Dance is art in motion, where stories are told without the use of any words. Kathak, one of the oldest genres of dance rooted in ancient India, can actually be translated to the word storyteller in Sanskrit.
We sit down with an internationally acclaimed storyteller – a Kathak dancer, Guru (mentor), choreographer, educationist, and the artistic director of Gurukul Dubai, Bangalore and Switzerland, Pali Chandra, to learn more about her journey from a child who only wanted to dance for herself, to a professional who now has an audience of over 200,000 following her lessons globally.
Why don’t you start by telling us your journey as a dancer?
My parents were very culturally motivated. My mother used to encourage me to sing, because that is what she did, but I was always more interested in the drama part of the song – the dance element of it. We lived in Lucknow* and I started performing for fun at the age of six at weddings, festivals, etc. My dad saw something in all of this and took me to an institute to learn.
*Lucknow is a city in northern India.
After my training began, when I started performing, I realized that the audience began expecting more from me, and I found that to be a headache. I wanted to perform to be happy, not to be a professional.
But slowly this demand became so strong. I was told ‘you have taken the Lucknow culture, the society, the tradition, the history, into your dance. The Lucknow community wants it back from you’. That is how I finally went into competitions and found myself the winner with little effort. I thought, this was destiny, talent, and good training by my gurus. I started responding to my audiences, and the path was sorted out for me.
What kind of training did you undergo?
At first I began with the Guru Shishya Parampara*. It was a student-teacher relationship, with no exam or syllabus, more of a one-to-one training. With the kinds of demands other people had, what with sports and education, one-to-one was practical for me. It was only after my school graduation that I thought now it’s time to be with people. Now it’s time for social sciences and the community, that’s when the group training began.
*Guru Shishya Parampara is the teacher-disciple lineage., where a student learns directly from a guru in an individualistic way.
At what point did you classify yourself as a professional dancer?
I was around 21 when people thought if they offered me a fee, I would perform for them, even if I didn’t want to. At first that didn’t interest me. But eventually, you know, getting honoured for your skill and receiving appreciation in the form of monetary results was very alluring. That was the turning point. Instead of me doing it for fun, it suddenly became more serious because I was paid for the job. That sensibility and sincerity at that stage of my life was very important. I was benchmarking my talent to something that was globally recognised. I began seeing the value of dance as a currency. But it didn’t click until my guruji* suffered from a paralysis attack. He knew that even if he survives it, he wouldn’t be able to teach me anymore. I get emotional about this really. He sent me to competitions where he wanted the gold medal to come back to Lucknow, and although I never believed in competitions and winning, I fulfilled his wish.
*Guruji is a teacher or mentor.
What took you to teaching?
While I lived in England, at one point I wanted a job, and the qualifications and degrees that I had were not useful there. That really disturbed me because I didn’t want to start from the basic level and take bridge courses. I was also at a point in my life where if I didn’t dance I wouldn’t be happy and wouldn’t survive. That’s how intensely I felt, because my passion was my profession.
So I said ‘why not make a dance syllabus that is adaptable and user-friendly in other parts of the world’. I went to an Indian dance company in London and they said they were also thinking along the same lines. We put our resources together, and began work with the Imperial society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD), which is one of the oldest dancing boards in the world. And gradually the syllabus for Kathak came to be, exams started happening, we had a structured way of understanding the art form.
How has dance evolved through the years?
With my mother’s generation, they were fighting against all odds to be what they wanted to be. When it came to the performing arts, our culture was tattered. A lot of sewing in was needed. My parent’s generation converged it. My generation made a platform. Now the kids are radiating or reflecting ideas and art forms off that platform. Dance is almost like a sport now. Earlier only the aesthetics of dance was celebrated, and it was being used for religious reasons. Now dance is being used as a physical and social activity. Dance has also become more issue-based, where you’re talking about dealing with drugs, bullying, or depression.
Dance used to be a luxury only for the privileged. Before, high-profile people used to come to concerts, wearing diamonds and pearls and silks, and they would come and watch and clap softly, saying ‘bravo’. But look at dance now – it’s everywhere, in the malls, on the stairs, on the plane, in stadiums. You perform in one auditorium, at the same time there’s a live telecast and people all over the world can buy that link and instantly become your audience. So the whole perspective of watching dance has changed. The audience has become much more educated and aware.
Youtube has also helped to bring the teaching of Kathak to a wider audience. We started ‘Learn Kathak Online’ as a resource for a limited few, who didn’t have easy access to gurus or teachers, and with almost 130,000 subscribers it has just taken off. Even in India where people have access to physical teachers, people started complaining about why it was done in English. ‘How can you do this to us? This is ours and we don’t understand what you’re saying, and this is not okay’. That is when we launched our Hindi channel, which now accessed by over 80,000 followers. I never realized this method of teaching and verbalizing my techniques would click.
What’s next for you?
Becoming an examiner is the next step for me personally. For the younger generation of performers, I am trying to create platforms with international Kathak festivals in different parts of the world. If you train someone, you should give them the platform to perform as well. We’re organizing the first international Kathak festival in Switzerland, and festivals in Bangalore, and London. We’ve done one in Dubai as well. I’m also writing a book for Kathak beginners, intermediate, and the advanced, and establishing the repertoire of Kathak. What I’m trying to do here is put all these items together and with instructions to make a solid package for those who have learnt dance and want to step into performing arts as a Kathak dancer.