London's Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Presents: Pratap Pawar Triveni Dance Company and Neesha Radia

Credit: Rafael Bastos

Earlier this month,  kathakars were treated to a weekend of classical recitals at the Bhavan Centre in West Kensington.  From Guru to disciple, Pulse goes beyond the performance aesthetics to uncover what is at the heart of these artistic offerings.    

Hailed as “India’s divine dancer” and “the Global Guru of kathak”, Pratap Pawar is one of those must-see artists for all budding kathakars.  I’d read all about Pawar’s life achievements but to see him perform in the flesh? Well, I jumped at the chance.  The opportunity arose when he gave a double-bill performance at London’s Bhavan Centre on Saturday 3 December.  The show was in two halves, the first was purely by the headlining act, whilst the second half showcased the work of Guruji’s students from the established Triveni Dance Company.  The event was well attended by an enthusiastic audience and honourable guests Lord Sheikh of Cornhill and Clr Jagdish Sharma MBE, Council Leader for the London Borough of Hounslow.  

For those who don’t know Guru Pratap Pawar was the first disciple of Pandit Birju Maharaj and also the first dancer in the West to receive the prestigious title of “Padmashri”, which he was awarded by the Indian President in 2008.  This is the man whose career spans over half a century, who has worked with over 700 students, who has trained some of the greatest UK-based kathak artists, not least Akram Khan and Balbir Singh, so there was no doubt in my mind that this would performance would blow me away.  But it didn’t.  
 
The performance was certainly well structured, well balanced between nritta pure dance and nritya expressional elements, and there was a great rapport between dancers and musicians, performers and audience.  But somewhere along the line it didn’t make half as much of an impact on me as it perhaps should have done.  It seems to me that there are several factors that hindered my spectatorship, first and foremost, never before had I seen a seventy year-old dancer perform so intensively in a staged solo performance.  There is no equivalent in Western dance practice that I know of – to me it’s a completely new phenomenon.  On another level, that I was viewing the performance out of context – I haven’t seen Guru-ji in his heyday – made quite a difference too.  Perhaps if I had seen him say thirty, twenty, even ten years ago I might have been more receiving of this particular performance.  In other words I find that my joining the later stages of Pawar’s kathak journey has left me feeling isolated from the performance.  Of course YouTube informs me that he was a powerful, dynamic, sprightly young-thing, and I can certainly see where Akram gets it from, but now his strength, stamina and technique are, only naturally, not what they once were.  
 
That aside, Pawar’s performance conjured up showman-ship, flamboyance, energy and spectacle and, despite his age, he still had that twinkle in his eye, that wonderful charisma, that sense of drama which undeniably drew me in.  What I also found fascinating was the way that Guruji’s students seemed to share these same traits as their master.  This observation explicitly shows me how the lineage of kathak works and how a guru’s teachings are passed down to his disciples but that’s another article in itself.  
 
Lucinda Al-Zoghbi 
 
On the topic of disciples, one of Guruji’s students, Neesha Radia, made her performance debut – the Rangmanch Pravesh - at the Bhavan Centre the following day.   Her warm welcome to a full house of well-wishing friends, family, dancers and teachers set a tone of excited confidence that ran through the evening.  Over-seen by her justifiably proud Guruji, Pratap Pawar, and supported by a group of accomplished musicians with Debipriya Sircar on sitar and vocals, Jonathan Lawrence on flute and celebrated percussionist Pandit Lakinath Mishra on tabla (flown in all the way from Mumbai for the occasion), Radia's performance had the ideal environment for magic to unfold.  Special mention must go to Pandit Vishwa Prakash on harmonium and vocals who not only composed the evening's lyrics and music, but was instrumental in conducting the group and ensuring that the evening ran smoothly.
 
Opening with invocatory pieces charmingly evoking Ganesh and Krishna, Radia gave a striking depiction of Goddess Durga with eyes flashing and fingers trembling. Moving on to the pure dance section, Radia successfully built an onstage rapport with her Guruji and percussionist. Despite being joined on stage by such strong personalities, Radia held her own through an array of rhythmic compositions, which she executed with great accomplishment. Slight glimpses of the nerve-wracking experience the dancer was under-going were quickly brushed aside by playful exchanges with Pandit Kalinath Mishra as he demonstrated his prowess. One of Pratapji's anecdotes recalled how a particular tukra passed onto him as the first disciple of Guru Birju Maharaj, was all the more precious as it was not taught to later students.
 
If one was impressed by Radia's confidence in the first half, the second half of the program really showed her maturity as a performer.  In three new compositions composed by Vishwaji and choreographed by Pratapji, Radia came into her element as she demonstrated with passion and depth the journey of a nayika from anticipation, disappointment and finally rage as she waited for her lover's return only for him to arrive covered with tell-tale marks of infidelity.  Another anecdote as her Guruji expressed his pride in her as he explained the difficulties he commonly had conveying the art of abhinaya to students living outside of India – any difficulties had clearly been surmounted in this case by a hard working guru-shishya team.  Radia was now fully immersed in her performance which showed through her embodiment of character with the playful fluttering from coyness to confident sensuality as the Vasakasajja Nayika.  Her emotional and physical yearning were shown adeptly with reaching gestures and beautiful backbends as the Virahini Nakiya.  Her disgust and hurt as the Khandita Nayika coming to terms with her lover’s betrayal was softened by the final note of surrender and forgiveness. 
 
Once Radia had laid her claim to the stage with her abhinaya, she carried this expansive physicality and ease through to her final item, Tarana.  As the fourth costume of the evening, this was my favourite: cream with a maroon border encircling the dancer as she span through the space.  This item was a triumphant, fitting ending to what was a true rite of passage for this dedicated dance artist.
 
Katie Ryan