Pandit Birju Maharaj, the most distinguished Kathak Dancer of our times, and the recipient of Padma Vibhushan award, was in Thane’s Gadkari Rangayatan Auditorium last week to participate in Gopikrishna Sangeet Mahotsav. While on stage, he recounted a rather funny but meaningful episode that occurred during a performance tour in Russia.
Just a day before the performance was scheduled, the Pakhawaj master who was to accompany Birju Maharaj in the show, realized that he has forgotten to carry atta (wheat flour) required for treating the Pakhawaj. For the uninitiated, the Pakhawaj is an important drumming instrument that accompanies Kathak. The Pakhawaj, known as the king of Indian drums, produces an extraordinarily rich resonance. This powerful reverberation is a result of a flat cake of whole-wheat dough, which has to be prepared fresh for each playing before it is loaded on to the drum-skin.
Coming back to the Performance in Russia, Birju Maharaj and the Pakhawaj player knew that they had to get hold of wheat flour for the show to go on. So they set out to find it in the foreign country. They visited a local bakery but found it extremely difficult to communicate the exact nature of their need as they could not speak Russian and the Bake Man did not understand English.
When verbal attempts failed, Birju Maharaj turned to his Kathak Skills, using his hand movements to convey what was needed. After managing to gesticulate "bread" and the "dough" that goes into making it, Birju Maharaj finally succeeded in putting across his need of wheat-flour, which the bake-man delivered to the artists so that they could go on with their show.
"Dance is the hidden language of the soul", said Martha Graham. We may add that it is also a language that souls of all nationalities can understand.
A Rhythmic Challenge
While on the subject of Kathak as an art form, a mention must be made of Mrs. Manjiri Deo, a well-known personality in the field of Kathak Dance. About 25 years ago, this disciple of Padmashree Nataraj Gopikrishna, founded Shri Ganesh Nritya Kala Mandir in Thane to teach Kathak dancing. Then, a few years ago, she came across Netrali Bhide, a deaf and dumb girl from Thane, who wanted to be her student.
Mrs. Deo took up the challenge of teaching Kathak to Netrali. "I knew it was going to be difficult to teach someone who can’t hear. But I was also aware that Kathak depends on the technique of abhinay (miming). Now, suppose a dancer, unaided by music, were to keep his eye on any person or object (for e.g. movement of the drumsticks) which was marking dancing-time to his/her sight, then he or she could definitely dance to it," states Mrs. Deo enthusiastically.
Although Netrali had previously performed in dance and ballet shows, that was with other handicapped students. Acquiring a degree in Kathak was altogether a different matter. But with Netrali determined to master Kathak, Mrs. Deo put her heart and soul into this challenge. Netrali’s parents too were quite supportive of their child, which according to Mrs. Deo was extremely important.
"The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person’s determination", said Tommy Lasorda, one of the greatest Baseball managers of the United States. Last year, at the age of 20, after years of meticulous practice, Netrali went on to become the first and only Deaf and Dumb girl in India to obtain a Visharad in Kathak. Her determination has certainly paid off.