The Diva of classical dance, the creator of Sufi Kathak, restorer of the dance of tawaifs, Director and Choreographer, TedX speaker, Cultural Academia, all in one, Manjari Chaturvedi is an unusual artist. She has blazed her own path, that no one traversed earlier in the field of performing arts. She has taken the traditional form of Kathak to a different level altogether and has created her own style. This sensitive artist has extensively worked on gender sensitive subjects through her medium of dance, exploring many traditions woven into poetry, music and dance.
G. M. : When did you first realise that this was the path for you? What was the reaction of your parents and how did they help you?
M. C. : I spent most of my childhood and growing years at Luknow. Father being Space Scientist, grandfather a High Court Judge and everyone into academics, influenced me greatly. I always wanted to excel in Science but at the same time, dance as a hobby at the age of 13 started sowing seeds for my future. Encouraged by parents and taught by Namita didi, my first teacher, I started getting involved wholeheartedly. Just before joining the college, I took one-year break to prepare for medical college but that was the real turning point when my interest in dance took the same priority as my studies. Pt Arjun Mishra (disciple of Pt Birju Maharaj) was my guru at this stage. I joined B. Sc. and simultaneously kept performing. Muzaffar Ali and Protima Bedi influenced me and saw a dancer with difference in me. Parents always encouraged me in this chosen field because I could balance my studies and dance performances.
G. M. : Sufi Kathak is one of its kind. What made you blend the classical Kathak with purely devotional swirling dance of dervishes?
M. C. : Lucknow, a city extremely rich in traditional arts and culture chiselled my personality. Qawwals of Lucknow impressed me so much that I was compelled to start my research on Sufism. It was in 1998 that I performed my first Sufi Kathak and in 2000 it was launched at India Habitat Centre. As I mentioned earlier, working with Muzaffar Ali and Abida Parveen opened many doors for me to explore further. An opportunity fell into my lap when I was chosen by ICCR to perform Sufi Kathak in the Central Asian countries. I learned a lot from the artists of those countries .
G. M. : It is obvious that one needs tremendous courage to deviate from the traditional dance and start something unique. Did you face any criticism or hurdles created by the traditional classical dance followers?
M. C. : Yes, there was a huge criticism as they thought this form of dance not to be part of tradition. It was not even contemporary, but its roots in the old traditions with a storytelling part of performance related well with the audience. It conveyed the basic Sufi message of love and surrender. People who questioned could not find any fault in the purity of grammar. The audience and media who understood my tireless efforts to give a new platform to a new form of dance, found it intoxicating.
G. M. : The theme being Sufi, one cannot practice this art without thorough knowledge of the Sufism, Sufi saints and Sufi literature. How was your journey of exploration?
M. C. : I could not have taken a plunge into this vast ocean of spiritual art without attaining sufficient knowledge on Sufi movement, Sufi saints and Sufi literature. More than the books and libraries it was my interaction with the Qawwals, folk singers, poets that laid a strong foundation for my Sufi Kathak.
G. M. : What made you choose two sets of singers, the Qawwals from UP and Folk singers from Rajasthan? Is it easy to blend two styles in the same performance?
M. C. : When the basic theme is love and yearning for the beloved, it does not matter whether it is Rajasthani folk song on Meera and Radha or Qawwalis on Bulle Shah’s longing and Amir Khusro’s sheer surrender for the divine. I weave the story with same emotions even if the characters change. In fact such diversities have offered me a bigger canvas.
G. M. : How have you chosen a costume that is neither a pure Kathak costume nor that of the dervishes? Why is the choice of colours limited to black ,green and white?
M. C. : Black negates everything. I want the audience to observe the flow of body movements and not to look at the face alone. Khusro’s ‘hari hari churiyaan’, Kabir’s ‘laali mere laal ki’, and Baba Farid’s ‘kaala menda vaish’ have generated colours to my costumes. These colours are very symbolic.
G. M. : How do you decide on themes? Who does the script writing for you?
M. C. : I write the script and believe in narrating it myself. Occasionally, I take help from scholars when it is in Urdu.
G. M. : You have shown the concern for the courtesans. Share your views on the same and also tell us about the kind of work Your Sufi Kathak Foundation is doing for dancers.
M. C. : I started ‘the courtesan project’ that celebrates those forgotten singers and dancers called tawaifs and bai jis who do not find space in the documentation of performing arts. Interestingly, their counterpart men performers are referred to as ‘ustaads’ and the incredible women merely as ‘Nautch girls’. These were the some who moved from the Kotha and formed the part of the Parsi theatre and then subsequently were the first women performers for the big Hindi Film Industry. Their contribution to art largely remains unacknowledged. This project brings their art to the foreground.
Sufi Kathak Foundation, a non-registered society aims to create awareness for Sufi Kathak, provides scholarships to students pursuing classical and Sufi music and dance. Foundation also provides pension and medical insurance to ailing artists.
G. M. : What is the future of Sufi Kathak? Do you want to take it to other countries and what about the younger generation getting into it?
M. C. : I have already performed in 35 countries and the appreciation has been tremendous. I have five seriously dedicated students who have also performed at Jahan-e- Khusro.
Lots of maturity and dedication are required to get absorbed into SufiKathak. It is a blend of body, mind and soul. For me this journey is beautiful and when the journey is beautiful who bothers about the destination. Does not the journey become destination? A Sufi thought!