Lovers of the Indian classical dance form Kathak will have a rare opportunity to see a performance by Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj at Dubai's first Kathak Festival. The legendary performer and guru will also conduct workshops on Kathak appreciation, covering all aspects of this dance form for students of all ages. He will be accompanied by well-known dancer Saswati Sen. The Kathak Festival is being organised by Dubai-based dance academy Gurukul and conceptualised by Somna Tugnait, Gurukul's director of projects. It will be held at Centrepoint Theatre, Ductac, Mall of Emirates, from June 16 to 18. Other highlights of the event include a solo performance by Pali Chandra, artistic director of Gurukul; a contemporary Kathak performance by renowned dancers from India; and a presentation by more than 100 Gurukul students, titled Dancing Divas 2011 — Journey of Kathak.
Birju Maharaj, a descendant of the legendary Maharaj family of Kathak dancers, is the leading exponent of the Lucknow Kalka-Bindadin gharana of Kathak dance in India. He began teaching Kathak at the age of 13 and retired as director of the Kathak Kendra in Delhi in 1998. He continues to teach at his own dance academy, Kalashram. The many accolades he has won include the Padma Vibhushan and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. The maestro has taken Kathak to new heights by choreographing many new dance dramas. He has also travelled worldwide to perform and conduct workshops. The septuagenarian is excited about coming to Dubai.
"I have known Pali Chandra for a long time and she has always served Kathak whole-heartedly. And anyone who loves Kathak is loved by me. She is doing a great job propagating this dance form and I would like to bless her and the team of Gurukul. I am really looking forward to coming to Dubai and interacting with Pali's students and other lovers of Kathak in the city," Maharaj says.
Chandra is a well-known Kathak dancer, choreographer and educationist. She has trained with leading gurus of the Lucknow and the Delhi gharanas and has received several prestigious awards for her performances. Before moving to Dubai, she was based in London for 15 years.
During this time she performed extensively in the United Kingdom, Europe and around the world. She also collaborated with international dancers to create interesting fusion performances of Kathak with dance forms such as flamenco, tap dancing, ballet, Western contemporary and Bharatnatyam. Her many achievements as a dancer include performing at the opening ceremony of the Millennium Dome in London and for the Queen of England at Westminster Abbey. She was also on the committee of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, the UK, and helped develop its Kathak curriculum, which is recognised globally.
Five years ago Chandra came to Dubai as a tourist. She liked the vibe of the city and decided to move here. "It was a whimsical decision to leave a place where I was well established and recognised to a city where there was little awareness about Kathak and no professional school for South Asian dance. But I felt there was an opportunity to share my skills and bring people of different cultures together through my art. And I am happy that I have been able to do that. We started three years ago with just a few students but we now have more than 100 of all nationalities," she says.
Every year, Gurukul provides a platform for its students to perform on stage at its annual Dancing Diva event. But this year is special because Birju Maharaj is the guest of honour at the show. "Traditionally Kathak gurus do not allow students to perform on stage until they have reached a high level of proficiency. But I encourage every student to perform at our annual event, because it helps build their confidence. I am happy that my students have this opportunity to watch Birju Maharaj perform, learn from him and also to perform for him. I have specially choreographed a piece for them that I learnt from him and is based on a number sung by him," Chandra says. "His presence at the Kathak Festival will raise the profile of Kathak in the UAE and take us a step further in realising Gurukul's vision to present, promote and preserve the performing arts of South Asia, to instil our values and heritage in the younger generation and to promote cross-cultural understanding through art," she adds.
Chandra's students range in age from 6 to 47. But they are all excited about the festival and busy rehearsing. Mansi Khosla, who is from Kenya, began learning Kathak from Chandra more than ten years ago while at university in London and was happy to connect with her teacher again in Dubai. She is one of the lead dancers in the show and appreciates the significance of the event. "Birju Maharaj is an icon of Kathak and few people get an opportunity to attend a workshop by him. Having him here is a very big deal for all of us," she says. Whereas 9-year-old Swarashri Shridhar simply says, "I am looking forward to seeing my guru's guru."
Pakistani-Canadian Muneeza Mooraj cannot believe her luck. "Kathak is the national dance of Pakistan and I have always been interested in learning it but never had the opportunity. So when I heard that a teacher of Chandra's calibre was in Dubai, I just had to join Gurukul. But I could never have imagined that after learning for just one year I would get this amazing opportunity to perform in front of Birju Maharaj," she says. "In this city everything is new and shiny, so we need to have something traditional, with centuries of history behind it. We have many Bollywood shows here and for a change it is nice to have some cultural shows that represent our South Asian culture in the true sense," she adds.