“Hum kothe se Kathak ko bahar le aaye they, ye phir vahin le ja rahi hai”, (We brought the Kathak out of brothels, she is taking it back there!), is the kind of remarks Kathak exponent Manjari Chaturvedi has been hearing, since she began her The Courtesan Project some eight years ago. The project, is her lone effort to get respect to the original Kathak dancers – the tawaifs -- who devotedly learnt the finer nuances of this classical dance form, presented it to the people, on the tunes of their ‘Ustads’ but were still called “the nautch girl”. Most died, unsung, uncared for. The practice continues, but with some changes this danseuse has been able to bring on ground for the living tawaifs, albeit with negligible funds, moral and physical support.
Manjari has thus far organised 33 festivals, symposiums and concerts and collaborative performances by 405 artists, across the globe.
This creator prides herself for owning a Delhi-based Sufi Kathak Foundation --a non-profit registered society, aimed at creating awareness for Sufi Kathak and traditional music and dance. It also provides scholarships to students pursuing classical and Sufi music and dance, and pension and medical insurance to ailing artistes. The rebel has come a long way, fighting, faltering, failing and standing on her feet, and also supporting countless others by not only training them in the classical dance form but also narrating the hush-hush stories behind this art, and raising her pupils to reach newer horizons in Kathak, never experimented before, albeit never either compromising with its purity – the technical ingredients that make this dance look so delicate and graceful.
One such experiment is ‘O Jugni Punjab Di’, claimed to be the first ever dance, music and story-telling production of Punjab through Kathak, “a tribute to transgressive feminine in the Punjab folklore” as she puts it. This show is featuring a mystical dance by the exponent, with music by Ustad Ranjhan Ali from Punjab, popular actor Balkar Sindhu, and Vikramjit Singh Rooprai, the famous story teller who would narrate Jugni folktale. It will take place at Showshaa, Kingdom of Dreams, Gurugram on September 23, October 7 and 21 and November 11, this year.
Interestingly, in Punjab ‘Jugni’, a lady, is a mansion house of stories. She talks of mundane life, economic issues, socio-political ironies, spiritual elevation, gaiety, love, loss, pain, anguish and loneliness.
“What surprised me about Jugni was, that she goes everywhere, in different countries, and comes back with tales; tales that are told by only male singers/performers. It made me feel that Punjab was such a liberated space that it’s men-folk wanted its women to come out of the shackles of home, travel the world and spread knowledge.”. And still, a section of women in Punjab suffer, waiting perennially for their husband to come back from vilayat or being married to a drug-addicted men. It is important to note that the jogi doesn’t have the wisdom the jugni has, he has no tales to tell of his own! He only narrates what jugni has experienced! “
Importantly, she labels it as “Intelligent entertainment” as it’s not only the traditional jugni she is exploring but is also entwining the poetry of sufi saints Sultan Bahu, Baba Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah into the fold, “to explore the central feminine force created by most poets in the realm of spirituality.”
Now, after over two decades Manjari is able to do such productions on invitations on her own. But, every successful story has a lot of pain and hardships behind it. Manjari is no exception though her parents supported her who, did not have any creative background but were totally academic.
Born in Lucknow, Manjari’s grandfather Justice Hari Shankar Chaturvedi, was a High Court Judge at The Lucknow bench, her father, (late) Professor Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi, was a Geologist and a Geophysics professor at the IIT Roorkee. Her mother Sudha Chaturvedi is a well-read woman. For her, taking dance as a profession was un-thought of “Yet they supported but said I must have an academic degree to fall back on if my art wouldn’t earn me my bread”. So she did her post-graduation in environmental sciences though she started training in dance since her teens. Contrary to popular belief, that Lucknow, though city of nawabs and most popularly Wajid Ali Shah whose penchant for performing and visual arts is well known, Lucknow, she reveals, “does not mind girls learning an art form. Singing and dancing are preferred skills, but strictly not for professional reasons.
“So I also started going for Kathak classes in my summer vacations in my High School days. In the fortunate absence of today’s reality shows like Nach Baliye and Dance India Dance, “ we were exposed to pure classical dance”. In one such workshop training for dance, a guru from Varanasi came to take our classes. He made us dance continuously from morning till evening with a small lunch break. This was the trigger! I never thought dance could be so interesting that it can take your whole day for learning! So, after my 12th, I dropped a year, just to learn Kathak and its finer nuances. Those days, dropping a year to prepare for competitive exams used to be a common practice. But dropping a year to learn an art form was unheard of”.
During her show at Kathak Kendra in Lucknow, producer/director Muzzaffar Ali came visiting. “He spotted me from the crowd and offered me to work in an album called ‘Zara Thahar Jao’ in which music was scored by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. This initiative led to three years of working with Ali. Watching her perform, actor/dancer Protima Bedi invited her to join her Nrityagram, Bangalore in 1996.” It was a big decision to leave Lucknow. But her father allowed her.
“When I look back I can’t thank my parents enough because I know what kind of questions people around them might have asked them. My shows always had people like APJ Abul Kalam, Professor Yashpal, Kiran Karnik as they were my father’s colleagues. These stalwarts used to be regular guests at home and my father would make us siblings sit through the talk they would do for hours at length. As I grew I realised how much these discussions had sharpened our minds and thought process, unknowingly.”
She did her first independent show On January 10, 2000 at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. Her performances stood out. So, at a young age in college she was invited to perform in Kirgizstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The exposure to these countries was an eye opener for her. “I had started my research on Sufism by then. It simply showed there is difference between literary art and performance art. We all had read Natyashastra but there is always a difference in written history and lived history. I got to know the lived history, the mystical dance, which go far beyond the books.
She cites a brilliant example, “We take chakkar in Kathak; it can be 11 or 33 chakkars. It’s a technical mastery. But I saw that the whirling durvesh would go beyond this technical counting of taking rounds (chakkars). They would go on and on, never count. They went above the technical mastery. This developed my creative instincts which gave me a direction of what I wanted to do in life. Classical art with innovations,” recalls the Tedex speaker.
But, for a performer who does not adhere to traditional rules and makes innovations, the critics, the purists, and the funders are firsts to detach themselves. Manjari’s pain lasted for many years, especially from 1998 to 2008.
“Main bohot pareshan hoti thi. Critics and my contemporary dancers would find fault In my performances but they would be surprised to see that I would never go wrong on the grammar of the dance – the taal, laya, chakkar, mudra;, so slowly they started keeping quiet.
Her patience finally paid, especially when she brought a dying tawaif to stage, as her last wish. Emotionally choked, Manjari recalls, “I was told that one Zareena Begum at 70 had paralyzed and was almost on the death bed in Lucknow. I went to meet her and asked what she wanted. She said, ‘Beta, bus aik aakhiir bar lehenga pehen kar stage par nachna hai, being utterly devoted to her art. I started crying. It was nearly impossible with her condition and lack of sponsors. I went to many corporate houses but most of them refused. But IGNCA (Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts) gave us venue support for free. With this problem solved, I brought Zareena Begum to Delhi, and she performed wearing her costume for the last time. A chock-o-block venue and mammoth coverages in 33 national dailies, including all major ones without paying a single penny, was the result.
“Behind the stage, Zareena Begum wept profusely. “Unhone aanchal bhar kar dua di. She said she thought she would die with that dream in her heart.”
Zareena eventually died but Manjari’s foundation is replete with numerous such poignant tales of artistes dying for lack of support, undocumented.
In these times of reality shows, however, pure classical dances have found it a bit challenging. “In dance reality shows, performers are supposed to show their skill in 3-5 minutes. So, they learn and do a khicdi of all forms. To learn everything, the aspirants learn a bit of all art forms but know none of these properly. This is good for the outreach but not for a long-term knowledge,” she reviews.
But for last few years, a visible change is being witnessed too.. Tired of Bollywoodised dance shows, now corporate houses ask for a proper classical performance. So, from such accusing remarks as “arrey ye darbari Kathak kyun kar rahi hai, arrey ye to Kathak wale kapde nahi pehenti, Kala kyun pehenti hai? Arrey iski sangat main ye sab kya hai?”, to requests of proper shows with applause from purists too, this artiste has come a long way. “I can now see a ray of hope for the classical arts with innovations,” concludes the danseuse, with a glint in her eye.