Film Kathak Choreographies of Birju Maharaj

Saturday, October 5, 2019

My last post about the discovery of Birju Maharaj dancing Kathak on screen in the art film Khayal Gatha inspired me to go watch all of his film choreographies that I've heard bits and pieces about over the years.

I haven't featured much Kathak (or Hindi film dances) on this blog to date because, from what I've seen, the way it is presented and drawn from in Indian cinema rarely excites or engages me.  Kathak is by far the most dominant dance inspiration in Hindi cinema when something a bit "classical" is desired, whether in standard song-and-dance numbers or the ever popular courtesan mujras and court dances.  Pallabi Chakravorty in her excellent book Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women and Modernity in India contextualizes further, noting that "Kathak is so deeply enmeshed in the cultural ethos of North India that its motifs subtly encapsulate the amorphous notion of ‘Indian-ness’ within the dominant forces of Westernization in commercial cinema."

I love explosive nritta (pure dance) and rhythmic wizardry when done well, so my favorite instances of Kathak in Indian cinema are Kathak danseuse Roshan Kumari's spellbinding nritta in Jalsaghar (1958, Bengali) and fast-paced spins in Mirza Ghalib (1954, Hindi) that I featured in my post about her, but I also appreciate slower emotive dance when it connects with me, most notably the second dancer in the Kathak sequence in Khudito Pashan (1960, Bengali) which to this day holds my gaze in rapture.  But most other "Kathak" that I've seen in Indian films, Hindi or other languages, feel like pretty posturing with lots of what I like to call "generalized waving and flailing ones arms about" that looks vaguely like Kathak.  Easy it would be to up the showmanship and show off some impressive foot slapping and ghungroo bell patterns, or even throw in a stylized hand gesture, but film Kathak usually seems to go for messy spins and wavey arm movements as its main focus.  Edit: And even when film Kathak borrows traditional movements and hand gestures (most often seen in mujras and court dances), it's just not my cup of tea in ways I can't quite articulate.

[Source]
As I described in my last post, Pandit Birju Maharaj, for those who aren't aware of his stature, is probably the name most synonymous with Kathak dance in recent decades, a 1930s-born acclaimed carrier of his family's now-predominant Lucknow gharana of Kathak, a critical part of the standardization and institutionalization of Kathak in the Indian post-independence dance revival and reckoning that took place in his most formative years, a beloved and very charismatic and likable performer, and an innovator within traditional boundaries.  He was instrumental in popularizing the dance form in India and the world, and is still doing so today, traveling around the globe in his 80s.

With Birju (I will leave out honorifics and refer to him simply as "Birju" from now on for brevity and clarity) being such a respected figure of Kathak dance, I had hoped his participation in film choreography would mean I'd finally get to see some more traditional and difficult Kathak movements and emoting being reflected on screen.  In interviews Birju has said that he sees directing dance in films as a fun diversion but that he is selective with his film choreographies, getting many requests but declining most of them [11, 12].  He claims his film choreography is "pure to the core without any dilution [and] highly refined," and that he endeavors to get the actress he trains up to a level to show off the dance form [15].


For me, none of his serious film dances really engage or connect, and I don't find myself wanting to go back and rewatch and savor them.  Many of them are presented as overwhelming spectacles, with the Kathak almost being a gimmick, something to give the number more gravitas and traditional culture, but without lending it the same respect back.  Birju's participation in choreographing (usually) only one dance is highly publicized in the Indian media, reflecting the film variation of Pallabi Chakravorty's observation that Birju Maharaj's "name and gharana are used for marketing one's saleability and authenticity as a Kathak exponent in the contemporary world" [1].

With the exception of his first dance direction in Shatranj Ke Khilari, all the other films he's choreographed for are big budget commercial films featuring big stars. These aren't art films that might have space for a serious depiction of dance—rather, these are popular films that have A-list cast members who are briefly trained to perform his choreography.  In Shatranj Ke Khilari he was able to choreograph for an actual real-life Kathak trainee who had no acting role in the film and appeared only for the dance sequence, but for most of his film choreographies, the focal points are actresses/actors with varying real-life dance training to choreograph and direct in a very short time frame.  The purpose is not to showcase the dance form at its best but to showcase the actress or actor performing the dance form.  With such short dance training time, the dances never reach the heights that they could have if extensively trained Kathak dancers from real life had been brought in, who could focus on the actual overall choreography rather than spending so much time learning basics of the dance form.  Or, Birju himself could have appeared on screen!  And let's not forget that cinematic dance is an visual art form of its own, shaped not only by the on-site choreographer and dancers but perhaps almost as equally by the technicians and post-production staff that morph the recorded footage into its final cinematic output that we see.

While these dances do disappoint me overall, likely due to the sky-high expectations of having someone of Birju's stature and background involved, there are some clear positives and details that Birju's involvement brings to the film dances he's associated with.

Though the main dancer is usually an actress who can only be trained by him for a short time, where Birju gets to draw from real-life dancers is in the signature aspect of all his film choreographies after the year 2000: a group of young women in Kathak costume dancing in sync in the background together with very crisp "pure dance" movements that look to be from traditional Kathak or very close to it.  While the main dancer may not be up to par, Birju can showcase great Kathak in the group dancers, most of whom I've read come from his dance school or are his students, which is a nice touch.

Another unique feature of his film dances is that they are often based on actual compositions from his hereditary lineage and on his performances from real life.  The songs are often drawn from the real-life thumris of his granduncle Bindadin Maharaj and sometimes feature Birju's actual recorded voice on the vocals or bols/rhythmic syllables.  His work is visually differentiated from your average "pseudo-kathak" in Hindi films most notably by the inclusion of plenty of stylized and complex hand gestures (well, as much as the actress or actor can handle!), but also movements that go beyond the "generalized waving and flailing ones arms about" to an adherence to specific shapes and formations of the arms and body.  There aren't any hip and shoulder shimmies as seen in so much "Bollywood dance" inspired by Kathak, and it's clear that the goal is depicting something close to traditional Kathak movement.

Let's take a look shall we at all of his film dance direction in chronological order.

The First: Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977)

Birju's first foray into the cinema world was choreographing the courtly thumri "Kanha Main Tose Haari" for Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977, Urdu/Hindi).  It's no surprise that he was asked to choreograph the dances given the film's subject of Wajid Ali Shah, ruler of mid-1800s Awadh and lover of the arts whose court and patronage nourished the flowering of Birju Maharaj's own real-life family tradition, the Lucknow gharana of Kathak.

What is so unique about this film dance, compared to all the others he choreographed for, is that it features an actual student of Kathak, Saswati Sen, brought to the film only to perform the dance.  Saswati Sen is now known for her long-time close association with Birju as a top disciple, following him from the prestigious Kathak Kendra to her current administrative work at his own school Kalashram, performing and organizing his tours around the world, contributing to the art of Kathak, and from what I can tell, being by his side as a support a good deal of the time.  But Shatranj Ke Khilari was before all of that.  At that time (apparently she was 20 at the point of filming [14]) she wasn't a professional Kathak dancer and was taking Birju Maharaj's evening dance classes, but as fate would have it, Satyajit Ray saw her perform somewhere and then went on a mission to seek her out to convince her to dance in his film [8].

Satyajit Ray directed Birju to create not a "filmy classical" dance piece but a "pure classical Kathak" one that inspires peace and serenity in the onlooking Nawab [11].  Birju got to work at "meticulously rehearsing [Saswati Sen] on body angles, eye glances, head turns, for no movement, however slight could be indulged in without considering the camera angle" [7].  Apparently the man portraying the singer for the dance is Pradeep Shankar, one of Birju's real-life students [5], but the vocals we hear are actually sung by Birju himself (either offscreen or recorded separately), the lyrics "Kanha Main Tose Hari, Chhoro Sari" ("Krishna I've lost to you, leave my sari") taken from the large thumri compositional output of Birju's granduncle Bindadin Maharaj [5].

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For me, it's a slow burn that is, as I called it in my review of the film nearly 10 years ago, underwhelming.  It seems like in Saswati's efforts to dance in the way requested, one that inspires tranquility, she has nearly tranquilized her face!  This was filmed before she was seriously training in Kathak, but I have noticed that quite a lot of online videos of her Kathak from years later feel similarly facially restrained to the point of near-blankness, but some from her younger years show a range of natural facial expressions like this one at Wild Films India's YouTube channel.  In the Shatranj Ke Khilari dance, her parted lips are a bit distracting, but I found it amusingly cute how we can see the effort behind her dance and pursed lips in the spins at 3:16.  Right after that point is where her dance best shines—in her pure dance, with her quick spins performed in a delicate yet masterful and quick way that works so well given the mood of the song and setting.  It's curious to me that she never looks at the Nawab, or the other spectators in the room, but seems to focus her gaze either towards the floor or up at the top of the wall.  As much as I like her pure dance, overall this dance is not one of my favorites.

I was intrigued by a blogger who similarly felt bored by the dance and surmised that maybe the "cute but rather weak" dancing was an intentional choice by director Satyajit Ray "to portray the King as an ineffectual voluptuary," which fits with the theme of the film in depicting the king/nawab as pursuing arts at the expense of his ruling responsibilities.  Maybe this is also why Birju Maharaj isn't the one dancing on screen himself, which would have made perfect sense given how much I've read about men in his family's tradition being the court dancers, but his commanding and detailed style wouldn't have quite matched with the lazy, easy artistic pleasures sought by the Nawab.  I was not surprised that the aforementioned blogger felt bored about most Kathak until viewing Roshan Kumari's powerful dance in Jalsaghar which brought about their first "kathak rapture" (Yes! That dance should be required viewing when talking about Kathak in films).

Shantranj Ke Khilari's introductory credits also list "Gitanjali and Kathak Kalakendra Ballet Troupe New Delhi," and they are seen in a brief group dance scene with slow spins around Wajid Ali Shah in this video that starts at 5:43.

Birju's Other Film Choreographies

Looking at the rest of Birju's body of work in directing dance in Hindi cinema, after Shatranj Ke Khilari in 1977 and his on-screen performance in Khayal Gatha in 1988, he continued the once-every-decade tradition by not choreographing for cinema again until Dil to Pagal Hai in 1997.  After that, he had a break for a few years before returning for Gadar: Ek Prem Katha in 2001 and Devdas in 2002.  Wedged between Devdas and his most recent works was Pranali: The Tradition in 2008, which then brings us to the last few years in which he has been the most active, nearly averaging one film a year: Vishwaroop (2013), Dedh Ishqiya (2014), Bajirao Mastani (2015), Jaanisaar (2015), Vishwaroop 2 (2018), and Kalank (2019).  This assumes I'm not missing any other films he was involved in, but it's unlikely given how publicized his participation is.

Dil to Pagal Hai (1997, Hindi)

First up is the fun and absolute guilty pleasure of Madhuri's Kathak-inspired dance duel with the rhythms of Shah Rukh Kahn's drums in Dil to Pagal Haiwhich I was surprised to see is proudly listed in the "Contributions to the Film Industry" section of Birju's dance school website.  According to Birju himself, he first noticed Madhuri's dance abilities when she attended a dance workshop he was holding in California, and that led to his choreographing a brief dance for her in Dil to Pagal Hai [10], but apparently he wasn't actually on set, instead sending his son [13].  This is one of those overlooked facets of film dances, that there are usually assistants helping choreograph them who rarely get credited.  Dil to Pagal Hai's dance is nothing like his film dances after this point, but it's a prime example of Madhuri's joyous abandon and dance training, and I'm glad it happened because it connected Birju and Madhuri for a number of film dance projects to follow.  The choreography here is focused on short spurts of poses and flourishes inspired by Kathak but with joyful film flair.  Deliciously 90s, just like the contemporary "Dance of Envy" from the same film (you know you want to watch it).



Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001, Hindi)

"Aan Milo Sajana" in Gadar: Ek Prem Katha is the first appearance of what has become standard in Birju's film dances to this day: a group of young women in Kathak costume dancing in sync together with very crisp "pure dance" movements that look to be from traditional Kathak or very close to it.  To be effective, all the dancers in the group have to be in perfect sync, but in this first attempt, some of the dancers are comically off pace with the others.  Birju's dance school site says the choreography was composed to be "forming a backdrop to show Ameesha Patel’s turmoil," but in an interview [13] he expresses clear dissatisfaction with the final result, with words as scathing as he can muster, "they did not show it with honesty so the enjoyment was missing."  I'm guessing he composed a lot more that was cut out, or it was meant to be viewed in longer segments to understand the meaning.

Given the film's partition setting of a well-to-do Muslim young woman being separated from her family whom she believes to have died, falling in love and starting a new life with a Sikh man, then reuniting with the family she thought was killed who then try to force her to marry a more suitable guy, the dancers seem to be not only serving as a pleasant performance in the family hall but also expressing Ameesha's character's love for the Sikh man that now cannot be.  Unlike Birju's later film choreographies, the dancers form only a pleasant backdrop and are interrupted so often by intercut shots and the bustling happenings in the family hall that the dance has no cohesive identity.  The official clip below cuts off almost 2 minutes of the sequence ending with Amisha storming out of the hall past an elevated shot of a formation of the spinning dancers who drop to the seated position right as she falls into bed sobbing.  You can see the rest of the clip in this video that has mismatched music dubbed in.  Apparently the film was gargantuan grosser at the time, so it garnered a lot of eyeballs on an example of more traditional Kathak in Hindi cinema.



Devdas (2002, Hindi)

"Kahe Chhed Mohe" in Devdas continues the "group of women dancing in sync" motif but ups the technicality and speed and adds a frontline dancer as the focal point: Madhuri Dixit, in her first full-length film dance choreographed by Birju.  Madhuri had some Kathak training earlier in her life, and her unparalleled general dancing talent and charms make her the actress that best performs Birju's film choreographies.  A hallmark of Birju's touch, in "Kahe Chhed Mohe" Madhuri easily handles the most complex hand gestures of all of Birju's film choreographies, elevating her mystique in depicting a skilled courtesan charming her patrons.  While Madhuri's facial expressions depict many different moods, they are a bit exaggerated and reminiscent of her style seen in other popular film dances.  Devdas was a blockbuster, lavishly expensive for its time, and this song is well-remembered in accounts of Kathak in Hindi cinema.  Devdas was also the formative film for my interest in classical dance in Indian movies, so has a dearly special place in my heart!  Birju also is credited at the end of the film as the "guest music composer" for the song and is listed as a playback singer, apparently singing the male vocal line and reciting the bols/rhythmic syllables.  The end credits also list "Shashwati" as the choreography assistant for Pandit Birju Maharaj, surely a reference to his long-time associate Saswati Sen.


Unlike the slow pace and lingering camera work of Shatranj Ke Khilari, Birju's film dances in the last 20 years are all greatly altered and transformed by the camera techniques capturing them and the post-production edits that alter the resulting version we as an audience see.  One of my favorite academics with a critical lens on the history of Kathak dance, Pallabi Chakravorty, helped me connect how these shifts affect a film dance.  Comparing the "Kahe Chhed Mohe" mujra in Devdas to Rekha's celebrated mujras in the 1981 film Umrao Jaan (choreographed by another Kathak great, Kumudini Lakhia), Pallabi perceptively observes:
"Despite the fact that the legendary Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj choreographed [the] dance sequence [in Devdas], the rapid editing technique (reminiscent of contemporary music videos) creates a strong aesthetic shift from the slow languorous (vilambit) pace of Umrao Jaan [1981].  Rather than holding the gaze of the camera in the reciprocal exchange of darshan, the dancing is pursued by the camera, splicing and fragmenting it.  The constantly jerking camera movements reflect and refract the glittering candlelight in the background and allow no room for building an emotional connection between the audience and the dancing imagery; the emotion remains purely on the surface.  The aesthetics of excess and conspicuous consumption reduce Chankramukhi's dancing to nothing more than a visual orgy—a spectacle.  The visual density of images provides very little sensuous experience that can evoke the pleasure of rasa.  Rather, it evokes the erotic desire associated with commodity aesthetics...[1]"
In line with Pallabi's observations, the absolutely enormous interior in Devdas swamps the dancers and makes the camera shift around, zoom, and constantly stray from how the courtesan appears from the view of Devdas himself.  The music is also restless and in the style of popular films, and would lend the sequence a very different feel if it was more slow-paced and traditional.

Compare the feature film spectacle above with Saswati Sen below in a classic Doordarshan-style 90s studio setting, performing the Lucknow gharana thumri "Mohe Chedo Na Nand Ke," the original version composed by Birju's granduncle Bindadin Maharaj that part of the Devdas song was drawn from (and that Birju himself emoted to in Khayal Gatha per my last post).  Here, you can focus and linger, though the cuts are still intrusive.




Pranali: The Tradition (2008, Hindi)

Before we get to Birju's most recent work, we have to make a brief pit stop at what has to be Birju's worst film involvement, the "tandava dance" in Pranali: The Tradition, a b-grade looking, poorly-made and edited film about the plight of devadasis.  The dancer, actress Nargis, is said to have received training from a student of Birju Maharaj flown in to train her, followed by Birju "who personally taught the nuances of Kathak" [9].   It was completely unnecessary since the result is cringeworthy in every aspect...camera techniques, editing, dramatic music, execution of the choreography, the amateur feel...so bad!  Surely that's why Birju is only listed as a distanced "creative guide" in the opening credits.

Video starts 1:23:01


Vishwaroop (2013, Hindi version of Vishwaroopam in Tamil) 

Moving along to Birju's most recent stuff, Kamal Hassan secured him for "Main Radha Tu Shaam" in Vishwaroop which features a much smaller set of the standard group of dancers, this time in an instructional practice-style session in front of their guru.  I'll spare you my opinion of Kamal Hassan's emoting (let's just say I wish Birju himself would have been the guru on screen, glimpses that we can see in this "making of" clip), but at least Kamal is attempting to use many stylized hand gestures, which are different from those seen in the Tamil version.



Dedh Ishquiya
 (2014, Hindi)

2014's Dedh Ishquiya was another film with a connection to Birju's real-life past, set in the Lucknow area like Shatranj Ke Khilari but trading that film's serious political satire bent for a sharp comedic treatment about thieving crooks in an unclear time period simultaneously old and modern.  The Madhuri-Birju partnership is seen again here, with Madhuri playing the role of a widowed wife of the Nawab and Birju choreographing her dance to the song "Jagaave Saari Raina."  Madhuri's character Begum Para is given a vaguely and unlikely courtesan-like past and explained in the film to have trained under Birju Maharaj" [6].

"Jagaave Saari Raina" is supposed to be a "dancing at home for yourself and no one else" style number at the beginning, but Madhuri's character breaks the fourth walls and looks out at us the viewer occasionally, plus she is being watched by others through the window.  Her character is thinking about the past, so the song opens on her younger self played by Bhakti Deshpande (who has said she trained under Birju in real life, in some fashion).  The movements here are more freeform and casual, though the camera zooms in at 2:30 for an extreme closeup on a single stylized hand gesture that looks like a straightened version of one of the most basic in Kathak (Utpatti?).  You can see Birju Maharaj (and Saswati Sen is there too!) working with Madhuri in this making of clip.  Compare "Jagaave Saari Raina" with another dance song in the film, "Hamari Atariya," choreographed by Remo D'Souza and also attempting to evoke Kathak but has a different feel, and awful electric guitar. 

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Bajirao Mastani (2015, Hindi)

"Mohe Rang Do Laal" from the opulent period film Bajirao Mastani feels very reminiscent of Devdas but with a vastly expanded scale and technicality, fitting right in with the trend of the last decade of Hindi cinema for epic and ornate historical dramas (such as Jodhaa Akbar, Padmaavat, Ram-Leela, Mohenjo Daro, and more in the works) featuring ample green screen-powered grandeur.  And where there is a historical setting, there is usually some traditional dance!  Just like Birju's past film choreographies, the group Kathak dancers moving in sync are here in the background, but this time the camera exploration is more three-dimensional and less restless than in Devdas and lingers longer with more continuity.

Like "Kaahe Chhed Chhed Mohe" in Devdas, "Mohe Rang Do Laal" is drawn from the extensive thumri output of Birju's granduncle Bindadin Maharaj.  Birju describes the sequence as "a more contemporary adaptation of one of my own performances set on an Avadhi-Brijwasi thumri, Balma re chunaria maiko lal" (also sometimes spelled with 'maika' or 'laal rang de') which he is said to have performed in real life by imaginatively iterating on descriptions of "lal rang" (red color) and meanings of red in that one line of the verse [17,16].  The color red is a subtle accent in the number.  Blogger Shubhendu2011 points out that unlike Madhuri Dixit in Devdas who sports traditional alta red dye applied to her hands and feet, Deepika in "Mohe Rang Do Laal" has only light red powder smears, and the subtlety extends to her abhinaya where she only hints at touching her lips.  The background dancers ingeniously throw puffs of red powder into the air at well-timed moments of the music.

For me, this number drowns in its ornate "prettiness" and Deepika doesn't internalize what she's expressing, hyper-aware of the external gaze on her and relying on the subtlety theme to cover her limited emotive scope.  Her arched back and low-slung skirt also irritate me (anyone else?).  It's interesting how while Deepika does use some stylized hand gestures, a hallmark of Birju's film choreographies, they are not as varied or complex as Madhuri's were in Devdas who used them even in the fast-paced pure dance movements.  Deepika's eyes are certainly large and piercing, about to shed a tear of joy and love, and while I feel calmly soothed by the song and her mannerisms, the whole thing feels a bit empty and soulless.  Apparently Ranveer Singh's character feels the same way as I do, looking unmoved throughout.



Jaanisaar (2015, Hindi)

You would think Jaanisaar would have been a hit, made by the same director as the iconic Umrao Jaan (1981), but apparently it was a critically-derided flop, and if the dances and lead actress are anything to go by, I can see why.  Director Muzaffar Ali brought back the great Kathak dancer and occasional film choreographer Kumudini Lakhia who composed most of Umrao Jaan's dances, and given that Jaanisaar takes place in mid-1800s Awadh just like Shatranj Ke Khilari did, it's no surprise Birju Maharaj was asked to join too.  Since the dance "Hamein Bhi Pyar Kar Le" is confirmed to be Lakhia's work (who says she "used movements from the old traditional Kathak"), the other dance "Achchi Surat Pe" must be Birju's work, an attribution further bolstered by the surprise fact that Birju's granddaughter Shinjini Kulkarni (more on her in my next post) is the background dancer on the left!

In "Achchi Surat Pe," the standard "group of dancers in sync" is seen here in its smallest quantity yet, and they play second fiddle to film debutante Pernia Qureshi in the lead role of a courtesan and who annoys me to no end.  I featured the other Jaanisaar dance on the blog in 2017, calling Pernia's dance "clinical and lifeless [with] only a thin veneer of surface prettiness," but I like the way this reviewer articulates it best: "Pernia keeps twirling and you sadistically wish that she tripped on her own dress."  Achchi Surat Pe is exquisitely shot with darkened lighting highlighted by candlelight flickers, but Pernia just doesn't connect.



Vishwaroop 2 (2018, Hindi; Vishwaroopam 2 in Tamil)

In last year's sequel to Vishwaroop, unsurprisingly named Vishwaroop 2 (2018, Hindi), the title song features a brief footwork reprise from "Main Radha Tu Shaam" before devolving into violence, but what thrilled me was discovering the song "Tu Srotu Hai" ("Naanaagiya Nadhimoolamae" in Tamil) that shows a brief but pretty group stage dance at 1:06 that is then followed by a little boy practicing Kathak in a small, home class setting at 1:40, with some more practice with his mom later in the song!  Yay, practice dance!  For an even greater cool factor, the old woman in the song is Waheeda Rahman, the celebrated actress and dancer of decades ago, whose character appears to be reconnecting with Kamal Hassan's, pointing to a real-life photo of her younger self with a child Kamal Hassan so many years ago.

Stage dance at 1:07, practice dance at 1:39


Kalank (2019, Hindi) 

And that brings us to the current year, 2019! "Ghar More Pardesiya" from Kalank released earlier this year features the biggest group yet of young women dancing in sync.  It's an impressive feat to get that many dancers in near-perfect sync, though they perform movements that are more "Kathak-inspired," simple, and fun.  The camera elevates, tracks, and moves through complex configurations of the dancers and their flowing skirts, showing off the strength of dance designed for the camera, something not seen in Birju's past film dances.  It took me three watches of saying "wow, that woman at the beginning really looks like Madhuri" before realizing it was her, which tells me she has had some cosmetic treatments done to her face.  Madhuri emotes at the beginning but never joins in the group dance, but Alia Bhatt does, performing some quick flourishes that look impressive and fun, especially with all the dancers behind her spinning along with her in perfect sync.  Alia has said she learned Indian classical dance for a year and worked on the emoting with Birju Maharaj a week before the song's filming commenced, but her expressions seem limited.



Kathak History

Like all "classical" dance forms in India, what we today call Kathak has its own share of marginalized practitioners and a complex history throughout the evolution of performing arts in North India.  I've listed a few great academic sources on the subject in the "Scholarly Sources" section at the bottom of this post.  Many scholars in recent years have examined Kathak history with a critical lens, and they have shown that women have largely been forgotten or under-recognized in Kathak.  These excerpts from Margaret Walker's article "Courtesans and Choreographers: The (Re)Placement of Women in the History of Kathak Dance" [18] summarize this perspective:
"Promotional material about Kathak commonly alludes to its blend of Hindu and Muslim traditions but unhesitatingly attributes the dance's origins to the Hindu hereditary male performers called Kathaks. These men are still considered authorities on Kathak's authentic style and continue in many ways to dominate the dance world. Although one cannot deny the involvement of these male musicians and dancers in north Indian dance, their largely unchallenged hegemony through the twentieth century belies the influence of women, hereditary and non-hereditary, on the development of Kathak dance..." 
"The first few generations of women dancers of the twentieth century...are a documented group of individuals, many of whom are still actively involved in the performing arts. Yet, although their names and faces are well-known and some books on Kathak dance include their biographies (Kothari 1989), many of their contributions are not recognized or have been absorbed into the legends and legacies of the hereditary male dancers..." 
"Ownership and stylistic authority still rest officially with the male Kathaks, and one can observe a type of cultural magnetic field which causes the efforts and creations of others to be credited to them. Yet the answer is clearly not to disenfranchise the Kathaks in turn; they are and were, by and large, excellent teachers and creative artists who, having grown up in musical families, present an internalized form of artistic knowledge inimitable by those who have trained outside their homes. The contributions of these men to the Kathak of today are undeniable, but the contributions of women, both hereditary and non-hereditary need to be equally recognized."
I was struck by seeing Saswati Sen in the "making of" clips for some of Birju's film dances (Bajirao Masatani, Dedh Ishqiya) where she is sometimes beside or behind Birju but other times trains the lead dancer directly, yet she usually isn't credited for them, Devdas being the exception.  There was one media article I read (that I can't locate now) that implied Saswati assisted Birju for all of his film dances, and I would not be surprised if that were the case given how closely she has worked with and been seen with him in recent years.  I wonder to what extent she impacted the direction of the dances and what her contributions were!  Similar to some of the prominent women associated with Birju's dance trajectory (Kumudini Lakhia, Reba Vidyarti, and many others), she seems to not be given her due.

Coming up soon, a post on film Kathak choreographed by Birju Maharaj's relatives!

Scholarly Sources and Further Reading

1. Chakravorty, Pallabi.  Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women and Modernity in India.  2008.
2. Chakravorty, Pallabi. "Dancing into Modernity: Multiple Narratives of India's Kathak Dance."  Dance Research Journal. Vol 38, No 1/2, 2006.
3. Kothari, Sunil. Kathak: Indian Classical Dance Art1989.
4. Lalli, Gina.  "A North Indian Classical Dance Form: Lucknow Kathak."  Visual Anthropology. 17, 19-43, 2004.
5. Muni, Anisha.  American Kathaks: Embodying Memory and Tradition in New Contexts.  May 2018.  CUNY Academic Works.
6. Vanita, Ruth.  Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema.  2018.
18. Walker, Margaret.  "Courtesans and Choreographers: The (Re)Placement of Women in the History of Kathak Dance."  Dance Matters: Performing India.  Eds. Chakravorty and Gupta. 2010.

Media Sources

7. "Manodharma: Evocative abhinaya of the inner dancer… a world beyond teaching."The Asian Age. June 4, 2019.
8. "Saswati Sen credits her success to art maestros." Times of India.  February 27, 2012.
9. "Pt Birju Maharaj guides Nargis in Tandav dance."  Indiaglitz.  February 20, 2008.
10. "Pandit Birju Maharaj remembers Girija Devi."  The Asian Age.  November 13, 2017.
11. "In Conversation: Pandit Birju Maharaj Young at 74." The Daily Star.  June 29, 2012.  
12. "I miss the golden days of Hindi cinema: Pandit Birju Maharaj."  Khaleej Times.  April 29, 2019. 
13. "A Legend Unfolds." Democratic World.  May 2012.  Magazine.
14. "Why 'abhinaya' is importance in Kathak."  The Hindu.  June 14, 2019
15. "The Colour of Kathak." The Hindu. September 22, 2016.
16. "Genius' FootnoteThe Pioneer.  September 10, 2013.
17. "Reuniting Katha-Vaachan with Kathak."  Boloji.com. March 25, 2001.

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