Musings, Ghungroos, and Kathak on Screen

Shatranj Ke Khiladi

By Aliyah Banerjee

Wrapping Ma’s dupattas around my head, slipping into the cotton ghagra my grandmother sewed for me, and dancing along to Tagore’s Phule-Phule defined my early years and intertwined dance with the usual memories of a child growing up. My love for Indian music could not help but blossom as I spent evening after evening with my father and sister in the auditorium seats of India Habitat Centre or Kamani Auditorium in Delhi, sometimes dozing off as my mother’s folk band recreated the tunes of Coke Studio and Bhupen Hazarika onstage. I would be thrilled on the dusky evenings of Pujo, during the dance rehearsals being held that year, to culminate in my playing Monimala in Gupi Gain Bagha Bain one year, and a ball dancer in Cinderella the next.’ Ami naach korbo’, I finally said one day.

A few weeks later, Ma and I walked for the first time through the chaotic and vibrant lanes of Mayur Vihar, where Pt. Birju Maharaj Ji’s daughter-in-law taught Kathak to girls and women of all ages, from the petite ones just turned four who could hardly balance two ghungroos on their ankles, to mothers and grandmothers and aunts, who seemed to welcome the momentary respite from their busy lives. Later, I would be thankful for the seamless manner in which I entered the world of the oldest family of the dance form. I would sometimes stare unbelievingly when the Hindi script of my theory book would lead to me to the realisation that I was learning from the family of Pt Jagannath Maharaj, directly deriving my building knowledge of the Lucknow gharana from a family dating back to the court dancers in the Raigarh princely state during the British Raj.

Pandit Birju Maharaj in Khayal Gatha (Kumar Shahani, 1989)

I stood there, in front of the mirrored walls, a chubby, frizzy-haired child in a white kurta who was unfamiliar with everything else in the environment, except for the fact that she loved to dance and would give anything for it. That first day, it was my teacher’s son who taught our class. I was surprised – till then, I had never thought a man could be a dancer.

The values of Kathak unknowingly eased me into a broader mind at that tender age, into effortless acceptance of ideas that still serve as the roots for communal and global violence. Kathak has no gender, no age, no language, no caste, no discrimination between economic status. Kathak was just there – a pillar to lean on whenever I needed it.

Coming home from that first class, I even wrote a book – cut up some pieces of paper into rectangles, stapled them together, and scribbled out my experience in the limited linguistic expression I had mastered by that time.

Kaun hai Kathakaar? Katha sunaane wala.  I memorised what I was taught as the meaning of Kathak. I was too young then to understand that only one-millionth of a drop had entered my mind, of what was larger than all the oceans on Earth combined.

I was too young then to understand the many other forms Kathak had adapted in the past – the amalgamation of beauty and evil attributed to it over the years bygone, from the sanctity of temple dancing to the rejection of young dancers in the courts of Nawabs who were labelled as prostitutes. Ah. About that. Much later, I fell unabashedly in love with Roshan Kumari in Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958). With Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam (1960). I did not talk about them though – they were morally depraved, they were cunning, they were manipulators, those dancers. Seductive, and far-fetched from the holy nature of dancing, were they not? Or maybe just in the words of the orators of the Raj?

Roshan Kumari in Jalsaghar (Satyajit Ray, 1958)

It astonishes me how the stakeholders of history have painted artists as devils, as demons, as individuals to be shunned and imprisoned behind bars. They were women, after all. Who could control their wicked nature? Yes, they were women, blinded by not lust and greed, but by love and dedication to their art. The portrayal of legends such as the tragic fate of Anarkali has its clear origins in this very history that we choose to passively accept, but which paints an ignorant and detached image of us as a country, which gives fuel to the fire of the diluted representation of Kathak being manifested in theatres.

Woman. What a beautiful word, and yet what a controversial one. Has Kathak made me more of one, or less? With a pounding heart in the backstage of Kamani Auditorium, in fifth standard, right before going on stage, I remember starting my period. I was stunned, I thought I was bleeding because of some unknown disease born out of performance anxiety. Ma came running, and I was calmed down sufficiently within a few minutes. All I remember is that I went onstage anyway, and danced to the tabla and sarangi, and by the end of the evening, driving home in the backseat with a disheveled braid, broken earrings, and sleep-heavy eyes, I had forgotten all my troubles. I could only gaze out the window at the illuminated streets of Delhi and compare the stars of my heart to those in the darkening night sky.

In those early years, when child psychologists and parents predict an identity crisis, I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the sentiment that maybe Kathak was holding me back. Holding me back within my parents’ and grandparents’ generations while my acquaintances progressed into a newer, more attractive time. While friends started listening to music from the realms of the west, I was continually listening to the tarana ma’am had taught me in class, struggling to memorise the choreography. I searched for solace in every corner I was exposed to – especially in popular culture, on screen, in movies, in YouTube videos. But an accurate representation of Kathak eluded me – within the scanty and adulterated ‘classical’ dances in Bollywood films, there was almost nothing I could point out and say ‘Look! I learn this very dance which they are dancing in this film.’

Veteran Kathak dancer Saswati Sen in Shatranj Ke Khiladi (Satyajit Ray, 1977)

Saswati Sen in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977), with choreography by Pt. Birju Maharaj Ji, showed what Kathak was in my eyes – not always glamorous, not always speedy and theatrical, but subtle abhinaya and fluid movements that could make you forget any other beauty in your life and concentrate on the charm of dance. I failed to bridge the gap, I felt isolated. I was always behind, it seemed. My gurus always focused on how Kathak could never be learnt in a day – ‘Mehnat karo, tab jaake aadhe se bhi kam hoga, par hoga zaroor’. Those words, albeit harsh to my eager ears then, are the reason why I still fail to accept Kalank’s (2019) efforts at ‘classical dance’ as worthy of praise. Perhaps only Ray’s films have come the closest to an authentic representation, because of their simplicity and their willingness to prioritize tradition over vogue. I can only guess and write, falling just short of a film critic, but being simply an admirer of cinema.


‘If you can’t find time for it then there is no point learning it,’ Baba said to me while walking to the parking in Mayur Vihar, referring to my irregular riyaaz habits.

I glanced to my left and saw the costume shops where the tailors sat hunched in the merciless sunshine and sewed anarkali after anarkali in beautiful fabrics.

A central aspect of all Indian classical dance forms are the unique costumes, which, in my opinion, complete the artistic branch of nritya. The Natya Shastra, or the bible of ancient Indian performing art forms, places immense emphasis on the vitality of fabrics woven into anarkalis, the different drapes of a sari, and the beauty lent to a dancer through jewellery and kajal. Even if I cease to dwell in the past, I, like every other Kathak dancer, cherish my own romantically undestined experiences in the lanes of Chandni Chowk in Delhi and Boro Bazar in Kolkata, in a quest to find what would make me look beautiful. I wish that someday, contemporary media would regain that same love for tradition – even with veterans as choreographers and designers at the helm, there continues to exist a marked difference between cinema directed towards an eye-pleasing objective, such as Devdas (2002) and Kalank,  as opposed to cinema which honours its roots in storytelling.

Still from Kalank (Abhishek Varman, 2019)

I shook my head.

 ‘I’ll practice from tomorrow,’ I replied looking down. Years later, when I returned to India for the first time, I would visit Mayur Vihar again with my family, and as we stood at the sweet shop buying chanachur and jalebis, I would remember these conversations and reflections. Presentation, largely defined by the appearance of a dancer, evokes emotion within me as much as the dancing itself.

‘Bhaiya, yeh wala fabric,‘ Ma said. I remembered the face of the tailor who measured out the blue and golden yards.

I still ask myself where that thin line lies – especially with respect to the onscreen representation presented to the world at large- which is crossed unintentionally and is difficult to retrace. On one side, the palpitations of my heart validate my love for an undiluted form of Kathak, which is what I felt when stepping inside the red-stone building of Kalashram for the first time on a rainy day, when Gulmohar Park was silent and the sound of ghungroos echoed for miles. This is what I associate with Ray’s films – simple, multihued in an absence of colour, and unapologetic in its authenticity. The other side I no longer wish to contemplate and refuse to discuss, because all that is worth embracing lies within the former.

‘Last, but not least — in fact, this is most important — you need a happy ending. However, if you can create tragic situations and jerk a few tears before the happy ending, it will work much better,’ said Satyajit Ray. And, in its own way, Kathak has given me the closest thing to a happy ending that any human can achieve. ‘Class kabhi pranaam ke bina samaapt nahin karte.’

Aliyah Banerjee is a writer and a dancer originally from New Delhi, who now manifests her love for the written word in the form of poetry and journalism, while maintaining her musical relationship with Kathak dance. 

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