An art form is at its worst when it’s imitated, says Sanjukta Wagh
Every dance production of Beej led by Sanjukta Wagh is pleasantly distinct from one another. She effortlessly blends poetry, theatre, Indian classical music and other disciplines to Kathak and takes her shows to a different level. Wagh, who is gearing up to stage one of her recent productions, Jhini — based on the poems of Janabai, Chokhamela and Kabir — calls her initiative, Beej, an interdisciplinary project. “One of the very prominent features of Beej is that it’s an interdisciplinary process. So, it’s not just about Kathak, it’s about how Kathak benefits and interacts with other disciplines such as literature, science, sociology and history. It’s about how we can have practitioners of these different disciplines in forming a performing art space and not just a Kathak space. Our productions are not just related to arts; it is about our collaborations with sociologists, historians, musicians and with people from different genres [of dance].
Dance and sociology
Citing the example of one of her most popular productions, Rage and Beyond: Iravati’s Gandhari, which connects a different discipline to dance, she shares, “I was invited by sociologist Gita Chadha to conceptualise a dance piece to present at a seminar in Mumbai University. So, instead of having a cultural programme, where you perform a dance piece, she wanted something related to sociology. She handed over anthropologist Iravati Karwe’s text on Gandhari to me. It was my interaction with Gita that helped me get a deeper understanding of Gandhari as a woman, the social structures of Mahabharata, and all that went into the making of Gandhari. It is the academic sensibility that made the piece what it is.” The production won in two categories at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) 2015.
The 36-year-old, who also teaches Kathak, is always absorbed in exploring different ways of teaching the dance form. “When a child is learning Kathak, he has questions about identity, such as ‘why am I learning this ancient art form in the 20th century’? And it is a valid question, which is not addressed in Kathak education. Rather than just teaching traditional knowledge, I believe in empowering the student to create from day one. So, improvisation and creation are an integral part of my teaching methodology.”
Evolution, a must
However, many purists don’t like the concept of fusing a classical form with other dances. “I believe you have to tell your own story [through dance]. It can’t be something that has been done to death by someone like Gopi Krishna or Pt Birju Maharaj. Who knows how kathak was some 5,000 years back. So, for an art form to remain alive, it has to change, it has to be your Kathak, not my Kathak; it can’t be imitated. For me, an art form is at its worst when it’s imitated. Of course, with children, there will be a phase when they are imitating, but finally it’s about finding your own expression in dance.”
Wagh has also studied contemporary dance from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London, UK. The dancer says, “Many different possibilities start emerging the more you explore. But you should not think that what you have is the final thing. When you think you have reached [your destination] — that is where art stops. You have to constantly question, take one step forward but two steps back.”