‘Our understanding of a courtesan is Bollywood influenced’: Sufi Kathak dancer Manjari Chaturvedi
Manjari Chaturvedi is the creator and only performer of Sufi Kathak in the world
Sufi Kathak is a term borrowed from Kathak, an Indian classical dance, to express the mysticism of Sufi poetry and music
Manjari says that she works to spread awareness about India’s intangible heritage in dance and music
Manjari Chaturvedi engages in the very essence of Kathak, a dance form that derives its name from the Sanskrit word ‘Katha’, which means a story. She is the creator and only performer of Sufi Kathak in the world and has blazed her path in Indian classical dance.
Indian dance forms, she says are predominantly Bhakti-oriented – Sagun and Nirgun. The first form means that God has a form, while the latter is all about worshiping a God that is formless.
“I explored the Nirgun-bhakti and combined it with Indian classical dance and called it Sufi Kathak. As a dancer, my body is a language and I am communicating to the audience that the Almighty is formless,” tells Manjari Chaturvedi over a call on a languid afternoon.
In a career spanning over 20 years, the legendary dancer has collaborated with around 400 musicians in more than 25 countries, like Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and India. She studied the dance and music forms in the regions related to mystical traditions.
“Creative work comes and goes, but if something has stayed for 20 years then it is relevant. I started in 1998 and now it’s been almost 22 years – I feel that Sufi Kathak is the need of an hour, we need to talk about love, acceptance, and the boundaries created by border, religions, etc. among people,” she says while discussing the need for Sufi Kathak.
A lot of my work, Manjari says, “Will be the part of the history and at the present people might not understand why a Kathak dancer is wearing black and dancing to Baba Bhule Shah, a Punjabi philosopher, and Sufi poet.”
Her dance form is not just unusual, but also has a vision when it comes to empowerment and creating awareness. “Dance is life for me. It’s an expression where I can surrender myself without any fear. If I tell a story about a Sufi Saint or a Tawaif, I do it with full honesty.”
A postgraduate in Environmental Science, she managed to strike a fine balance between art and academics at the insistence of her father, Prof. Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi, a Geophysics professor at IIT Roorkee. “I was in class 10th when I started learning Kathak as a hobby and no one thought that I would take it up as my career. My parents allowed me to think on my terms which gave me the strength to make unconventional choices in my art and be unruffled by criticisms they evoke.”
She adds, “Right from the colour of my costume (she uses a lot of blacks) to compositions (sometimes she dances to qawwalis), have come under intense scrutiny by the purists, who have often made known their displeasure. But isn’t art about individual search and interpretation?”
Manjari draws her inspiration from reading poetry and researching about it. “It’s only when I started working on my dance, did I realise that the treasures that existed in Hindi, Urdu, and Farsi and I started reading poetry for inspiration.”
She supports her statement with a beautiful example, “Baba Bulleh Shah danced on ‘Tere Ishq nachaiyaan kar key thaiyaa thaiyaa’, and for years I’ve read that composition, but couldn’t dance to it. I wasn’t ready to do justice with what he wanted to say. Imagine a man who would dress up as a woman, goes on the streets – what kind of surrender and love you would need to let go of all your inhibitions. I was probably not ready for that sort of surrender. However, now I can understand it better.”
She says that “Dancing and music is not an organised sector.”
“… and there has been no logistical support from our government agencies or organisations. You are on your own and have to build your resources. It took time for people to understand my art form, many opposed it.”
“We still don’t have correct information about ‘Mujra’ performances by courtesans. Everything available is the Bollywood masala version. Our understanding of a courtesan is largely Bollywood influenced,” she tells.
“It shocked me how the data recorded in history is based on gender inequality, the men pursuing these arts became ‘Ustads’ and the women pursuing the same arts became ‘Nautch Girls'.”
The current generations of the erstwhile male court dancers speak about the family lineage whereas generations of the women court dancers live with a sense of shame. “These women never disclose their lineage or any connection with the erstwhile courts. My efforts are to remove the social stigmas associated with the courtesans and give them their respectful place as artistes.”
She explains how the tawaifs were a source of entertainment when there were no televisions or theatres. “Just like you go and watch a movie of your favourite actor or a play at the theatre, these courtesans were doing the same. Now, if I am performing somewhere, that place becomes a ‘Kotha’ – a place where people gather to watch my performance. They pay for the ticket and get entertained for two hours. The word ‘Kotha’ is seen in a bad light, cause Bollywood has taught us so.”
While taking the traditional form of Kathak to a different and unique level by creating her style, Manjari founded the Sufi Kathak Foundation.
“I have around 350 musicians who are associated with Sufi tradition from small towns. One of my Kawwal used to take half the money for every concert and kept a part of his payment with me for his daughter’s wedding. One day, he called me and said ‘Didi, meri beti khatam ho gayi’ (My daughter died) and I was shocked to know how a 17-year-old girl could die. She died of appendicitis. She could have been saved if the artist had money and knowledge.”
“We must remember that an artist is not a beggar. They have performed for 5,000 people at renowned places. In India, there’s no pension or medical support for the artists and this made me start the Sufi Kathak Foundation. We provide them with medicines, financial aid, and even help them in filling their visa forms to help them to go abroad and perform.”
She adds, “During this pandemic, no one spoke about the artists. I started asking people for support and by God's grace we are supporting around 70 families.”
“My focus is on making the lives of these artists better and document all their good work,” she says.
She works to spread awareness about India’s intangible heritage in dance and music. Along with the Foundation, she is working hard to preserve the gradually fading traditions in music.
However, Manjari believes the renewed interest in tradition may bring out the revival of the art forms. “Globally, our dance forms are much sought after,” she says.