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Meet one of India’s first female Kathakali dancers

In the ’50s-’60s, classical dancer Kanak Rele broke stereotypes as one of the first women to learn and perform Kathakali. This weekend, she talks about her journey

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Mar 03, 2017 18:42 IST
Soma Das
Soma Das
Hindustan Times
Kanak Rele,dance,Kathakali
Dancer Kanak Rele (Pratham Gokhale/HT Photo)

We are at Nalanda Dance Research Centre in Juhu, the 50-year-old institute founded by classical dancer Kanak Rele (79). Rele is under the weather and recovering from a foot surgery. Yet she makes it a point to visit Nalanda daily. Not one to rest on her laurels, she recently premiered a new production, titled The Peacock Feather — Chaturdharaa.

This weekend, Rele will talk about her journey so far as part of Mumbai Local series of lectures. The title of her session is I Always Wanted to Dance, something of a motto for Rele.

She was just seven years old when she started learning Kathakali, a dance traditionally performed by men. “Kathakali happened by accident. A guru came to stay with my family and since no one wanted to learn from him, I was assigned to be his disciple,” says Rele.

Read: Dancer, activist, author, pioneer: The legacy of Mrinalini Sarabhai

She recalls how her grandmother termed Kathakali a ‘rakshasi nritya’ (dance fit for demons). Rele, however, was in love with it and went on to pursue it for two decades. “Surprisingly, I didn’t face any discrimination for practising Kathakali, perhaps because I was limited to performing stree vesha [roles of women],” says Rele.

In her thirties, Rele was introduced to another dance form from Kerala — Mohiniattam — which was in decline. She dedicated her efforts to revive the form. “It’s a 700-year-old dance. But from the 19th century, it sunk into oblivion due to a lack of patronage,” says Rele.

Kanak Rele as a Kathakali performer in 1970 (Photo courtesy: Kanak Rele)

On a grant from the Ford Foundation and the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Rele met Sanskrit scholars in Kerala and evolved a framework for it. “Every dance has its own aesthetic value, a certain grammar. But in Mohiniattam, there were hardly any elements remembered by people,” says Rele, who faced “an ocean of prejudice” for being a non-Malayali (she’s a Gujarati) practicing Mohiniattam.

Rele is also credited for introducing formal studies in dance. For her efforts, she has been awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (2006) and the Padma Bhushan (2013).

Kanak Rele as a Mohiniattam performer in 1984 (Photo courtesy: Kanak Rele)

Moving away from traditional representations of women, Rele’s productions feature strong female characters — be it Amba (based on Shikhandi), Gandhari or Draupadi. Rele’s productions might be based on mythological characters but they remain true to life and are inspired by people she meets on the streets, be it a villager in the city or a eunuch at a road signal.

“I was tired of doing traditional pieces. The presiding deity in Kerala is Bhagavati, the female energy. The society, too, is matrilineal; I wanted my dance to show women in their true light,” she says.

Kanak Rele’s talk, I Always Wanted to Dance, will be held on March 4, 5pm
At MCubed Library, D’Monte Park Road, Bandra (W)
Call 2641 1497

First Published: Mar 01, 2017 00:00 IST