Its name should have been Natwari Nritya
Vaishali Trivedi: It is a privilege to talk to you. We are at the Kadamb Centre for dance and music founded by legendary choreographer and Kathak guru Padma Bhushan Srimati Kumudini Lakhia-ji. Kumud behn, I want to start with your childhood. How was it growing up in Mumbai?
Kumudini Lakhia: I came from a Maharashtrian family, Jayakar, and it was a kind of middle-class, higher middle-class family where the accent was more on people becoming lawyers and doctors, except for my mother. My mother was a singer, professionally. She used to sing on All India Radio and she had a lot of HMV records cut. So she was very keen that I should also be trained in the arts. So first she sent me to school to sing, but my voice was hoarse, so she said, ‘No, no, no, you will not sing.’ And the teacher was not happy with me either.
Then she sent me to dance school. And there I used to dance with all the other girls until one day we went to see a movie, my parents and me. It was a Devika Rani movie, Achhut Kanya (1936). In that there was a dance, and the dance was done by—you know this actor Mahmood, his father Mumtaz Ali, he was dancing in that. I still remember that dance, ‘Le lo chudiyan le lo’. And when I came home I repeated the whole dance. I was only six or seven or so. The whole dance I repeated and my mother was flabbergasted. She said, ‘This girl is going to be a dancer.’ So then she started taking me to all the dance classes there were.
V.T.: So you learnt all the different styles.
K.L.: Yes. Any dance class she would find she would take me to. Bharatanatyam, ballet, Spanish dance, everything. And then she found one teacher and she said, ‘Yeh sab dance ka kya karenge, ballet-wallet seekh ke, phir baad mein kya karenge iska. Bharatanatyam mein toh hamein pata nahin chalta hai inki language kya hai’ (What will you do learning all these different dances, ballet-wallet, what will you do with it later. And with Bharatanatyam we don’t even understand their language.)
So then the Kathak teacher arrived and he said, ‘I know one very good guru.’ Then that guru came but I didn’t like the guru, so I used to run away from him. He was quite ugly and I used to be frightened of him. Then she said, this is not a very good idea. If she doesn’t like it, if children don’t like to do anything, then they will never learn.
Then what happened was, my mother became pregnant and she went to stay in her mother’s house because she underwent some problems and that was next to the house of Narayan Rao Vyas, the great singer. So every day she used to go to Narayan Rao Vyas to practise her music and she used to take me along. Now I used to get bored over there. So I used to make a lot of noise on the first floor.
So one day Narayan Rao Vyas’s brother, Shankar Rao Vyas, who lived on the first floor (Narayan Rao Vyas lived on the second floor), he caught hold of me and he brought me upstairs.
In Marathi he says, ‘Whose little baby is this, making so much noise?’
So my mother said, ‘I am so sorry. Chup, stay here quietly. Don’t make noise.’
I used to be very fidgety. So Narayan Rao Vyas said, ‘Let us find something for her to do.’ So he found a dance teacher, Mohan Prasad-ji from Bikaner and he took out some space in another room, and there I used to dance while my mother used to practise. And this guru I liked. I liked him. Lovely white long hair and he was so kind and he was so clean, I used to like him. So I started learning dance from him. Then after my brother was born we went back to our house and so that stopped.
V.T.: But did you continue? I mean you went to Sundar Prasad-ji I think.
K.L.: No, there is another story before that. Before that there is one more story. My father was an engineer. So he used to build houses for people and one day he was building a house for a person who was at that time a famous film star in Bombay, Ashiq Hussain. He was like the Dilip Kumar of that time. And one day my father took me along and he said, ‘Oh! Beti kya karti hai.’ ‘Dance-wance, Kathak.’ ‘Accha! Dance karti hai, toh main sikhaoonga usko.’
So then Ashit Hussain started teaching me. That was another gharana. That Janakiprasad gharana.
V.T.: You went to his house?
K.L.: No, he used to come to my house in the afternoon. Big car, coming with flowers, with chocolates. But then the neighbours started talking about my mother, that in the afternoon some man comes in the car with flowers (laughter). So my mother said, ‘This is not….’ So that was the end of that.
V.T.: But your family was also, I remember your mother’s maiden name was Lawn.
K.L.: Yes, that was very funny. My mother’s father was working in Baroda with the Raja sahib, with the king. And so they were very influenced by English, because the Maharaja of Baroda kept going to England. So when my mother and her sisters were born, her father used to call them by English names. Like, when my eldest aunt was born, at that time Queen Victoria had come to Bombay, so he called her Jubilee—it was her Jubilee year. So her eldest sister was called Jubilee. Then after the textile industry started in England, some new materials used to come. So there was a material called lawn that came to India, thin cotton. So my mother was called Lawn.
V.T.: But she continued with ‘Lawn’ after her marriage?
K.L.: Not after marriage. Then another sister was born. At that time, this Evening in Paris perfume had come to India. So this other sister was called Paris. And they had these names, Jubilee, Paris, Lawn. Then when they started going to school, the other girls used to tease them. So the eldest aunt Jubilee, she said, ‘This is nonsense, we are going to change our names.’ So they changed their names to Shakuntala, Leela and….
Then there was a system that when a girl got married, the new family gave her a name. My mother’s name was Leela. When she got married, my family gave her the name of Suprabha but she did not like it. So she kept the name Leela. She said, ‘I don’t like Suprabha, my name is Leela.’ Because at that time she had already made a name as a singer, as Leela Rao. The only change she made was that she became Leela Jayakar.
V.T.: She continued….
K.L.: She continued with Leela. She continued her music. Every month she had one programme.
V.T.: Your father was very…
K.L.: My father was very cooperative. He used to drive her to the auditorium.
V.T.: At home you used to have many musicians….
K.L.: Yes. That is my grandfather. He was a great connoisseur of music, and he had an Esraj which he used to play very badly, but he used to play. He used to play very besura (tonelessly), but he loved music. So once every three or four months we used to have a music concert at home and some singer would come and all night they would have a party and sing and all that. So it was a house which encouraged music a lot.
My dance—my mother used to take me after school, take me to this class, that class, then she suddenly found one class in Chowpatty. We had to take a train from Khar, then take a bus and then go to Chowpatty, but we used to do that two or three times a week.
V.T.: Who was your teacher there?
K.L.: Sundar Prasad-ji. Somebody said, ‘He is a big guru and you take your daughter there.’ So my mother said, Okay. She was very insistent that I should learn dance.
V.T.: She was very sure that you were going be a dancer.
K.L.: She wanted me to dance because when she saw me dance that Mumtaz Ali’s dance, she said, ‘Is bacchi mein kucch hai.’ So then she used to take me to Sundar Prasad-ji’s class. Then the war started, and my father being an engineer, he got a lot of contracts from the Army to build army hospitals, schools, barracks, all that. So he had to move to Delhi. So we moved to Delhi. How did we move to Delhi? Dance Teacher toh chahiye na! In Delhi she found out that there is nothing. Delhi is a rookha-sukha (dry) city. There is nothing in Delhi. There are no arts in Delhi. So she went to Sundar Prasad-ji and told him, ‘We are going to Delhi, give me a guru, dance teacher.’ So he said, ‘Yes, yes, my nephew has come from the village only today, take him with you.’ So we took him, Radhey lal-ji. Afterwards he made a name as Radhe Lal-ji Misra. So we took him, one tablawala, one singer, one big family moved to Delhi.
Then it continued, the singing, dance, but then what about studies. What to do about studies? We will have to go to school? Schools were looked for. Then my father discovered that there is a school in Lahore, a public school, and it is a very good school. A lot of girls from all over India were there and it was an excellent British school. So I was sent off to Lahore. I started settling down there. After some time I got settled.
And one day the peon came to the classroom and said I was being called by the principal. I was so scared, Why was the principal calling me. I went to the principal’s office and my mother was sitting there. I was shocked. I thought they have come to take me away from school, it is good, I will have a holiday from school. But she had impressed upon the principal that there should definitelybe dance in the school programme.
V.T.: In an English school?
K.L.: In an English School. She said, ‘A school in India and you don’t know anything about Indian dance, Indian music, Indian arts. You must introduce that because you run a school for Indian girls.’
So the teachers showed her the daily curriculum and asked, ‘Where is the space?’
‘Every day you have this half hour for religious studies. What is religious studies? What do you do?’
‘The Hindu girls, they read the Gita, and the Muslim girls read the Quran, and those who don’t want to do that, I take a class called Contemplation. I read from great people’s writings.’
So my mother said, ‘Gita-vita se kuchh hota nahin, unko dance-music sikhao’ (Nothing comes of the Gita and such. Teach them dance and music.)
So that is how dance classes started in my school.
V.T.: So who taught you?
K.L.: My Radhe Lal ji. She got him employed there. She had brought him along.
V.T.: So he stayed in the school or in a room somewhere.
K.L.: She got him a room outside and she settled him in Lahore, my mother. And he used to come to the school, teach me. He had nothing to do. Twice a week going to the school, that’s all. That is how Kathak started in Lahore. He used to teach there. And so it went on. I finished my matriculation in school. But when I finished—then again one day the peon had come to call me from my class. This was after a few years. ‘Principal saab is calling you.’
I thought, ‘Okay, my mother would be sitting there.’ I went.
But the principal said, ‘No, your mother is very sick and you have to go home. Your father said you have to go home.’ Actually my mother had passed away. ‘So you have to go home.’ So I was sent home.
And this was the one week before my matriculation exams. Just one week before.
I said, ‘I don’t want to go home, there are my exams.’
She said, ‘No, you have to go. Your father said you have to go.’
‘What about my exams?’
‘You will come back and do your exams. I will see to that.’
So I went home and my mother had passed away. But in two days’ time my father sent me back because I had to do my exams. I did my exams. I came eighth in the whole board and first in English. Went back. At that time my father was settled in Allahabad. He was building something for the army, barracks and houses and schools in Allahabad. I went back. Now what to do? Now he did not want to send me away. He wanted me to stay at home because my brother was only seven years old. So he did not want to send me away.
So what to do in Allahabad? There was one agriculture college there. So okay, let me do agriculture.
V.T.: Was that your choice also, to go into agriculture?
K.L.: No, I didn’t really have a choice.
V.T.: You wanted to be something else?
K.L.: I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I didn’t know. I was too young. I was only 13 or 14. At the age of 13 I finished my matriculation. And so should I do agriculture? All right, I will do agriculture.
V.T.: You must have been the only girl there.
K.L.: Yes. Forty students in one class. I was the only girl and 39 boys. And they used to harass me like anything. I mean we had to cycle to other places to look at crops or to look at the soil or to look at… and they used to remove the air from the cycle, to walk back with me. Then I was alone with three or four boys surrounding me. So it was so funny. I had been to a girl’s school and I didn’t have brothers at home. My brother was seven years old. So I didn’t know what boys think and how they talk and all. I used to find them very dirty and so I used to tell my father at night that they say this and that. So my father said, ‘Don’t bother about that. There are always two meanings to a word in English. So you take the better meaning of the word.’ And things went on like this, and I completed my degree in agriculture.
V.T.: Actually you performed Kathak at a very young age?
K.L.: Yes. While I was in Allahabad, they used to be a very good conference, Allahabad Music Conference. It was very famous. So every year I used to perform there.
V.T.: Do you remember anything, who all performed with you?
K.L.: Vedi-ji. Then this big man, Omkarnath-ji. And all these stars used to perform. Three day festival. Omkarnath-ji usually performed in the morning. Then Vedi-ji, who played the rudra veena—all these great people.
V.T.: You enjoyed performing?
K.L.: Yes. We were little at that time. These people were great.
V.T.: But at the age of 17 you went on a world tour.
K.L.: I will tell you how it happened. So then I passed my degree in agriculture. The dance teacher used to stay in my house all the time. He was part of the family, the dance teacher. The dancing continued. And as my mother was very keen on that, I thought that for my mother’s sake I should not give it up. There used to be such a big photo of my mother.
V.T.: She was a beautiful woman, no?
K.L.: Yes, beautiful. ‘Dance kiya?’ she used to tell me from the photograph. Anyway I passed the degree in agriculture also. Now what to do? Then one advertisement came in Poona for a job in agriculture. So my father and I went. The interview took place, and everything went well. I did not get the job. Why didn’t I get it?
‘Such a small girl, so many men, it is not a good thing to have a young girl working here with the office full of men. We can’t take that risk.’
We came back. In the station I was walking along slowly, somebody tapped me on my shoulder, ‘Kumud!’ I used to be called Kumud. ‘Kumud, what are you doing?’ My father used to call me Kumud. So all his friends used to call me Kumud. So this was a friend of my father, one lady called Comolata Dutta, Comolata Banerjee. She was a musician. She had learnt music in Paris.
V.T.: Western music?
K.L.: Western music. Piano. Yes, a friend of my father’s.
And she said, ‘What are you doing nowadays?’
I said, ‘I am doing nothing.’
‘You know that great dancer Ram Gopal?’
‘Yes, of course, I know of him.’
‘He wants a girl from here. He wants me to send a girl who can dance well. Would you like to go?’
I said yes.
In one week’s time I was in London. And that is how my profession in dance started.
V.T.: I think your Dadiji gave the money for the ticket? Is it not?
K.L.: Yes. My grandfather.
V.T.: And you stayed there for a very long time?
K.L.: With Ram Gopal? First time two and a half years.
V.T.: Two and a half years?
K.L.: First time two and a half years because we went on tour to Scandinavia, places like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland. And then we went to America, we went to France, Germany, Italy.
V.T.: The whole of Europe?
V.T.: And what kind of dance you used to do?
K.L.: Everything. I mean I was doing Bharatanatyam with him. He used to teach me something.
V.T.: You might have met a lot of interesting people there.
K.L.: Lots. But on my second tour with him. That was my first tour with him when I only knew Kathak. And then he used to teach me to join in the group dances. Whatever they taught me, I used to do, join in the group dances. He had a big company of dancers. And then after that came back to India and I went to his house in Bangalore. There he taught me proper Bharatanatyam. Not he but Krishna Rao, Chandrabhag and Krishna Rao. Then they taught me proper dancing.
V.T.: Mrinalini behn also had the same teacher?
K.L.: No. Mrinalini behn had Meenakshi Sundaram. She learnt at Ram Gopal’s time, senior to me. I came much later. She was anestablished dancer by the time I started learning Bharatanatyam. And she had a big company.
V.T.: So you drifted to Bharatanatyam?
K.L.: Yes, I shifted to Bharatanatyam then. I learnt Bharatanatyam from Krishna Rao. Alarrippu, Jatiswaram, Thillanna everything, all the sabdams, padams, everything.
And then Ram had a second tour. So in the second tour I used to do Thillana with him. There is a photograph of that. And with Ram I learnt a lot. Before that I used to be a dancer. He said it is not enough to be a dancer. You have to be an artist. You have to know the difference between the artisan and an artist. An artisan has the skill. But when you use that skill for creativity and to put yourself into that, your soul into that, your mind into that, your intelligence, there has to be a kind of judicious balance between your mental and physical energies for you to become an artist. You can’t just be dancing away, taking turns, stamping your feet and all that. Even monkeys can do that. So that is what I learnt from him, how to dance for myself. Before that whenever I danced my mother would say, ‘Come on, dance, guests have come. Show them the dance.’ So it was all monkey dance.
V.T.: You were also introduced to choreography in certain sense.
K.L.: No, I was never introduced to choreography. But he used to do some choreography. So I used to learn from him how he is doing, how he is using but choreography I learnt from watching a lot of dance in the west. Spanish dance, Ballets, beautiful ballets, I saw Jesus and Swan Lake and all the ballets. All the ballets I saw in London, every ballet and I saw how they used space. How everything is important in a dance form. How costumes and what-not, how the makeup is important, how the music is important, how rehearsing a ballet is important. How to practise, how to prepare yourself and the packaging of it and the presentation of it, which Kathak never had. Kathak never had this, clothes were shabby. They didn’t know how to come onto the stage. They didn’t know how to talk to the audience. Chalo ji, chalo, aisa karo, waisa karo. Very informal you could say. But in the west everything was very formal. It was a show. And Ram Gopal was a showman. He was not just an artist. He was also a showman. He knew how to dress, how to make up and everything.
V.T.: Beautiful costumes also.
K.L.: Beautiful costumes you see. And then there was going to be at the theatre in the British, in London they were to be at the theatre in London. And there for the opening of the theatre they wanted an Indian ballet. So Ram decided to do the Taj Mahal and we did the whole Taj Mahal. And for that the first thing he did was ask somebody to do the sets. There was one lady, Frieda Harris, a big painter in London. She did the sets. The costumes were also made in London by a British designer. And then he had a music composer from India, who never arrived. By that time my husband-to-be, Rajnikant Lakhia, had been coming to our rehearsals because he was at the Lincoln’s Inn learning law. But he was very fond of music, so he used to come a lot to listen to the music and to dance.
V.T.: Was it love at first sight?
K.L.: No. I knew him seven years before I married him. So he used to come a lot. So Ram said, why you don’t do the music? And he did the music.
He used to play the sarod. And he had learnt western music.
V.T.: He was there to do something else.
K.L.: No, he was at Lincoln’s Inn to do law. He is a bar-at-law. He was a bar-at-law. But he used to love Indian music and so he used to come and he was learning western music there. And so Ram said, why you don’t do the music? So it was a challenge. And he said, Okay. So he did the music for the whole ballet which was quite good. And because he did the music, he was there every day, every single day he was there. So we became friends and then from the friends to….but it was seven years before we got married.
V.T.: He proposed to you somewhere in…
K.L.: I don’t know. I think on the ship coming back home.
V.T.: I just want to ask you that you travelled everywhere with Ram Gopal till the end. It was a period when there was a lot of…Second World War happened…Any particular memories of those performances in the countries you went?
K.L.: We were touring in Germany just after the war and every building in Germany was like this, propped up. Germany was very badly bombed and in Berlin when we used to go and perform there, still we used to go and perform, the houses used to be full. You know why? Because the Germans had gone through this terrible war and they had seen only greys and black and smoke and those colours. So when they saw the Indian dances with these lovely colours, it was wonderful for them, for their eyes, for their spirit to see all these beautiful colours and all that. So they used to love it. They used to come back again and again to watch us. We did a whole season in Germany. This was just after the war but Germany was poor after the War. We used to go in the train. Little children used to run after the train and the restaurant people used to throw bread at them. This is something we see in India today after 60 years of independence. Look at Germany today. But I have seen that Germany.
And another incident was when we were in Sweden in Stockholm we did a whole month there. Whole month, full house. Then when we went away they wanted us back again. Then they couldn’t get a theatre. So they got a circus theatre where they do circus. So we used to go to the dressing room like this because it used to smell of elephants and lions. The whole thing was stinking of animals. Anyway we did another two weeks there.
Then in Norway there was so much snow that we had to go on sledges to the theatre. Dogs. We had to go on sledges to the theatre. There used to be snow right up to, almost to the stage.
V.T.: Everybody lived together in a house or…
K.L.: No, we used to live in hotels. But after the war in Switzerland and Germany and all we used to live in hotels where there were no bathrooms. So to have a bath we had to go to these common bathrooms. There used to be common bathrooms for everybody. You pay a little and have a bath. So we had to go there. There were no bathrooms in our hotels to have a bath. Water shortage. There was shortage of water. So all these things we have experienced it because this was just after the war.
In England they used to give us coupons. One egg a week, one little piece of butter a week and 100 grams of sweets for one week. We had to have coupons. There was no meat. It was only rabbit meat. Maybe we should tell the Dadri people.
V.T.: So after finishing that you came back and got married.
K.L.: No, I did not get married. I came back. I went again to stay in Bangalore with Ram. And then after my husband-to-be finished his law and became a barrister, then he came back to India and then we got married.
V.T.: Then you got married and settled down in Mumbai.
K.L.: Yes, we settled down in Bombay.
V.T.: And then Shriraj bhai was born.
K.L.: Shriraj bhai was born in, I got married in 1952, Shriraj was born in 1956.
V.T.: And then you thought of starting dance very seriously and thought you could choreograph.
K.L.: Yes, I thought of doing….no, at that time I was doing all kind of fusion, little bit of Bharatanatyam, little bit of this, little bit of that. So once I was with some friends, Mulk Raj Anand and all and he said, ‘Look, I think if you want to become a dancer you have to stick to one style. You can’t do all this and become a dancer.’ So I said, what should I do, there is a scholarship going for Bharatanatyam.
He said, ‘Don’t do Bharatanatyam, too many people are doing Bharatanatyam.’
I said, ‘Good. I am glad. I don’t want to.’ Because after a certain point you don’t understand the language. And then how can you do abhinay when you don’t understand the language.
‘So do Kathak.’
Okay Kathak. Then I applied for a scholarship.
V.T.: Okay. But in between I want to ask you that you were always very adamant that you wanted to be very self-reliant and you did some odd jobs in the tourist department. Why was that particular feeling of being independent always there in you?
K.L.: That is always there. I was brought up like that. To be independent always. To think for yourself. Even as children my grandfather used to say, ‘You have to think for yourself. You must think for yourself. You must work for yourself. You must support yourself.’
V.T.: Your grandfather was with Gandhiji.
K.L.: My grandfather’s brother.
V.T.: He was in the ….
K.L.: Yes. Even in the film Gandhi you see one gentleman sitting there with a black suit that was my….But we used to treat him like grandfather because he was the eldest of the family. So he used to look after the family.
V.T.: So you got the scholarship?
K.L.: So I got the scholarship.
V.T.: When Shivraj was two years old.
K.L.: I went to Delhi to Bhartiya Kala Kendra.
V.T.: But it wasn’t a very renowned institute then.
K.L.: Pusa Road, small building. It was a small building in Pusa Road. Only Shambhu Maharaj was there.
V.T.: Only Shambhu Maharaj? So he was your guru?
K.L.: He was my guru. But I could not get any place there to stay, any decent place to stay. I kept looking. Then I found a place to stay. I had left Shriraj at home when I first went. I did not want to carry the child. I had left him with his grandmother here. And so then I found a place. One day I went to the Bhartiya Kala Kendra office. Naina Devi was our principal and I said to her that I cannot do this scholarship, I am sorry, I am not able to, I want to go back. She said, why? I said I found a place after such a long time but I have discovered that it is not a nice place. The lady of the house brings men at home at night, serves them drinks and tries to use these girls. I want to leave. Sumitraji was sitting there. Sumitra ji, Sumitra Charat Ram, she was sitting in the office.
She said, ‘Why do you want to go?’
I said, ‘I am not getting space.’’
Okay, we will see. Do your class and then we will see.’
I went back to class. When I came out of class she was standing near her car and she opened the door. She said, ‘Get in.’’
She said, ‘Where do you stay, tell me the place.’ We went there. She also got down with me. She said, ‘Show me the room.’ We went to the room.
‘Pack up.’ So I packed my bags. ‘Do you have to give any money?’ I said, ‘No, I have given rent for the whole month.’
‘Okay, then forget it.’ Packed up. ‘Go and tell the lady you are leaving.’ I went and told her .
‘Why are you leaving?’
‘I am leaving. I have found another place.’
Sumitra ji, she took me to her house. She said, ‘You will stay here. You will stay here until you find another place. Until you find a good place, you stay here.’ ‘Okay.’
So I was still looking for places. Then one day I found a very nice place. I mean a really nice family and nice. So I told her, ‘I have got something, I am going.’ She had four children. They stood in a line and cried, ‘Why are you going? Why are you taking her out of the house?’ Small children. Meenakshi’s father. Shobha was very small then. So then I stayed there for three years throughout my scholarship period, I stayed for three years.
V.T.: She was kind of a mentor.
K.L.: Yes, she was my mentor. And if she had not been there, I would have come back, not done my scholarship. I wouldn’t have been in Kathak. If at that time she had not been there. It is a matter of destiny. All this is destiny. I finished my scholarship. And then my son also used to join me and they used to play with him and they used to love him. Then my scholarship got over. During the scholarship Bhartiya Kala Kendra did a lot of these ballets.
V.T.: You were with…
K.L.: Birju Maharaj. I did Kumar Sambhav. I did Malti Madhav, Kumar Sambhav.
V.T.: You had a very fantastic kind of friendship with Maharaj ji, Keshav Kothari ji. You met very interesting people there.
K.L.: Yes. When I was at Bhartiya Kala Kendra, Maharaj-ji, Birju Maharaj, he is seven years younger than me. And Keshav Kothari was in my class.
V.T.: He was a good dancer?
K.L.: No, Maharaj ji used to say, ‘Abey Oonth, ki tarah bhagta hai (Hey, he runs like a camel!) Maharaj ji had a habit of calling people by names. ‘Aye Kharbuja idhar aa.’ (Hey, ‘Kharbuja’, come here!)
V.T.: What did he call you?
K.L.: Me, Heroine. ‘Heroine aayi kya, hamari heroine?’ There is a story for that also. Once Malti Madhav had to be performed in a festival. In Delhi there was a dance festival and Lacchu Maharaj-ji was called from Bombay to do the choreography for Malti Madhav. And this was just after I joined, just after I joined. Lacchu Maharaj ji’s elder brother, ‘Why?’
‘Because he does films etc. and he did it for Mughal-e-Azam, he did it for Kala Pani. He knows how to do ballet.’ So he was called from Bombay.
So he came to our class and he said, ‘Who is this girl? She will be in my ballet.’
So the younger brother could not say anything. So I used to go for the rehearsals. But when I used to come back to Maharaj ji’s class, he used to tease me, ‘Heroine has come, heroine?’
V.T.: And I remember in Malti Madhav Birju Maharaj-ji was not given a role. Please tell us something of that.
K.L.: In Malti Madhav, you had the part of Madhav and the part of Malti. The actor playing Malti was fixed. Now who will be Madhav? So Birju Maharaj said, I will. But Birju Maharaj used to come up till here because he was small. ‘Abey, you look very small, how will you be Madhav to her?’ So for the character of Madhav, they got Krishna Kumar. He was in Rae Bareilly, so he brought him. He was from a different gharana of Kathak. So he used to bang his feet a lot. So Maharaj ji used to say, ‘Abey, do you have an electric wire under your feet?’
V.T.: He wanted to dance with you, he was jealous that…
K.L.: ‘Do you have an electric wire under your feet?’ Anyway he was quite good-looking but he always used to dance wearing a shervani. So I asked him, ‘Why do you wear a shervani? Even Maharaj-ji asks.’ ‘I don’t have a kameez (shirt/kurta).’ He was so poor, poor thing, that he only had a shervani. Then we went to Gandhi Hall and got him two or three kurtas. He was quite a nice chap. Then Malti Madhav happened. Dagar saheb provided the music for that.
The first show of Malti Madhav. There was one scene where I was making a garland of flowers waiting for Madhav. He was not coming at all. Madhav is not coming at all, and Dagar saab is going on singing and singing. Dagar saab is asking me why with his face movements, and I am also looking for him. He is not coming at all and I don’t know why. Then he appears standing like this in his underwear in the wings. And from inside he is asking me, ‘I am on the stage, where is my dhoti?’ It had so happened that another boy had worn his dhoti and had gone off. Lots of characters were there and so he had worn it and gone off and he, poor chap, was searching for his dhoti. This was the way we did ballet.
V.T.: With Birju Maharaj-ji also after a long time you did many tours.
K.L.: Yes, many.
V.T.: There are some very hilarious things that happened when you were in Iraq and in Russia. Tell us those lovely stories.
K.L.: Our first tour was to Iraq. And Ravi Shankar-ji was our leader. In that I and Birju Maharaj were there for Kathak. Then there were these Punjabi singers, I have forgotten their names, the four sisters, the Punjabi singers. And one Bharatanatyam dancer was there. So Ravi-ji used to sit and make out the programme every day.
‘I think, you all do it first. Then the singers can do. Then I will do.’
So whenever Raviji’s turn used to come, then the king of that place, he used to come into the theatre and everybody used to stand up and they used to sing the national anthem, ra ra ra ra. And Ravi is just playing.
Then the next day Ravi-ji used to say, ‘Let me play first. After that you all perform.’ So the next day the king came earlier. So he used to say, ‘He comes only during my performance.’ So we said, ‘He comes to listen to you.’ But they used to sing the national anthem. So Ravi-ji used to lay down the sitar.
V.T.: You once went somewhereand got lost?
K.L.: Oh yes! Iran (Turkey). It was the king’s first anniversary, not the king but Ataturk.
K.L.: No, not the Shah, Kemal Ataturk, it was his first anniversary. So he had invited groups from everywhere, from China, from India, and me, and Birju Maharaj, we went with three musicians. So we stayed in a hotel. So all these people were vegetarians. They were Brahmins, Birju Maharaj and the singers. So I told them, ‘Vegetarian.’ They said, ‘Vegetarian, okay, I put very good fish.’ ‘No, no, no fish.’
‘Egg?’ ‘No egg, no egg.’
These were people who did not eat even onions. So for three days we lived only on grapes. Till today when I look at grapes I get….So for three days. One day was a party, a big party. When we went to the party, I don’t know what animal it was that was hung upside down, camel or horse, and in its stomach there was the rice. The rice was right inside its stomach. So when we went, they said, ‘Go, rice is there.’
And they used to give something like lassi which used to be so sour that our hair would stand up straight. We were so hungry on that tour; for four days we ate only grapes. And there was a lot of stink in the bread also.
Then one night we had our programme. The stage was so long like a bridge. Our music had finished. Anyway we did something or other and when we came out there was such a crowd that we could not find our car. And nobody spoke English. Then one jeep came. He started saying something. Anyway we thought, let us go, he will take us. We said, ‘Hotel Regina, Hotel Regina.’ He replied ‘Gggggggg.’ We again repeated, ‘Hotel Regina.’ I don’t know where all he took us, quite far, far away. First there was the driver, then next to the driver I was sitting, and then next to me Birju Maharaj was sitting, and it was an open jeep. So the musicians were at the back, standing. We went so far. Maharaj-ji said, ‘The lights have also gone off.’ The street had also come to an end and the street lights had also gone off. We were wondering where he was taking us. And Manika-ji said, ‘He is surely going to kill us here. He has brought us here to kill us. And he will bury us somewhere.’ If we were to get killed, we would get killed together.
Anyway he went so, so far in the dark. And then he stopped. And we were thinking the night of our end had come. Along with the musicians who were at the back, there was one of his people as well. He got down and he went away. When he went away quite a distance, then the driver turned around and came back again. He had basically gone to drop him. But how would we know? And in between he kept talking something or the other. So Birju Maharaj got tired of his talking. So he started telling a tukda, kit tak thun thun natik dhita……And the driver is talking his own thing. Then I said, ‘Hotel Regina.’ And he kept saying something. And Birju Maharaj issaying, ‘Why are you touching?’
V.T.: So you had a very wonderful partnership.
K.L.: Yes. He was like a brother. He used to call me Kumud-ji. He is like a younger brother. And I am guru behn as well because I learnt with his father also. When I first went to learn with Birju Maharaj-ji’s father, my mother took me, Birju Maharaj was three years old. He was only three years old when I first went to his house.
V.T.: You learnt from Acchan Maharaj ji?
K.L.: Yes, I have learnt a little.
V.T.: In Allahabad?
K.L.: No, in Lucknow. We used to stay in Allahabad. My mother used to take me to Lucknow. ‘Acchan Maharaj is there. So we should go to him definitely. His blessings are definitely required.’ So we used to go to Lucknow to him. We stayed in Lucknow in a hotel. She used to take me every day to him. He used to teach me a little. Very insistent my mother was. ‘We must go to Acchan Maharaj.’
V.T.: So after you finished your scholarship and came back to Ahmedabad, I want to talk to you little bit about Sumitra-ji who was a kind of a mentor to you. Particularly how her idea of an institution, how she handled so many artistes—the Dagar Brothers, Birju Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj—there were so many artists with all their different personalities, she kept everybody together and it was a very successful institution. Any of those things you brought back when you came back.
K.L.: Well yes but Sumitra-ji came from a very rich family, Shrirams, they owned Delhi Cloth Mills, Daurala Sugar, Usha Fans, and they were a very very rich family. But I will say that Sumitra-ji brought a lot of culture to Delhi. In the beginning she used to do one festival where all the musicians were called. Shankar Lal started later, much later.
In this festival she used to call everybody. That got converted to Shankar Lal festival later. And she used to pay them well, so everyone used to come. Ravi-ji was there and all the big people. Amjad Ali’s father was teaching in our school also.
Then she started Bhartiya Kala Kendra in Pusa Road. Where there building is now, previously there were army barracks. She bought that land afterwards. So she started it there. Mushtaq Hussain Sa’ab was teaching music. Amjad’s father, what was his name……
We were talking about Sumitra-ji.
V.T.: Yes, you said she had employed many and there were some legends who were there with you, Shambhu Maharaj-ji, Dagar Brothers, Hafiz Ali Khan Sa’ab,
K.L.: Shambhu Maharaj-ji, Sundar Prasad-ji, Naina Devi. Sulochana Brahaspati also used to come.
V.T.: So you learnt the nitty gritty of running an institute where you have so many personalities. And that is something you imbibed.
K.L.: I didn’t really learn how to because at that time I had no idea of running an institute. Never thought of running an institute. I never thought I would ever run an institute. Bhartiya Kala Kendra. I can say that Sumitra-ji brought a lot of culture to the city of Delhi. I mean today Delhi is known as a city of culture and she was I can say the pioneer. She first started the music conference. Then that slowly became the Shankar Lal Festival which is now held every year. And all the great legends, they come there.
V.T.: They used to call you K-ji, why K-ji?
K.L.: You know I used to stay in her house. Everybody knows me in their house, in the Charat Ram Bharat Ram house as K-ji. I used to stay in their house and Sumitra ji’s husband, Lala Charat Ram, he said, ‘Your name is very long, ‘Ku-Mu-di-Ni’ and then ‘ji’, so make Kumudini ‘K’ and then ‘ji’. So from today I will call you K ji.’ So Meenakshi etc. will always call me K-ji aunty, K-ji mausi, K-ji….everybody called me K-ji. And the servants used to feel my name is ‘KG’ and so they used to call me, ‘Kji–ji’, adding one more ‘ji’.
V.T.: You always used to consider Shambhu Maharaj ji an artist of high calibre and you think he is your true guru in certain ways. So what kind of training did you have or what did you observe in him?
K.L.: That is a very good question actually because one can learn from many people. I have learnt from many, many teachers. In Kathak also I have learnt from many teachers in Bombay, in Delhi, in Lucknow, but you can only have one guru. The Guru can be only one. There can be many teachers but Guru can be only one. Now what is the difference between learning with a teacher and learning with a Guru. Now the Guru teaches you the soul of the dance. Like I mentioned before, the physicality and the mentality, there should be a judicious balance between the two. Shambhu Maharaj-ji was such a wonderful human being. One learnt so much. He used to put his soul into his dancing. And his abhinay was so beautiful, very, very beautiful. He used to do it from the heart. In everything that he did, he put his heart into it.
As I said, you can dance, you can keep on dancing like a monkey. In the circus people dance, they do acrobatics. But his dance had the nazakat (delicacy of movement) of Lucknow and the way he conducted himself, it was so beautiful. That is what I learnt from him. And that changed my entire physical dance also. Before that we used to throw our hands. He would say, ‘Don’t throw your hand, take it there. Don’t throw your arms.’ Like you throw your shoes when you come back from school.
Take your hand there. God has given you such beautiful hands, such beautiful arms. Aesthetics. What I learnt from him was aesthetics. He was very artistic, very artistic. His Lucknavi kurta and the way of speaking and everything. He was also very, very humorous.
One day Naina Devi came to the class.
She said, ‘Maharaj-ji, there are some Russians who want to watch the class. Can they come?’
‘Yes, they can come. Ama dekho, aye Rani!’ He called her Rani.
‘Rani, what are their names?’
‘Their names are Jostokovich and Sonovich, something like that.’
‘Okay. These Russians, do they have any connection with Punjab?’
‘Why Maharaj ji? Why connection with Punjab?’
‘They are also vich vich.’
V.T.: Maharaj-ji, Shambhu Maharaj ji had a very great sense of humour.
K.L.: Great sense of humour. ‘Ama, main scooter mein aaye na, toh woh scooter mein, who bata raha thi ki kaun aisa koi rishi muni tha, toh poora samundar pee gaya tha.’
V.T.: And you said that when your director came and you were saying that some Russian people were coming.
K.L.: Naina Devi came, ‘Maharaji ji, some Russian people are there, their name is Shostokovich and they are going to come. Can they come to see the class?’
‘Yes, come.’ ‘What did you see their name?’
‘Vich? These Russians have some connection with Punjab?’
‘Why Maharaj ji? Why Punjab?’
‘No, they also say this vich vich.’
He was very much like a child.
V.T.: So you came back from Delhi with a lot of fond memories and great friendships like you, Maharaj ji, Keshav.
K.L.: Keshav and I were very good friends. Maharaj ji was a very good friend of ours. After our class we all used to go for chai. And regarding Keshav, afterwards when I settled in Ahmedabad, then Keshav told me, ‘I am doing a festival and you have to do a choreography.’
I said I have never done anything before, how to do?
He said, ‘Try it. But I don’t want solo, I want a group dance.’
And that is when I created Dhabkar. Dhabkar was my first creation which was initiated by Keshav for his festival. And I did it in Delhi. And even today people ask for Dhabkar. It went to the British festival, it went to America.
V.T.: So in early 60s you came back to Ahmedabad. I want to know when you came back to Ahmedabad?
K.L.: 1959. In 1959 I came back to Ahmedabad.
V.T.: So you had your second child. Maitreyi was born…
K.L.: That was much later.
V.T.: So you started teaching during that….
K.L.: First I came back to Ahmedabad and I was a practicing Kathak dancer but there was no tabla player at all. And whenever I got some programme either in Calcutta or Bombay, tabla player? There was no tabla player in Ahmedabad except one at the All India Radio. You know who used to play with the music and sitar, whoever came to play. They did not know how to play for dance at all, nothing. It was very ordinary kind of. So it used to be very difficult. Write to Bombay, Write to Delhi for tabla players. He would come from there, I would go from there, then practice for some time, it became difficult. And then I got tired of doing this. And I was a little disappointed.
So my husband said, you have learnt so much in your life, why don’t you teach? It is always nice to share what you have with the next generation. Teach.
I thought, my god, I have never taught before. How do I teach? I don’t want to become a teacher. I don’t want to become a teacher. Anyway he was so nice. He used to empty his office in the evening, my husband. He gave me the place and said, okay, you teach here. So I had some two or three students. First there were two or three and I used to teach them. Slowly the students started increasing. Then I had one small boy who used to come and play tabla with me. I used to pay him 15 rupees a month. And then in the next year I started charging fees, 15 rupees a month. First year, it was free. Then 15 rupees.
V.T.: Kadamb started like this?
K.L.: No, not now. This is 1961. After four years quite a few students came. Then my husband said, give it a name. Give your school a name and take a bigger place. So I took a bigger place and gave it a name, Kadamb. It was not an institute Kadamb. Kadamb classes. So Kadamb name came there. Why Kadamb?
After thinking a lot, actually there are two forms of classical dance, the dance of Shiva and the dance of Krishna. Because the two philosophies have influenced our dance. The Vaishnav and the Shaivite. This is Krishna’s dance. Like our guruji used to say, I don’t know why the name has been given as Kathak, its name should have been Natwari Nritya. This is Natwar’s nritya. He used to say that. It is Krishna’s dance. So Krishna danced under the Kadamb tree. Kehte hain who toh thade kadamb ki chaiyya. So I said, let us keep Kadamb. It had nice roots, beautiful leaves, lovely leaves and the flowers, its fragrance used to spread till far. So I thought maybe my school’s roots will go deep and we will be able to give fragrance.
V.T.: It is a tree?
K.L.: Its flowers are also very beautiful. Like tennis balls. And its fragrance is so nice that it spreads really far. So I made it Kadamb. I kept its name Kadamb. It is now 50 years. In 1965 we started.
V.T.: So after you started teaching and Kadamb was started, you started doing a lot of choreography, actually when you started doing choreography, Venu Nad, Variation in Thumri, Duvidha, Shakti and of course the legendary Dhabkar. So what was that particular need that you wanted to do a choreography? I think you said that Mr. Kothari did ask you to do but when you started making choreography you were very different from the usual presentation of Kathak. There was an extraordinary sophistication. You have done away with the heavy jewellery and the ornaments, flowers. In fact in Dhabkar you said we don’t want a dupatta. I mean all these things, what was that particular thought process. And when you did all those things was that a very conscious thing to do?
K.L.: Yes. When I was with the Bhartiya Kala Kendra, we all used to do Kathak performances, we used to all dance. There were lot of things which disturbed me, lot of things. One, the story, the script. Two, the dress. Three, the presentation.
Now the story was always about mythology. We could never get away from Krishna, Radha, Vishnu, Parvati, Indra, always mythology. There was no other story at all. And yet Guruji used to say, Katha kahe so Kathak. So there can be many more kathas/stories. That was one thing. So I wanted to do a dance without any script especially mythological.
So I couldn’t find a story. Then I thought let us do abstract dance. Because at that time there were a lot of abstract paintings which we used to see. I thought if the painters can do abstract painting, then why can’t we do? (Aur aisa banao ki jisme audience ko story apne aap dekhein. Hum unko story na batayen. Who usme dekh sakte hain story. Aur na dekhen toh na dekhen. Banayen to bana den. Aisa kuch banayen jaise painters banate hain) And make it in such a way that the audience tries to make out the story. We are not telling them the story. They can see the story in it. And if they can’t, then let them not. They can make out a story for themselves. We should make something like what the painters make.
So I made ‘Dhabkar’ with no story. And called it Dhabkar, which means dhadkan, it means pulse. I was looking for the pulse of Kathak. Where is the pulse of the Kathak dance? Is it in the feet, is it in the hands, in what is it? Is it in the eyes? So I made Dhabkar. And I made levels. I made three levels. I introduced levels. I used to make three platforms. Three girls on three different platforms. So if you move your hand like this, if you see from below, you see the circular motion of the hand, from above you see a straight line. So the same movement looks different at different levels.
Two, I was fed up with what we used to wear. Dupatta, this, that, bangles. The dupatta getting entangled in the dupatta. It is going from here to there. It is flying from here. I used to be very very upset with all that. The braid is coming to the front, the parandi is getting entangled somewhere. That used to disturb me a lot. Because I had seen the ballet in the west. I had seen the Spanish dance. I had seen Ram. I was trained by Ram. And then all this nonsense of all this entangled dupattas etc., pins, pins showing….
V.T.: So you removed the dupatta.
K.L.: Yes, I removed the dupatta.
V.T.: A lot of people criticised you.
K.L.: A lot of people. How shameless! Shameless! No dupatta! And Dhabkar was all white. Whose funeral have you come to, I was asked. Have you come for mourning? All white dresses. And there was no dupatta. Gosh! How are they doing, they have no shame. So many big girls without dupattas. This was all the criticism.
Then when I did ‘Duvidha’, it was a story of a middle-class, middle-aged Indian woman. She is sitting in her home. She is chained to her home, cooking for her children, sending the children to school, cooking for her husband, waiting for the husband, heating his food, feeding him, washing the dishes, that is her life. But the newspaper man who used to throw the newspaper, then she would read. Look at this beautiful woman with short hair, white streak, sleeveless blouses surrounded by men, each man is also attentive to her. How can that be? Look at me and look at that. Then she used to start imagining herself to be that, frame of mind. For that woman I used just sarod alaap, a little sad. And for that then I used electronic music, all this turmoil in her. That duvidha in her. And then she used to get into…modern dance like movements, contemporary movements. Then there would be a knock on the door and she would jump out. Husband has come, go back to her daily.
And there was a part in that haan haan haan na na na na, haan haaan, na na, this kind of music is there in that. This kind of music is there, that yes yes, no, no, that duvidha (confusion) in her mind. So I presented it in Delhi. The critics, what they wrote in huge font, Indian dance—from sublime to the ridiculous. This was what they wrote. After 25 years, that same critic wrote, Kumudini Lakhia is the saviour of the Kathak dance. Then I told him, you had written this then. You know I was 20-25 years ahead of you. He was very sweet. He was a very well-known critic. So this too happens.
V.T.: When you came to Ahmedabad you met Atul Bhai who was a fantastic vocalist and he in fact composed most of your…
K.L.: Not most, all.
V.T.: You worked together for
K.L.: Forty years.
V.T.: I mean what was the advantage of working with a music composer for such a long time.
K.L.: One of my first students was Sandhya, Atul’s wife. So he used to come to the class to collect her in the evening, take her home. So one day she introduced me and she said, ‘Mhara husband che, gaye che (My husband, he sings)’ I said, ‘You sing? Where?’
He said, ‘I have passed out from Benares Hindu University. I am a disciple of Pandit Omkar Nath-ji.’
I said, ‘One day you must sing for us.’
So one day we organised a mehfil kind of thing for him in our house. He sang very beautifully. Very lovely vocals. And I thought it is something other than just his singing in him. Like what I say, he is not an artisan, he is an artiste I felt like that. So after some days somebody asked me to do a little programme for the girls, Sandhya, Roma etc, a programme for them. I thought what to do about the music and so I asked him. I asked him if he will do the music for this. He said, yes. So he did the music. It was so sweet, so lovely. I told him that from now he can do the music. He never did music before. But I told him to do the music from now on. So we used to work together. I used to compose the dance, he used to do the music. Sometimes he would compose the music first and then I composed the dance. That way we both did work for forty years together, all my compositions. He was not trained. One day I said to him, ‘Why don’t you learn some music and western also?’ He went to David Tudor. I told him David Tudor had come to NID and he should go to him. So he went and he learnt with David Tudor.
Sahapedia: And then you made a fantastic piece, ‘Atah Kim’. I want to talk to you about that. In 1984 there was this conference, ‘East West Dance Encounter’. Contemporary dancers like you, Chandralekha, Manjushi Chaki Sircar, Astad Deboo, they all participated.
K.L.: All choreographers.
V.T.: Correct. I meant very contemporary minds…
K.L.: Contemporary minds of Indian dance.
V.T.: So it was a landmark moment for Indian dance. You all emerged as something fresh and new for us and you presented in the closing ceremony ‘Atah Kim’. What does ‘Atah Kim’ mean?
K.L.: See I never learnt choreography because there was no such thing as choreography training in India. We didn’t know what choreography was. But because I had seen a lot of dance abroad I knew that around the dancer…like if you ask somebody, where there is dance, then the answer is it is in my heart, it is from within me. The dance is visible to me inside. You see what is on the outside. So dance happens in the space around the dancers. The space has the kind of potency.
If the hand is very near, then it is different. The same hand, if it goes there, it tells a different story. So that distance, that potency of the energy of the body and what is next to it is very different. Like we are sitting like this, if you go and sit far away, it will mean a different story. If you come nearer, it will be this. The distance between the two. So in choreography you have to work with distances, how you place your dancers. That you have to see.
Also when the arms move, what is the kind of picture you want to make in the space? You want to make a picture in the space. What kind of a picture you want to make in the space. You want to hide your face, you want to show your face, all these things one has to learn. So when I do choreography first of all, I make a thing on the floor, floor patterns. I taught myself choreography. Nobody taught me. I made floor patterns. Go from here to there, go from there to there. This is okay. Now bring this nearer, take that further away. That kind of thing. That is how I learnt choreography.
Then one day Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena…
V.T.: You were talking of Atah Kim.
K.L.: In Atah Kim that is what I worked on. Atah Kim means ‘where do I go from here’. This is there in me always. I make Atah Kim everyday. Now where do I go from here? I don’t know. It is such a long journey, it is such a big world, there is so much space, now where to go? That samasya (problem/conundrum) keeps coming up, now where will you go, where will you go now? And that is what pushes me. And that is how I have survived for these fifty years, of wanting to know where to go. I don’t know where.
And that I will tell you. In Kathak, this is the first step, the first movement, you know that. We ask Guruji, what is this? This symbolises what Krishna Bhagwan wears.
And what is this? This is Guru giving you ashirwad.
Then we ask another Guru? This is Krishna, this is radha and both when they meet, this is that….
Then you ask a third Guru, then he gives another explanation.
They are not sure. It is not written in the books. They are making up all these things. I said, if they make up, why I can’t make up. I am a student of science. Why can’t I make up?
So I also made up. This hand of mine, till where is it going? One is going till the kshitij (horizon). Where is this going? Infinite. What does the kshitij/horizon tell us? The nearer you go, the further it goes. And what is this? Infinite. There is no maap-dand/ gauge or measure or size for it. This is the art. You keep this policy. Atah Kim, Don’t know where it will go. Don’t know how big it is. That is what taught me Atah Kim, don’t know where to go?
V.T.: And in the middle there was a big and beautiful golden frame. And you had done some beautiful group choreography. And the costumes were absolutely different from usual Kathak costumes.
K.L.: Yes. My costumes are usually just a simple kurta. I don’t allow any jewellery which will fall down. If you are wearing in your ear, then wear something small. No chapka, tapka.
V.T.: You have gradations.
K.L.: I like gradations. In one colour different gradations.
V.T.: To give to artist…
K.L.: No. If you look at the fields, the mustard fields, then you will see a lot of gradations of green and especially when the breeze comes, all the greens look different. From that I got that idea.
Then these paintings in Rajasthan where you find a lot of cows in the pichwais, all the cows are looking there and one cow will be looking that side. That teaches you choreography, that you must do something different. All cows are looking like this and one cow will be looking that way. You have seen in the Pichwais.
All these things teach you something. You must read. You must look around everything.
V.T.: You have worked with several different forms of music, painting. And then you were just saying that there was that very abstract poetry of Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena.
K.L.: On painting I did Venu Nad. Venu Nad was one production. In the background we kept paintings, blow ups of miniatures. And the characters were real. All these girls were coming out of the painting. That we did. In every painting there are small jaalis in front where musicians sit and are playing something, if you look at the Rajasthani paintings. They are small. Actually they are not small but they depict the lower class. Aditi used to do this. Choti Aditi. I have got her photograph also upstairs. Choti Aditi used to do that. Aditi and Doshi saab’s daughter Tejal, B.V.Doshi’s daughter and Aditi, they both were small, they used to do. So I did with paintings.
I have done with all music, even jazz, even African …., even Maan Bhatt, Okha Haran went off really well. All different music I have attempted. Khyal, Thumri, all music.
V.T.: Especially I want to talk about ‘The Peg’ because it is a very remarkable piece. It was actually a sort of a challenge.
K.L.: It was very difficult, very difficult. One day I was in Delhi. I had gone to Bengali Market to buy something, so there I met Sarveshwar Dayal ji, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena. He said, ‘Namaskar! I heard you are doing some choreography etc.’
‘I have a poem of mine and if you do choreography on that, I will accept.’
‘Please tell me,’ Kahan Par?’
‘My house is nearby. Let us sit and drink tea there.’
So we went. And then he started reciting his poem. For Kathak!
Khunti par coat ki tarah ek arse se mai tange hun,
Kahan chala gaya mujhe pehan kar sarthak karne wala.
Dhool par dhool is tarah jamti jaa rahi hai ki main ab apna rang bhool gaya hoon.
Sukdi hai chhaati, latki hain baayein……
I was wondering how to do Kathak on this.
He said, ‘Aap karenge?’
I said, ‘I can try.’
I took the poem. His book had been published, Khooti per tange log. We are all in some ways hanging from something or the other. If this is hanging from something, I am hanging on the Kadamb peg so to speak, we are all stuck or hanging on to something or the other. Nobody is that independent ever.
So I took it and came home. It took me two months. It was its autobiography, the coat’s autobiography that now it is redundant, and the person who wore it has gone away. When it rained I protected him, when it was hot, I protected him. When it was cold, I protected him. Now he has left me here and gone away. If you look inside, you see ego, its ego.
Then I thought that these poets, they take liberties. When they write, they take grammatical liberties, they take liberties in joining and combining words and so I will also take liberty. So I took off on the ‘Kahan chala gaya? (Where did he go)’ and worked on that.
Where did he go, the person who wore me and made my life meaningful, I gave birth to that, the alter ego.
So there were two boys now.
And then in the middle there is a sentence, ‘Bahar dekhta hoon ek ped, chidiyon se jhanjhanate’ So then Atul bhai put a song in that, ‘lata, lata, lata’ he put a song in that.
There was a mention of some clouds in that. That was included.
Step by step we made a ballet.
V.T.: Did he come to see?
K.L.: He died one week before the opening. I talked to him. I told him that he has to be chief guest. We are coming. It is in Kamani. One week before that he passed away. Then his two daughters came. Now also people come asking if I will do ‘Coat’.
It was a story but it was not about Radha Krishna. So I thought ‘Katha kahe so Kathak’
V.T.: You have worked on films also. You worked on some interesting films like Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan, Sur Singar and now his recent film Jaanisar. You are not really…
K.L.: Not that type at all.
V.T.: Why? Is it different to do film choreography?
K.L.: That I was forced into it. It happened. Like dance happened to me at the railway station in Bombay. She said, go to London, it happened to me. The profession of dance happened to me. And the kathak happened to me because of Sumitra-ji. And now this film thing just happened. Muzaffar was doing Umrao Jaan. And in that one song was done by Gopi Kishan. His financiers did not like it. They said, this does not look like from Lucknow. This looks like it is from the Bombay film industry. Some Lucknavi nazakat has to be brought in to it. Then Muzaffar came to me. I knew Muzaffar because his father and my father were very good friends. I had known him for many years.
He asked me, ‘Will you do it?’
I told him I have never done this before. I have never done any films before. And I have heard that film directors do everything, camera etc., I don’t know anything.
He said, ‘Don’t bother, we will take care of it.’
‘Okay, I will do and see.’
Then he took me to Lucknow. Rekha ji came. In aakhon ki masti mein and Yeh kya jagah hai doston, yeh kaun sa dayar hai. And one more song.
So I did it. They liked it very much. Actually I also liked it. Really I have done all this.
Now also when I see choreography, now also in the class if a girl is doing a tukda. I ask her ‘from where did you get this tukda?’ ‘Ma’am, you only taught.’
I forget. All these years, I have done so many things that now I forget.
V.T.: And I think this is the reason you always come up with a new movement. You never repeat yourself.
K.L.: It has become a habit. And also one thing I try to put movements according to the dancer’s body. There are certain things I like to see. Because when you are teaching a student there is a human being inside, there is a human being inside that body and that I try to take up. And that is why you will see that a lot of students of Kadamb have become professional dancers. They give up….Aditi was a mathematics, she came first in Gujarat University, she left it. Daksha, she came first in German, she left it. Maulik, Ishira, they left everything. They were all brilliant people, Vaishali, they left whatever they were doing and came into dancing. Prashant, he was a chartered accountant, he left that and came into this. This is how you get so attached to dance because they had a good experience inside. Their balance had set, that is to be there in whatever you do.
V.T.: Something to do with your teaching that people like us are sort of drawn to it and you take us to that magical world of dance.
K.L.: I try to teach you what is best in you. I try and make you realise that you can do this. This is very good for you, so you do this. I don’t treat everybody, I don’t whitewash it.
V.T.: When you think about the guru-shishya parampara, is it a parampara only for the very talented ones or it is a dead institution.
K.L.: Guru-shishya parampara in the olden times used to be one to one, now it has become institutional. Now there are institutions for everything. So Gurudom has not remained that much. One doesn’t become a guru just by touching of the feet. Gurudom is when you are absolutely in sync with your guru. You understand what the guru wants from you. And the guru understands what is best in you. So I have to help you to take up that. I have to help you to give your best. Otherwise it sleeps somewhere. Everybody has some special qualities. And if the guru doesn’t help you take it out, then you don’t know that you have those qualities.
V.T.: And also when people say she is a ‘Kadamb girl’, then they have a characteristic in terms of how they stand. I always felt….
K.L.: I will tell you why. When we used to learn, we were told ‘pair bajao’ ‘Pair ki taiyaari karo’, your upper body is leaning ‘Pair bajao, pair bajao’ ‘Chakkar maro, chakkar maro, chakkar maro’ ‘fast chakkar karo, fast chakkar karo’. They never taught us the rest of the body. What we call body culture. What we call body culture which I learnt at Ram’s, body culture, exercising the body, warming up the body. So the Kadamb girls will have their back straight, the spine which is really the most important thing in a dancer to hold your spine straight.
Leela Venkatraman had written as well once, the one thing about the Kadamb girls is they know how to hold their spine.
And then from that go the arms and the legs and how to preserve your energy in your body. Where does the energy come from? What is that energy? Then when it goes out to the arms or when it goes out to the head or when it goes to the eyes only. Where does the energy come from? When you are storing your energy so that you use it whenever you want. Storehouse of energy has to be inside you. Then you cover it with your emotion and then you present it. So presentation is very important. This I learnt really from touring in the west with Ram Gopal, how to present something. Of that I am very particular, I am very finical.
V.T.: But still you are not very imposing. Actually you find that two dancers, professional dancers from Kadamb have a very unique style but never aping you. How do you maintain that?
K.L.: No. Because as I said I don’t make monkeys.
V.T.: You don’t make monkeys and I think you don’t want to make Xerox copies also.
K.L.: No. And I always tell them, don’t dance like me. Dance like yourself. You are different. Don’t dance like me... If someone tells me, ‘Oh! I saw your student. He/she was exactly like you.’ Then that is a problem.
V.T.: You let them be what they are. Except you are very particular about how they should stand and how the lines, those….
K.L.: Yes, you see that is information. What I teach you is information or you can take it as grammar. But when we learn grammar in school we don’t write grammar books. Afterwards you must go and write poetry, you must write prose, you must write novels, you must write your own with that grammar. You have to use some material to be able to express. That is what I have given you, information. Information about your body, about body language which you use for your own purpose, you must use that. Keep that as the grammar, keep that as the source.