Anjani Ambegaokar, who will bring Anjani's Kathak Dance of India to the Bryant Intermediate School on Saturday, March 16, reveres the 4,000-year-old art form, but believes it can also be relevant to today's problems.
She has concertized in India, Europe, Canada, the Middle East and throughout the United States. Highlight appearances have included the Olympics Arts Festival of Los Angeles, the Statue of Liberty Celebration in New York, the Berlin Festival and the Kathak Festival in New Delhi."We moved to California in 1979, and I started my dance school, Sundar Kala Kendra, in 1981," she said, speaking via telephone from her home in Walnut, Calif. "I have 80 students, in six different branches. Mostly they are second-generation Indian.
"I am completely devoted to Indian dance eight days a week," she laughed. "I am fortunate and honored to be on the California arts touring program, and subsidized by the city of Los Angeles for many partnership programs. This year I have an NEA fellowship to create some new dances, and I think I am the first Indian to have such a grant.
"My company travels a lot, and I love touring - it is a joy. The emotional human relationships are most gratifying to the artist - to move an old person to tears, or have a child come up and shyly say, `You look so pretty.'
"Also, it's very important at this point in my career to address social issues we as Indians face in this country, to look within myself, to understand and experiment. In Kathak dance, the gods Krishna and Rama will always be there - the literature and tradition. But we like to do programs that show people expressing emotions. I don't want to stray from my own dance, but I do find different hand movements, not originally there or not used for awhile.
"Recently I choreographed `Mothers and Daughters,' with music from `Passages' by Philip Glass, costumed in contemporary Indian clothing. It's about first-generation Indian mothers with second-generation daughters, showing the joys of being here in America, yet the tribulations of raising a child here, both the positive and negative aspects.
"We begin with the ending, the girl leaving the house to get married, reviewing the events of growing up that led to this moment. First comes the baby's name - what shall it be, traditional Indian, or a more easily understood American name? The hassles over loud music, talking on the phone, not appreciating Indian dance music - all teenagers go through these things, but Indians more so.
"The dance has had mixed reviews, because departure from tradition is not pleasing to all. But it was a thing about which I needed to make a statement. It was exciting to me, I could not believe it could be done in Kathak."
The name "Kathak" is derived from Katha, meaning a story, said Ambegaokar, and a Kathakar is an artist presenting a story through the art form Kathak. This ancient art traces back 4,000 years to the time of the deity Ramayan, and many of its dance dramas honor him.
"In the beginning, the storytellers traveled from temple to temple, telling about the gods," Ambegaokar explained. "Then they began to add simple hand movements and facial expressions to enhance the story. Over the years these families of storytellers were taken into the courts of the maharajahs, then the stories began to be secular also.
"Principles of the dance were compiled and recorded in the `Natya Sastra' 3,000 years ago. This very old book relates the science of dance, drama and music, and all present day art forms in India trace back to it.
"Most important elements of Kathak dance are the angular body movements, and dynamic spinning. Kathak is the only Indian dance that involves body spinning, similar to ballet. The hand movements are very strong and geometric in shape. The footwork is extremely complex and intricate, and we wear at least 100 bells on each ankle. Kathak has certain similiarities to flamenco, which is derived from Kathak, carried by the Gypsies from India through the Middle East to Morocco and Spain.
"Very important is the expressive aspect of this dance, its storytelling, for which we use many subtle, stylized facial expressions, or aba abhinaya. We don't highlight the finger movements, or mudra, as much as Bharata Natyam: We use the whole body. For example, if I were to show the moon rising, I wouldn't do it with mudra, but my whole body would curve into the crescent moon shape."
Ambegaokar was born and raised in Baroda, in western India. Her father was a physician and her mother a school teacher, very interested in music, dance and all arts. "I started dancing before I can remember, studying Bharata Natyam form," she said. "I performed for the maharaja of Baroda when I was 3. But at 7, I switched to Kathak under my guru, Pandit Sundarlalyee Gangani.
"Kathak fits my personality better, I am more comfortable doing it. Pandit Sundarlalyee is still alive, and he's a very strong force for me, my husband and my daugher. Kathak, or any prescribed dance form, is not an easy tradition to maintain. Gurus expect a lot from you, not just dance, but about the whole substance of life, and it's not everyone's cup of tea to absorb all this."
Ambegaokar has a master's degree from the M.S. College of Baroda, which is unusual, since not many dancers go through the educational aspects of the performing arts. Only three or four cities in India offer such a course. "Besides lessons from my guru, I learned Kathak history and origin and studied all other forms of Indian dance, to know and appreciate them, plus ballet and modern dance," she said. "I did a paper about Martha Graham for my M.A. You also had to study physics, psychology, aesthetics and philosophy of India."
Ambegaokar came to America 24 years ago to marry her husband, an Indian then studying for a master's degree at the University of Wisconsin. She lived in Chicago 10 years, earning an MBA from the University of Chicago, working as an accountant, and teaching Kathak at various colleges, before moving to California.
Saturday's program, which begins at 7:30 p.m., will range from strict, traditional Kathak to Jugalbandi, more informal Kathak favored at the courts of maharajahs and emperors - "very spontaneous, with drummers; like a competition, with questions and answers," she said.
Some pieces will honor the gods Ganesha, Shiva, Krishna and Rama. Ghazal depicts the man-woman relationship, and there will be a dance suitable to the festival Holi, dating from the period of Krishna, which celebrates springtime in India. "It welcomes the spring colors, the changing of colors, and in India people spray colors at each other," she explained. Also programmed is a dance-drama about Krishna and the vicious cobra, symbolizing the struggle between good and evil.
Tickets from $5-$9 are available in advance at Gandhi's Restaurant, or at the door.