On the ghats of India’s sangam city — where the holy Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati meet, the famed Kumbh Mela takes place and where kathak is believed to have originated — the evening sunshine has gently illuminated the steep steps. On one, a splash of swirling colour — bright purple and lime green — catches your eye. It’s a group of girls doing a kathak routine. Look closely, there’s something different. A girl in white flips an imaginary coin, watched eagerly by one in purple and one in green. The ‘result’ is acknowledged and positions taken. One holds a ‘bat’, the other deftly throws a ‘spin ball’, the ‘umpire’ declares ‘out’, while the rest pirouette around in ‘appeal’. The segment ends with the group whirling around a large Indian tri-colour and applause from the onlookers. See videoThe routine has been put together by Urmila Sharma, 43, the Allahabad-based kathak exponent, who came up with the idea of incorporating cricketing strokes in the classical north Indian dance. The 5-minute sequence performed by 11 girls depicts the gentleman’s game, sans a bat or ball. It borrows expressions from the nau-ras (nine emotions of life) and the game’s tough shots have been enhanced into the dance’s graceful strokes.
The germ for the experiment, Sharma says, came to her back in 1997 when she was invited to perform at a sports event in Barbados. So inspired was the artist by the presence of her favourite cricketers in the audience, including Sachin Tendulkar, that she broke into cricket movements in the middle of her performance. “It was received so well that I knew I wanted to try it out as an experiment later,” says this disciple of veteran Pandit Birju Maharaj. With cricket gaining exponential momentum in popular imagination over the years, Sharma finally decided to work out a sequence for her students this year. “They picked it up in less than a week,” says the teacher whose earlier work has borrowed from the Jaipur, Benaras and Lucknow gharanas. “The idea is to make kathak popular among masses and cricket is a big part of that mind-space,” she explains.
Urvashi Bhardwaj, 20, who plays the segment’s lead and works as a trainer in Shiamak Davar’s troupe in Mumbai says she has done fusions with kathak, tap dance and jazz but this was different. “We never thought of cricket and kathak, but ma’m showed us it can be done. The nau-rasas borrow from daily life and cricket is everyone’s favourite game, so it wasn’t difficult,” says this ardent fan of MS Dhoni’s batting, and his dimples. “Cricket is not played in an AC room, we don’t use a bat and ball but we have to express various facets: a bowler’s perspiration, how the batsman looks at the ball to hit it... So we all started watching cricket to learn the details, like how Dhoni always hits sideways. We picked up Yusuf Pathan’s spin-bowling and Irfan’s fielding, the way he bends his knees. Kiran, who plays the umpire, studied footage of the late David Shepherd — she liked him for his cute personality,” she says with a giggle, adding that the girls even started playing galli cricket with their shocked male friends to get a hang of it. “The boys thought we were mad! But when explained what we were doing, they helped fine-tune our strokes.”
What do kathak’s leading lights have to say about such experiments? Maharaj says the art must retain its form. “It should just be a flavour of cricket, not the game itself. Ek jhalak jo batting-bowling ka rhythm dikhaye, bas.”
His other disciple, noted kathak exponent Uma Sharma, is old school. “I believe in the traditional story focus. It should go with the idea of dance. I don’t see the point in depicting actions and no poetry.” On the other hand, her contemporary, another leading artist Shovana Narayan, has a logical take. “All classical dances have been in the constant process of evolution. Ball phekne ka movement was there in the kaliya daman segment of Mahabharat too. But the context has to be palatable. What we take as tradition today was considered innovation then. But only those that stand the test of time will be accepted, the rest will disappear.”