A sufi twist in the tale: "sufiana kathak"

Discussion in 'Religion & Culture' started by ejazr, Feb 17, 2011.

  1. ejazr

    ejazr Stars and Ambassadors Stars and Ambassadors

    Oct 8, 2009
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    Hyderabad and Sydney

    Somewhere in the Muslim dominated alleys of Delhi of the 70s, a teenager would bind a thick cloth around her ghungroo early in the mornings to keep the sound from falling across the hamlet that was not humoured waking up to the sound of a girl dancing.

    “Once my family migrated to Delhi from Bihar, I had found my mooring as a dancer and I was determined to hold on to the place, no matter what our neighbourhood had to say about girls who took up dancing. It was hard for me, but more so for my mother who stood by me when I insisted on staying on in Delhi even after I finished my studies,” Rani Khanam’s voice trails off in the rush of memories.

    If ‘Sufiana Kathak’ has earned a name as an independent genre, it is because Rani waited long enough for her first love, Kathak, to reveal the true scope of this innovative variation to her. She learned traditional Kathak under Reba Vidyarthi and Pandit Birju Maharaj for 15 years before moving on to make her own innovations. Today, as one of the very few (if not the only) Muslim classical dancers of note in India, Rani Khanam has taken the daring step of dancing to Islamic verses.

    Her ‘Ganesh vandana’ for instance, is replaced, in the same ‘taal’ and tune, by ‘Allah hi Allah, zilleshan Allah/Tu rahim, tu karim, tu ghaffar tu sattar’, a verse by the Mughal poet Amir Khusro, who is known as the Father of Qawwali.

    But her improvisation goes far beyond the breaking of new grounds in the choice of ‘sahitya’ in dance. She has single-handedly lifted Sufiana Kathak to a realm of classical grace from the endless twirling that it had been.

    Khanam, who was recently in the city for the Nishagandhi Dance Festival, says that her compositions, based on Sufi Qawwalis, are depictions of the Persian influence in Kathak.

    “As a dance form that was attached to mandirs, Kathak bordered on dance and drama which conveyed stories from Hindu mythology. Later, the invading Mughals appropriated the dance and it became one of the most favoured arts performed in the courts of Mughal emperors. The Persian influence came about during this period. Patrons like the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, introduced a whole new repertoire to Kathak. Over the years, different schools or gharanas of Kathak became prominent and the Lucknow Gharana to which I belong, is especially known for bhava, grace etc.,” she explains.

    Wedding Kathak with Sufi traditions was made easy by this crossover of repertoires, she says. “Unlike any other Indian classical dance form, like Bharatanatyam or Kuchippudi, it is easier to superimpose Kathak on the sahitya of Sufi verses, because of its borrowed Persian technique.” Khanam demonstrates the strains of foreign influence – the typical foot and neck movements in Kathak – that marks it as different from other Indian classical dances. She belongs to the Chistiya silsila (order) of Sufism which is considered more colourful and spirited in terms of rituals. It also boasts of the Qawwali form of invocation which is the most popular vehicle of Sufism.

    The philosophy of spiritual revelry that is fundamental to Sufism is worked through devices like Qawwali, or the continuous spinning of the body practised by the ‘Whirling Dervishes’ of the Mevlavi order from which rudimentary Sufi Kathak had taken off.

    Khanam’s contribution to the dance form merits applause in that she has systematically introduced the most refined features of Kathak - the bhava, abhinaya, footwork, wrist movements and whirling - to Sufiana Kathak. Coupled with the Qawwali, that starts off on a slow beat to build up into a feverish, the dance compositions are designed to accentuate the high voltage energy that induces a ‘Hala’ (trance) in the dancers as well as the audience.

    “It is a totally purifying experience, intensely personal and spiritual. The compositions are all scripted like addresses to the beloved, who is in fact the Almighty. So the compositions allow depiction of bhavas that range from ‘shringar’ to devotion.”

    She has also master-minded Andas-e-Raqs, a composition that brings out the “Persian elegance in Kathak”. “I have also introduced a combination of Indian musical instruments like Tabla, and Sarangi and Persian instruments like Lute to highlight the synthesis of cultures. The costumes are also fairly modified to suit the ‘Sufi Kalam’ which is exponentially different from the esoteric forms of Islam,” she adds.

    Sufiana Dance Ensemble has travelled the world with her dance and has performed in Netherlands, in London at the Royal Festival Hall for the Queen’s birthday celebrations, in Kuala Lumpur for the opening of the Islamic Museum, in USA at the Bates Dance festival and in many other prestigious venues.

    Particularly rewarding, she says, was the opportunity to work with thirteen noted Sufi mystics from around the world at the London Ya Salam Festival for Middle eastern Dances held in 2006. AAMAD, her dance academy, founded in 1999, offers training in Kathak and Hindustani vocal.

    “I can only show the path. The way you see the dance and its connection to spirituality, the way you understand it, or the depth and quality of your understanding, is your own making. Dance is Wajad for me, the moment of blissful submission to become one with the Almighty.”

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