In 2001, I began my study of kathak, a classical form of dance from northern India. Within a few weeks, I was smitten. The percussive footwork, the complex rhythms, the expressive story-telling, the depth of my teacher Gretchen Hayden’s (and her teacher Chitresh Das’) knowledge, the layers of cultural significance stirred my soul. I was introduced to an entire world, a universe of artistry and discipline and richness and beauty and history.
It was this history, dating back a thousand years to when those who performed this dance form were kathakas, wandering minstrels who danced the stories of the Hindu gods and goddesses in village after village, that gave me the idea for my series of novels. The history of kathak dance has mirrored the history of India. With every major shift in political power in India, the form of kathak dance changed, along with the settings in which it was performed, and the role dancers played in society. Each of my novels will take place during one of these shifts: the establishment of the Moghul Empire in the 1550s, the establishment of the British Raj in the 1800s, the national movement of the 1920s and 1930s that eventually led to India and Pakistan’s independence, and the diaspora that brought so many young Indians to Europe and the Americas beginning in the 1970s. Through these shifts, kathak dance went from a religious art practiced in temples to an entertainment art upheld by courtesans to a banned art nurtured by prostitutes to a celebrated art appreciated on stages around the world. The story of kathak dance is a story of India, of cultures colliding and mingling, of loss and creation, of religion and morality, of tradition and change, of resistance and acceptance, of cultural identity, and of the endurance of storytelling. How better to tell it to the world than through a series of novels?
Kathak today is a highly sophisticated art characterized by intricate footwork, expressive movement of the hands and face, rhythmic intensity, swift turns and elegant stances. Wearing rows of small, brass bells on each ankle, the dancer alternates between recitation, footwork, fixed compositions, improvisation and story telling. During a performance, the dancer also engages in playful, spontaneous interchange with the musicians. The exchanges are intensified as the artists challenge each other through their individual mastery while simultaneously building towards a culminating crescendo of dance, drum and music.
Chhandam Institute of Kathak Dance (Chhandika)
When I met my dance teacher, Gretchen Hayden, senior disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das, she had wanted for years to expand her reach beyond that of a teacher with students, to that of a non-profit organization with greater traction in the arts world, and the eligibility for funding. She had ambitious and exciting ideas for what a non-profit could do with kathak dance. She inspired me, and others. Fortunately, I had just finished a freelance writing project, and a friend and fellow dance student had just been laid off from a technology company. Together, and with the help of a handful of other dedicated people, we resolved to make Gretchenji’s vision come true. We interviewed her, probed the depths of her dreams, discussed values and mission statements, sat through “branding sessions,” drew a diagram of what we wanted the future to look like, designed a Web site, created a marketing plan, developed a strategic plan, formed a Board of Directors, worked with the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts to draw up by-laws and articles of incorporation, purchased insurance, and, in November 2002, the Chhandam Institute of Kathak Dance, or Chhandika, was born.
For ten years I served as part-time Executive Director of Chhandika. Now I am still involved as a volunteer, and teacher of beginner children’s classes, as well as a kathak student myself. Kathak dance and Chhandika have enabled me to work alongside phenomenal people, added an entirely new dimension to my life, and awakened my creativity. And they have given me the inspiration for my series of novels.
For a sampling of photos and videos of some of the kathak greats in the tradition of Lucknow, from my teacher’s teacher, Pandit Chitresh Das, up through generations to the court of Wajid Ali Shah in the 1840s, visit my Pinterest board, “Kathak then and now.”