Reaching Out for the Search Within: Sushant Gaurav Dances a Kathak of His Own

Ajay Joshi*


It is not ordinary for a young dancer, still finding his way in the dance arena, to move from the comfort and tutelage of a particular dance tradition and pursue an entirely different pedagogy, in search of himself and the philosophies he stands for. It could unsettle even the most highly composed, yet Sushant Gaurav dared to tread the path less travelled and is now carving a niche for himself.

Keywords: Sushant Gaurav, Indian dance, Kathak, tempo, Gayaki Andaz

Performance (Composition) Riwayat
Performed at: Padma Vibhushan Pandit Birju Maharaj “Nrutya Sangeet Mahotsa”
Venue: Kalacchaya Sanskritic Kendra, Pune, Maharashtra, India
Date of performance: 8th February 2024
Dancer: Sushant Gaurav
Form: Kathak

Watching Sushant Gaurav perform on stage, I sensed something amiss. As I grappled with the unfolding performance, trying to pinpoint what exactly was disturbing me, I recognized the sense of peace and calm in his maneuvers, something that I, as a member of the audience in Pune, was not used to experiencing in a dance performance.

My city of Pune, not far from Mumbai, is adrift with cultural events, and dance definitely doesn’t get left behind.  Two dance forms are popular choices for beginners and taught by stalwarts: one is Baratanatyam and the other Kathak, both of which are offered as a co-curricular activity at school level.

Kathak is one of the eight major classical dance forms in India; the term kathak literally translates as “story,” and the practitioners are seen as storytellers.  Since it was popularized by the traveling bards in North India, the local audiences are quite familiar with Kathak, which is rapid and unfolds beautifully with the accompanying musical beats. But rarely does one get a chance to witness this dance in an Ati-Vilambit laya (i.e. slow tempo), which was the distinctive feature of this performance I chanced upon. Hence this tranquility came like a breath of fresh air, distinguishing it from the milieu. 

Sushant’s measured entry on stage was magical and would have gone unnoticed, except for the distinct white of his outstretched arms against the dark backdrop, along with the atmospheric setting and the lilting tunes of the flute and sitar set to a raga, Raag Darbari. In Indian musical parlance, the seven notes, sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, nee, sa, akin to the western notes doh, re, me, pha, so, la, tee, doh, when arranged in different sets, create a melodic framework central to the Indian music tradition.  There are many such sets which are played, sung and danced to at definitive cycles of the day.

Sushant chose a composition immersed in Raga Darbari for his presentation, which was easy and slow-paced in ultra-slow tempo. It was as if this movement would continue eternally, creating a mood of unpretentious sensuality. And yet there was a spark of rebellion to depart from conventions and set norms. Rebellion appeared not as a protest, but as a lure which encouraged the audience to indulge in the beauty and grace of the dance in slow tempo while decoding the pace, which seemed mundane yet expressive.

“feminine elegance,” Lasya: Sushant Gaurav. Photo: Ajay Joshi

This was Sushant Gaurav, performing in a Tribute concert RIWAYAT, in memory of the maestro of Kathak, Pandit Birju Maharaj, at a festival in Pune. Sushant is a senior disciple of Ustaad Fasih Ur Rehman, himself a disciple of Maharaj Ghulam Hussain, who championed Kathak in Pakistan and established the Lahore Gharana of Kathak, post-partition, a time of separation when in 1947 the subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan.Though I had known of the origins of Kathak in the Persian courts and its inching forward towards formal recognition in India, it was intriguing, considering the strong patriarchal norms in Pakistan. It is remarkable that his Guru, Ustaad Fasih Ur Rehman, a male dancer, sustained the socio-political pressures and yet is acknowledged for his contribution to this dance form. Sushant is now one of the newer entrants in this long line of highly respected dance performers.

What caught my attention, however, was that his initial training was under doyens like Pandit Birju Maharaj and Vidushi Mamata Maharaj, both exponents of the Lucknow Gharana, promulgating the Kathak dance.  Incidentally there are Gharanas (i.e. families or lineages) in music and dance that teach or practice certain set norms and patterns which are unique to that lineage. It takes years of dedicated training to learn these nuances and it is rare, though not unheard of, for an artist to dabble in different training styles, which at times could evolve into a completely hybrid form.

Though training in music and dance could take different trajectories, their amalgamation is inevitable, as one is dependent on the other for its sustenance and performance. Often artists in dance train to develop an ear for music or go on to master both the drums and tablas as well as dance, yet he chose to drift away from their repertoire and choose a lesser-known Gharana of Lahore. As Sushant observed about his own experience:

I had trained in the basics under these gurus from the Lucknow Gharana and am indebted to their nurturing. But somewhere I felt constrained in the rigidity of the discipline, and the acute need to find a way for self-exploration and indulgence was paramount.  I am not scared to make mistakes, as I believe that is the way forward, but the search ‘within’ is what I yearned for. And this I found after I watched performances of my Guru Fasih Ur Rehman, and decided to tutelage under his Lahore Gharana. So in a way my style could be described as a confluence of the Lucknow-Lahore Gharana, the best of both worlds.

Drifting away from the traditional Druta Laya, middle tempo, his entry in Ati Vilambit Laya, ultra-slow tempo, set the boundaries for highlighting the characteristics of the Lahore repertoire. Shunting away from the geometric patterns of straight lines, circles and triangles, which are integral to the Kathak  dance form, was breathtaking. Sushant’s exaggerated movements in this pace allowed him to contort his body to a sitting position in salutations (Salaam). Not only did it epitomise sublimity, respect and submission to his Gurus, the audience and the almighty, but the intricate and complicated postures also suggested his resilience and controlled strength, thus underscoring the demands of training.  Clearly, it is easier to puff and pant, but to maintain one’s bodily composure in an ultra-slow tempo is daunting. Sushant maneuvered this movement with aplomb, not once staggering against the rhythm and beat.

As opposed to the traditional hand and body movements often seen in Kathak performances, this slow pace brought out different body-space equations, some of which were distinct to the Lahore Gharana: The Salaam (i.e. salutations), the lowering of eyelids and softening of outstretched hands as a sign of submissiveness, overhead arms constructing silhouettes of Islamic minarets, the gentle touching of the forehead with one hand while caressing the bun of hair with the other as a gesture of Lasya (i.e. feminity) was highlighted beautifully by his fluid movements.

Salaam – Salutations. Photo: Ajay Joshi

As the sole exponent of the Lucknow-Lahore Gharana, his training involves a deep understanding of the Purana Andaz (i.e., old styles) of Kathak especially set to the ultra-slow tempo, and incorporates the Darbari Style of Kathak and Sufism altogether. Much of this work is set to Gayaki Andaz (i.e. lyrical style) that hails from the Persian roots of Kathak and is shaped by the poetry of Amir Khusrow, Siraj Aurangabadi, Mian Tansen, Wali Muhammed and other great poets. The dancer is very fortunate to have been closely guided by Mallika E Ghazal Farida Khanun Sahiba, who is currently helping him develop his own style of performing in Baithak Andaaz (i.e. rendition in a sitting position).

This piece that he performed was in slow tempo; the pace was unhurried, graceful and self-effacing. The images created, and there were many, seemed almost surreal, the movements poetic, the representation of space as slow, gradual strokes of the brush on canvas. He embodied the emotions, lingering from the feelings generated, and seemed to tease the audience along. Adding to the picturesque imagery thus created, his performance also featured controlled body gestures, punctuated feet and Gungaroo (ankle bells) sounds. This tempo created an ethereal effect that was mystical, spiritual and questioning; his was a body worth watching, deftly drawing the audience into the warmth of his narrative.

Even as the audience was nudged out of their comfort zone by the initial relaxed tempo and seemed resigned to this rendition, in the second half of the performance, Sushant displayed his command over technique: he skillfully executed the twirls, used vertical space for jumps, crafted complicated hand and feet movements and seemed to set the stage on fire. Exerting command of the emotions rather than being commanded by them, as his synchronized body movements suggested, he gently coaxed the audience to travel the path of his story as he guided them alongside. The twirls reminded me of the Dervish dancers I had seen in Istanbul, as they reached out to connect to the supreme.

During his performance, Sushant’s body was devoid of jewelry or any other form of ornamentation, as the cut pleats of his white flowing gown, patterned dramatically in the spins he took, each seemed to tell its own story, yet converged in unison to follow a singular path.

Reaching to the beyond. Photo: Ajay Joshi

The composition in Raag Darbari, traditionally played in the calm, cool onset of evening, was created artistically by the haunting blue light on stage; however, the introduction of the smoke screen masked the nuances and seemed to deter the flow of the presentation. Sushant’s presence on stage was quite compelling and thus did not require any additional props.

Sushant did depart from set norms of Kathak presentations in the postures he adopted, as he crouched on his haunches to pay salutations and in the process not only tested his craft and stance, but also seemed to negotiate with his inner self.  He repeated this stance multiple times as he looked within, yet he did not seem to explore analogously the space of the stage on which he performed.  In fact, I failed to see him connect with the space beyond his body form and the space in which he was dancing.  Impressed as I was with his command over rhythm and expression, I was hoping to see movements which defied traditional pedagogy. Also, there were many repetitions of Tukdas, or dance pieces, which once performed, need no further comment; thus, more variation would have been appreciated.

For the audience in Pune, this piece was a revelation which evoked confused faces and the occasional “Gasp”, yet the efforts of this young dancer were unmistakable and laudable. Yes, he has a long way to go and needs to hone his skills of both presentation and craft, but given the way he held the audience, who just fell short of asking for more, I feel he is on the right path.  The organizers are also to be commended for showcasing such work, which draws the audience out of their comfort zone and plunges them into an intellectual and aesthetic whirlpool of emotional churning. This is a definite innovation for the Pune audience!

Sushant’s performance was also enhanced by the contributions of accomplished artists who accompanied him: Tushar Goyal played the tabla drums; Kalyani Deshpande performed on Sitar; Atul Devesh performed vocals and harmonium and Aditya Gogte the flute. I left the performance space, both enchanted and shaken, longing to glance back, negotiate and undecipher the meanings generated and relive the moments I was so drawn into just a short while ago. The performance was well-presented and worthy of my undivided attention. 

Sushant is definitely not scripting a new grammar at the present time for Kathak, but he is most definitely treading on a path less frequented. It would be premature and presumptuous to claim that he has arrived on the dance scene, and I have no intention of placing him on such a high pedestal of achievement lest it distracts him from his objectives. But if at the young age of 26, he can give such a confident and mesmerising performance, I look forward to seeing him as a mature dancer, and I would travel that extra mile in the future to witness the culmination of his training. 

*Dr Ajay Joshi, a practicing dentist, completed a PhD. degree in Theatre Criticism and a Masters degree in Journalism and Mass Communication. He has traveled extensively and has worked in theatre in India and abroad, in multiple capacities, for well over two decades. Dr. Joshi has designed and taught numerous courses, presented papers related to theatre in India and abroad, translated plays and written extensively on theatre and culture. Among his many honors and achievements, Dr. Joshi was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, 2018-19, to teach theatre at Rutgers University, USA.

Copyright © 2024 Ajay Joshi
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