For the love of Kathak

(Published in The DailyO : http://www.dailyo.in/arts/germany-kathak-munich-indian)

It is no secret that Bollywood, Cricket and Chicken Tikka Masala are quite possibly the most globally cherished features of our country. Being a resident of Munich for the past two years, it quickly became evident that the sentiment was no different in Germany. But then in August this year I met Anisha Subramaniam, a South – Indian from Mumbai, who has caused me to rethink this stereotype.

I first met Anisha at a quaint café in my neighborhood. Over a cup of coffee we chatted animatedly about our lives and families in India and throughout our conversation I couldn’t help but notice her very expressive eyes, graceful hand gestures and intriguingly impassioned spirit. I soon learnt that Anisha is a professional Indian Classical dancer, specializing in Kathak and Odissi dance forms and having recently moved to Munich with her husband, has been trying to find a studio here in Munich to start conducting dance lessons.

Today, about a month after our first conversation, Subramaniam is successfully teaching Kathak at the New Rebecca Studio at Machtlfingerstrasse twice a week. Each session is almost two hours long and comprises so far of seven working women – four Indian and three Germans. She is confident that this is just the beginning. Come December, she is also going to start teaching children – five have already registered. Of the surprisingly fervent German interest in the presumably unconventional dance form, she says, “The Germans are a real treat to teach. They are curious about this dance form and while they do find it difficult initially owing to the fact that their body language is quite different from that of Indians, their inquisitorial disposition towards the dance form makes them fast learners.”

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(Anisha Subramaniam during a Kathak training)

Fascinated, I probe further on how she discovered this interest of the Germans in this particular dance form and how she managed to find the studio and fill her classes so quickly. “I just found the studio on Google. People are waking up to the fact that there is more to Indian dance than just Bollywood. So, they are interested in digging deeper. Kathak has actually lent it’s footwork to the Spanish Flamenco and so, many European dancers also draw parallels from it. The rhythmic foot movements and swift pirouettes in Kathak find favor with one and all.”

I was concerned about the language barrier. She calmly reminds me that dance has its own language and does not need any other form of communication. “An effective dancer communicates through her movements even when the audience cannot understand her language.” This is after all, the literal meaning of the Sanskrit word’ Kathakka’ which means ‘to do or tell with stories’. “It has helped me tremendously to improve my ‘Abhinaya’ (acting skills) through my dance too,” she tells me assiduously.

Anisha trained for 7 years under the tutelage of eminent Gurus Tina Thambe and Smriti Talpade at the Jaipur Gharana in Mumbai. While the basic training in its entirety takes about 7 years to complete, it can also depend a lot on how quickly one is able to grasp the basic concepts and replicate them. According to Anisha, Germans are quite agile and fit and so are relatively faster learners with a good sense of rhythm. Of the challenges they face she says, “Understanding some musical compositions and emoting accordingly is a challenge for them but interestingly, they are most excited about it and look forward to this part the most!”

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Anisha meets me for a coffee in a café close to the studio to chat a little more about this. My fascination and sheer admiration for the global interest her work has garnered amuses her though not without an evident shade of pride and joy at this unanticipated interest in her work.  She reveals to me that she has also been making monthly trips to the house of another Guru called Pali Chandra in Zurich for 6-hour training sessions to enhance the angular body movement requisite in Kathak. There are many Swiss students who come to learn from this Guru too.

It was the Mughal era that saw the rise of this distinct dance form but whilst it was denounced later by the British rulers as being synonymous with seduction and prostitution, today Kathak has regained its dignity and popularity as one of India’s eight officially sanctioned dance forms. The western world too is opening its eyes to this flamboyant and aesthetic dance form.

Anisha pulls me out of my thoughts with some more examples of this global awakening to Kathak which only seems to be growing with time. She tells me about Brigitta, a German from Munich who spends two months of each year in Kerala to train in the Mohiniattam dance form and Kristina Luna, a Lithuanian who stayed with a Kathak Guru in Delhi while completing her studies at a Delhi University.

We finish our coffees and walk towards the New Rebecca Studio where her weekly Saturday class is about to commence in a few minutes. I decide to stay a while and observe. While we wait for the rest to arrive, I sit down next to Nailya Datseno, a belly dancer natively from Uzbekistan.  Striking a conversation, I casually ask her what ignited a belly dancer’s interest in Indian classical dance. With an easy smile she replies “I liked Indian dances since I was a child, but there was no chance in Munich to learn. For Kathak, I feel it’s more than just dance. It gives grace to the whole body and peace to the mind.”

For me, it’s the good vibrations and mood it puts me in”, chimes in Maya Johanna Abrahams, another German who has walked in and sat down with us. “I love the music and rhythm. Indian dances are so feminine! I find that in our western society, this pure feminine energy is lacking and Indian culture gives me back what I feel belongs to my soul.” Maya, I discover, is a nutritionist by profession.

Soon, the rest of the students pour in and Anisha signals everyone to take their positions while I thank them all for their time and take my leave, a smile on my face and a heart beating with the exhilarating pride of my country’s cultural heritage.

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