Of course, I am ruffling quite a few feathers!” she laughs spontaneously, the elegance and grace in full glow as we slip into an easy conversation at her residence in Delhi. For the internationally renowned Sufi kathak danseuse, who has knitted togetther the classic vein of kathak with the mysticism of Sufi, the world is a stage. Manjari Chaturvedi embodies dance in a trance, having performed at over 300 globally celebrated shows spanning 24 countries, in staggering, brilliant renditions: in front of the Taj Mahal in India, the Sydney Opera House in Australia…
“Now I am putting together my newest baby in the form of the project, ‘The Courtesan’,” shares Manjari. “As a dancer, I demand respect. This is the backbone of my research that explores the skills and stellar performances of artistes over the past generations. About 200 years ago, there were no exalted avenues like the Siri Fort (in Delhi) and the National Centre for Performing Arts (in Mumbai) available for artistes to perform at. They only had their stage in the king’s court or later in small mehfils. There was nothing exclusively durbari about their dance, or kotha-like. In fact, Bollywood’s rendition of the kotha has dubbed it as sleazy and debased: you need to understand that none of us have ever been to a kotha, or even seen one,” Manjari explains.
Reviving a lost tradition
She goes on, “Dance was an art form that took men and women at least 10 years to perfect. After years of struggle for visibility, the older generation of artistes is now simply on the brink of extinction as they have yet to get their due. I am archiving their journey, finding out through my research what they performed, and why, the old compositions they sang and danced to. This involves connecting with now-90-year-old artistes and delving into their memories and recounts. The research revealed that the men were celebrated at ustaads but the women were simply bracketed as nautch girls (read low grade and cheap), though ironically though ironically women danced better than men. The female artistes were exploited, discriminated on the basis of gender. This sort of sanitisation was in play, and very few were able to revamp themselves successfully, such as Begum Akhtar.”
Shilpi Madan for Deccan Herald