Celebrating our diverse cultures
Heritage Day in South Africa is celebrated widely with a braai to the extent that September 24th is called National Braai Day. But given our diverseness – our famous rainbowness – there is so much more to our cultural landscape than charred meat.
Consider, for example, how the Indian community has spiced up our collective heritage in multiple ways.
From food (think of the Durban food scene and what probably comes to mind is not boerewors but curry and bunny chow), to architecture as evident in the splendid temples and mosques gracing the townscapes, and festivals like the Durban Festival of Chariots, Indian traditions have brought colour, vivacity, and taste sensations without which we’d all be the poorer.
And then there’s dance: styles that are quintessentially Indian, but also as much a part of the South African cultural experience as are ballroom dancing, kwaito (pantsula) and langarm (sakkie-sakkie).
Indian classical dance
“There are eight official classical dance styles in India and they’re performed widely and regularly in India as well as different parts of the world,” says Manesh Maharaj, founder and principal of the Durban-based Kala Darshan Institute of Classical Music and Dance. “Of those eight, three styles are taught and practiced in South Africa and play and an integral role in our country’s cultural soil. They are Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi, and Kathak.”
A famous Kathakar himself, Manesh was destined to dance. “From as early as I can remember I felt a profound connection to Indian classical music and dance in particular. Even at a young age I could tell what was classical and what was not. I could even assess the calibre of an artist. It was an innate ability and I knew exactly what I wanted.”
I learned dance at ‘Nritya Darshan’ under the guidance of my Kathak Guru, Sushri Madhurita Sarang. This was through a tradition known as ‘Guru-shishya parampara’ where the student trains privately and in very close proximity with the Guru.Manesh Maharaj
Recognising their son’s talent, his parents enrolled him in a local arts school. “It gave me a strong foundation but could not take me further as my teachers at that time had a limited knowledge of the art. They encouraged me to continue my training in India.”
And so Manesh travelled to Nritya Darshan in Mumbai where he perfected his style under the private guidance of his Kathak Guru, Sushri Madhurita Sarang. In all, he spent seven and a half years training and performing in India.
Not being a fundi on Indian culture, I ask Manesh if Bollywood films incorporate classical music and dance styles.
“Because of its popularity Bollywood is probably the first association made with the Indian community. It is, however, not a true reflection of Indian culture. I firmly believe that it is the classical and folk arts that afford a community its respect and true identity,” Manesh says. “Dance in Bollywood incorporates every dance style one can think of. This mash up has developed into a genre of its own. It is specifically designed for mass appeal in order to make a hit movie.”
Bollywood and Hollywood – both dedicated to achieving box office success and devoted to entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that. We all need escapism – especially in tough times such as now. However, Indian classical dance has deeper purpose. “It aims to help the viewer transcend the material world and enter a spiritual realm. It is meant to educate, enlighten, and most of all elevate the audience to a higher consciousness.”
History of Kathak
To understand this better, it helps to know something of the history of Kathak. “It’s a sacred performing art which is steeped in divinity and spirituality,” Manesh explains, adding that the word Kathak is derived from the sankrit term ‘katha’ which means story. “The dance form is based on an ancient art of story-telling known as ‘katha vachan’ that dates back to 400 BCE and originated in the remote temples of Northern India.
The practitioners of Kathak at that time were Hindu male priests (storytellers) belonging to the Goud Brahmin caste. These nomadic bards (priests) were attached to temples and travelled the land during religious festivals depicting stories from Hindu scripture through the medium of music, mime, and dance. The sole purpose of the art form was to guide the common people towards a righteous path of life, to transcend a material existence and embrace a spiritual path.”
Change came with the Mughal invasion in India, around 1560, when Kathak moved from the temples to the courtrooms of the Mughal emperors. “From a sacred art form, used to revere the gods, it transformed into a chamber art purely for the entertainment of the emperor and his court,” Manesh continues. “Kathak underwent a major metamorphosis during this time. Female dancers were introduced and a competitive spirit developed within the art form giving rise to a high degree of technical brilliance and skill.”
Technique of the dance
Explaining the technique of the dance, Manesh says, “Kathak employs intricate rhythms that manifest through footwork, swift pirouettes, and brisk movements. All the effort is aesthetically veiled by finesse, grace, poise, and subtlety. Deeply emotive themes and storytelling are enacted by the soloist who portrays all the characters by her/himself. Although Kathak is primarily a solo art form, it lends itself equally well to group presentations and dance dramas.”
Integral to the dance are the sumptuous costumes and unmistakeable style of music. “The design of the costume is meant to compliment the dance form. For example, female dancers wear a full-flared skirt which beautifully flares out while performing pirouettes. The ‘Angarkha’ (for men) – a long shirt-like garment ending at the knees with side slits ̶ does the same thing. Since traditional Kathak depicts the stories of Gods and Goddesses, Kathakars appropriately adorn themselves with traditional regalia and make-up to resemble deities. This may not apply within the context of a contemporary theme. There is also a difference between costumes from the temple and court traditions. Depending on the theme of the dancer’s performance, he or she will dress accordingly”.
The accompanying music for Kathak is known as Hindustani Shastriya Sangeet (North Indian classical music). It is therefore beneficial for a Kathakar to have a musical background. “In fact most Kathakars are proficient either in singing or playing an instrument,” explains Manesh who, while studying dance in Mumbai, also studied Hindustani classical music at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan school of performing arts, where he obtained his Sangeet Visharad (B.MUS) graduating in Sitar and Vocal music.
Harmony through artManesh Maharaj
The history, traditions, and techniques of the dance have culminated today in what Manesh describes as a beautiful amalgam of the temple and court traditions. “Kathak is the only classical dance form that presents a strong symbiosis between two unique philosophies, i.e. Hinduism and Islam. It is a perfect example of two religions coexisting in harmony through art”.
Though shaped by ancient traditions and philosophies of another country, Kathak finds relevance in South Africa too. “Prominent contemporary dance choreographers have effectively and aesthetically incorporated Indian classical dance into their productions reflecting the cultural diversity of SA as well as addressing pertinent issues that affect South Africans,” Manesh says. “I have collaborated with various institutions around SA in this regard. I work very closely with the Durban-based Flatfoot contemporary dance company under the artistic direction of Dr. Lliane Loots, who so beautifully merges African contemporary dance with Kathak. Very few choreographers are able to do this and I feel very comfortable under her direction.
Dance is the hidden language of the soul, of the bodyMartha Graham
“At the same time I honour my role as a solo classical Kathak artist with the utmost respect. As an old soul it gives me immense joy to travel back in time to an ancient era as I simultaneously experience the modern world. Kathak allows me to relish both”.
I’m reminded of what the great Martha Graham once said. “Dance is the hidden language of the soul, of the body.”
Until the pandemic, Manesh conducted workshops and lecture demonstrations for various institutions around South Africa and abroad. Since Covid hit, his teaching and work has shifted to a digital platform, which has further contemporised the dance and has opened up Kala Darshan to students from different parts of the world. “Although my students are predominantly Indian, I also have many students outside the Indian community”.
This emphasises that art, regardless of specific roots, forms, and styles, is a universal language. I think of what Manesh said about achieving harmony through art.
It’s a notion which carries immense potential. In a world riven by conflict and opposing ideologies, harmony through art is something worth weaving into the cultural fabric of any society.
On Heritage Day, let’s dance.