Monday, October 8, 2012

My Trip to India

There is a great deal that the Western Classical musician has to learn about Indian Kathak dance; knowledge that has a great deal of potential to deeply enrich the musical experience of the performer(s) as well as to engage and persuade the audience. On Sunday, October 7th, the association for India’s development (A.I.D.) at M.I.T. presented an evening of Kathak, performed by Pandit Birju Maharaj and his troop. Birju Maharaj was born into a family of Kathak dancers. He was first taught by his father and after his father’s death, by his uncles. After a lifetime of dance and music, Birju Maharaj earned the distinguished social title of ‘Pandit.’ Now he is recognized as the greatest living exponent of North Indian Classical Dance. His youngest son Deepak Maharaj, is also part of the famous Maharaj lineage and dances with his father as part of the troop.

On my way to the concert, I met an Indian man with the same destination. We sat together during the performance. This performance was my first experience of Kathak so I felt fortunate to have a personal connection through which to aid me in my exploration of the art form. My companion told me that Kathak is a lifestyle and is carried down through generations. “The relationship between music teacher and student is the most important in one’s life,” he told me. “To be a Kathak dancer, one must be a complete musician. One begins with the dance. Then, when one is ready, one may proceed to the drums (which are pitched. They are referred to as ‘table’) and the vocals (from the Hindustani style of classical music)..”

 The stage was blessed before the performance, the director walked out onto the stage (respectfully barefoot), to address the audience. Soon after, a beautiful orange light welcomed the first dancer to the stage who then told the first tale with feet of two-hundred bells. The word kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha, meaning story. The elaborate rhythmic footwork (tatkar), graceful spins (chakar), hand gestures (mudras), and subtle expressions of mood and emotions (bhava-abhinaya) that make up Kathak dance, all exist in order to express the subtleties of the human experience on this planet. The subject matter can be as complex and serious as an expression of devotion to the Lord Krishna or as trivial and playful as the experience of ball moving between two hands. Each and every performance is an intimate expression of the relationship between the dancer, the drummer, and the vocalist. In fact, all three players are perfectly fluent in the other’s modes of expression; they are able to switch instruments and they often do.

 As a Western musician, I was particularly struck by the sheer embodiment of the characters and the concepts that the performers set out to portray. The feet, with their careful virtuosity, moved with such precision that it seems there was a thousand possible steps, each with it’s own timbre, energy, and attitude. The facial expressions and the mudras had such intention and purpose; every facet of the performer’s face was viewable from any vantage point throughout the performance, and every gesture was expressed to someone in particular, whether it be a specific member in the audience, one of the musicians, or to the manifested presence of Krishna. By far, the most impressive element of this art form was it’s collaborative element. Never before have I witnessed such sensitivity between chamber players. The material was improved and it was spontaneous in character yet the rhythms were impressively complex. Not only did the players perform together in time but they interacted with each other in an organic and genuine way. One player presented, the other responded and elaborated. Each sound was accompanied by a gesture.

 During intermission, I noticed that this performance was treated as a celebration. Women were dressed in their best saris and the entrance hall was lined with tables of Indian food. Intermission lasted twenty minutes in duration during which strangers shared their love of the music with each other and ate together as friends.

 Upon continuation of the performance, Birju Maharaj engaged the audience, “The number one is the most important number, we begin life as one and we end it as one.” He then proceeded to perform a short rhythmic improvisation with his feet to express the musical downbeat in such a way as to comment on it. It can be overt but “it can also be silent.” Then he began to speak words rhythmically. The tabla responded, mirroring not only the rhythm of his words but also the inflection, “A language,” he quickly yet profoundly summarized.The finale was a climax of footwork performed by the entire company.

 I honestly confess to shedding a tear or two during my experience of this beautiful performance art. The source of these expressions are from the individual; they are from the heart. Their art is not truncated from the rest of the performer’s life experience. They do not lock themselves away and practice from the written score verbatim, they live, through music. Chamber music is not discussed strictly in metaphor, instead, it is treated as a study of human relationships. Performance techniques are not methods of audience manipulation, instead they are about what is true for the performer at the moment. The stage is not an altar, instead it is a platform on the level of the audience. Each musical concept is traced to it's expressive source and delicately delivered to the audience.

After the performance I had a brief conversation with a woman from the audience. “There is just so much love on stage,” I said. “...and the beauty shines through,” she responded, “he is simply a beautiful man.” My audience companion introduced me to a few others and we spend the rest of the night out eating, drinking and talking about Maharaj. This music really has a way of bringing people together.

 All proceeds from this concert went towards supporting sustainable developmental work in India. The entire concert effort has been put together by committed volunteers, working professionals, sponsors and supporters in our community. For information regarding the Association for India’s Development (A.I.D.) please vist: At this concert, I was introduced to the possibility of travelling to the ITC Sangeet Research Academy in India in order to study Indian Raga in exchange for teaching Western music. This is an opportunity that I am seriously considering. For anyone interested in learning more please visit:

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