic voice.”

enough and held up the proverbial mirror for us (his students) to recognize and see our own strengths and weaknesses – finding paral- lels to how we approach our dance to that of how we live our lives. He kindled a deep sense of self awareness in me and that, in addition to training my students with integrity and a compassionate sense of nurturing, is some- thing I try to utilize in my own teaching.” Shaikh distinctly recalls the time when Das revealed her readiness to perform her first Kathak solo. She shares, “I had been training with my GuruJi for over 10 years at this point, and I had been a member of his company for just shy of that. I had done some smaller solo performances that had also lent to my experience and preparedness. Ultimately what deemed me ready was the indication from my GuruJi through not only his blessing and/or permission, but that he felt I was ready to take on the process and the commitment. And that he felt I was able




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