News & Notes

A documentary on some legendary Kathak gurus

Striding backwards, digging in the past to bring to the fore the life, the work, the struggle of the great dancers and their art, was the idea behind creating the documentarty, I Can Hear You Dance, by vidushi Susmita Banerjee. If there are no supporting photographs, documenting the period or the region becomes inadequate to do justice not only to their style of dancing, but also to the ambience, type of audience, the use of traditional concepts and ideas, or on their influence on the present-day classical dancing, and of course the social structure as a whole.

Susmita Banerjee is a very senior and acclaimed Kathak dancer, choreographer, researcher and guru, exhaustively trained in the Lucknow gharana by stalwarts like Ramnarayan Mishra, Vijay Shankar, Maya Chatterjee and briefly with Birju Maharaj, under whose guidance she resuscitated the ‘katha shaili’. With a lot of hard work and painstaking effort, she, with her institution Deshapriyo Kolkata Cultural Centre, ventured into the ambitious project of preparing the documentary film,  I can Hear You Dance on four legendary Kathak dancers—the blazing stars of yesteryear, who made a tremendous contribution to Kathak through the guru-sishya parampara, but only a few have received their due. She had been toying with the idea of a documentary ever since she worked on a project on the compositions of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, but unfortunately, it did not see the light of the day.

Screened in West Bengal Government’s film complex, Nandan III, in  Kolkata recently, the viewers saw the life, the dance and a great deal of the society in which these legendary gurus dedicated their lives to their art. It was inaugurated by the distinguished Kathak guru of the city, dancer Bandana Sen.

The film is an amalgamation of facts with live programmes, some fine presentation of events, shots of teaching, excerpts of interviews from the All India Radio and the skilled and precise detailing in the articulate voice and language of Susmita Banerjee. The script by her is immaculate, conjuring up the well-tuned mode of narration with perfect diction. Taken from the work of the artists, the pictures represent an idealisation or perfection of their subjects. They show movements of the dances themselves in their spirit, without the usual limitations imposed by the physique. The only exceptions are the two outdoor shots—the introduction by Susmita, while walking in a lush green garden and teaching the students under a tree, and the impactful conclusion of walking up a rough slope after the short ode to the Sun God, the rider of the divine chariot—by a well-trained group of dancers.

The documentary is divided into four sections,  Roshnai, Kavyavaan, Chitrayan and Sadhana. A straightforward presentation with no cinematographic delights, the film passes through the lens of any cultural power or spectatorship inputs. Therefore it does not alienate the viewers from the subject but captures the attention to equip their conception with ample knowledge of how to present the art of yesteryear Kathak in their own way.

Calcuttans would immerse in interest with Roshnai, the part on Roshan Kumari, due to her long association with Calcuttta, especially for the wonderful shots of her dancing in Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece, Jalsaghar. The pictures also, while supervising her seniormost disciple Mukta Joshi, displays her strength as a guru.

Kavyavaan is a fascinating world of Lacchu Maharaj, his abhinaya,  his gamut of ballets, film choreographic techniques led by the soulful lyrics of the hypnotic songs in cult films like Mahal, Pakeezah and Mughale-Azam, spiced by the immortal moments of acclaimed actors. Mention of Ramadevi Lacchu Maharaj’s role and reasons for presenting kavit-parans are some of the few examples of the useful information for the present-day dancers. His disciple Paullumi Biswanath Mukherjee, shared an interview of Lacchuji (AIR) from her personal collection and clippings of nautch girls and their place in society, courtesy Nrityadarpana. Unfortunately a major portion of this section was missed out because of very low sound.

Chitrayan and Sadhana were engaging portions, but viewing was strenuous due to a technical glitch. Chitra Venugopal’s valuable narration was drowned most of the time. Rohini Bhate’s presentation and narration by her senior disciple were from the archives of Nrityabharati Kathak Dance Academy, Pune.

The film is packed with information for academic interest and is a big step forward in the world of Kathak. The success of the documentary as a whole in conveying an impression of the richness of Kathak presented by the legends of yesteryear is asserted most emphatically by those to whom the dance was true worship, wholly consistent with their originals in point of the character. And Susmita Banerjee uses the dancing of these few legends whose work she could access as a basis on which to compose a translation of their point of view and habits of thought.

Making of the documentary

Susmita Banerjee explains her purpose and motivation: “Dance being a visual art form, I have always wanted to capture that moment, which was not possible on stage—the magic gets created and then gets finished off with the end of every performance, whereas a film preserves and captures those magic moments. This had always been a deep-seated desire to freeze those magic moments, those thought processes behind the creation, but I could not find the right moment to do so. In 2020, Covid came as a window to let this long waiting dream become a reality. As a kathakar, I have always searched for Kathak stalwarts’ work, but what I got was very sketchy. Also, as a literature student, I felt I could combine the aesthetics, the technicalities, the challenges and the triumphs of a kathakar in a more vivid and lucid way before an audience through my documentary. For me, this was coming to “sam”. 

The choice of dancers was personal. The documentary on Roshan Kumari was like walking down memory lane says Sushmita, as the dancer brought in many fond memories about her interaction with Susmita’s mother. “My guru Pandit Vijay Shankar would say that abhinaya cannot be taught, but Pandit Lacchu Maharaj was almost playing with the teaching process of abhinaya, which fascinated me, hence this documentary,” says Sushmita.

“And Chitrayan on guru Chitra Venugopal is also nostalgic and personal to me. I had the chance to learn from her during her brief stay in Kolkata for a year or two. That was the time when I had already lost my bade guruji— Pandit Ram Narayan Mishra, I was a young girl of 12 years and had been learning Kathak from the age of four, but for the first time had the opportunity to learn a composition Sree Nanda Nanda, where she gave me a detailed description of the raga, the rhythmical pattern, the mood and the meaning which mesmerised me completely.”

The documentary on guru Rohini Bhate saw her compartmentalising the syllabus into practical and theoretical portions and encouraging her disciples to create their own compositions, which Susmita found was unique and noteworthy.

With a treasure trove of information, some rare shots, and its academic value for dance studies, the documentary would do better if reworked with the soundtracks. Conceived and conceptualised by Susmita, the project had no professional help and she worked only with her students.

“I was so focused and obsessed with making the documentary that the shortcomings of not having a cinematographer worked to my advantage as I scripted the full documentary, and the flow of the narrative found its natural course to touch the heartbeat of the documentary and carried on with the available resources. Many mistakes happened while shooting, for which re-shooting was necessary, and I, along with my three senior disciples, addressed the problem areas and ironed out the glitches. Due to Covid, we could not travel to places such as Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru to interview the disciples. Instead, I resorted to the digital world. While doing this documentary to showcase the out-of-the-box modern thought process which could easily blend with Kathak, we wanted a video, more information, but sadly enough, our repeated emails went unanswered.” 

Susmita’s shots were captured by Tulika Panja, and needless to say, the pictures and the surroundings were of excellent quality and simply beautiful. Music credits go to Jerry Goldsmith and the documentary was edited by Debapriya Samanta. The pictures of the nautch girls were by Bellnoy and Getty and the paintings were from Susmita Banerjee’s personal collection. Acknowledgement also to Debashish Mukherjee and Sangita Sarkar.