Kathak: a mix of story-telling and dance

Search for the beauty within an unshaped space, says Usha Upta when she brings Khoj – A Contemporary Kathak Dance Extravaganza to The Firehall from Wednesday, Sept. 21 to Saturday, Sept. 24.

“Just like how the ocean is always moving with the currents and the flow of the waves, we also move endlessly, from our beating heart to our breathing,” says Gupta.

The Firehall Arts Centre celebrates its 40th anniversary season, and Gupta is known for her artistic innovation to showcase humanity. Edmonton’s Usha Gupta Dance Entourage will reimagine a traditional Indian dance to show the power of diversity through the beauty of movement.

Kathak originated within Hindu temples as a means to retell stories | Photo by Sohail Kashif

A traditional North Indian dance

Kathak is a traditional North Indian dance, its intricate footwork and sharp pirouettes from its skirt clad dancers, which entrances audiences with its fluidity and elegance. The dancers often wear bells around their ankles to chime melodically during the dance as they tell the story of the search for inner spirituality.

“[The] spirit of the dance will be expressed,” says Gupta, explaining how the hidden is only revealed through the physical body (firehallartscentre website).

Kathak is believed to have been practiced for centuries – not only in India, but other parts of Asia as well. It originated within Hindu temples as a means to retell stories, specifically ones from Hindu scriptures, but made its way across India travelling with nomadic kathakars.

Kathakars, roughly translating to “the one who tells a story,” specialized in narrating stories of the great epics through song, dance and music. As they carried kathak with them on their journey across India, they further developed the dance by incorporating elements such as mime and theatricality.

Emotion and facial expressions became a key component of the dance, and it was soon adopted by communities outside of those who followed Hinduism as it became increasingly inclusive.

Kathak was considerably popular during the medieval period, performed under the patronage of India’s Persian kings and Muslim moguls as a court dance. Performers from Persia and Central Asia were also invited to perform kathak, resulting in the blending of both Hindu and Muslim cultures that manifests as different costumes and style of presentation.

“Kathak means to tell a story through hand movements and facial expressions,” explains Gupta. “Through this, I was able to incorporate my feelings and thoughts into the dance style.”

Footwork and facial expressions

Kathak is said to be divided into two categories: nritya (pure dance) and abhinaya (expressions). The facial technique is concentrated mainly on the eyebrows, but the footwork and use of pirouettes is what stands out the most physically.

The footwork in kathak is based on the “flatfoot” technique, in which the dancer touches the whole soles of their feet onto the ground. Accentuated by the ankle bells, the loud footwork of kathak is a memorable characteristic of the dance.

Pirouettes, or spins, in kathak are executed on the heel of the foot, usually increasing in speed with the number of turns before it reaches a climax. They bring intensity to the dance whilst maintaining that signature fluidity, making kathak truly unlike any other dance.

In a dancer’s words

For three decades, Gupta has played many roles in her community, such as an artist, teacher, choreographer, community advocate and peer supporter.

Gupta has influenced the Edmonton dance community and is a well-respected, cherished artist being the recipient of many awards. With her 2022 lifetime achievement award for the Council of India Societies in Edmonton, she is known as an ambassador of cultural diversity both in Edmonton and across Canada.

The dancer wants to tell all inspiring artists that one should utilize different paths and tools to bring their goals and motives into the limelight. She would also like to stress her pride and joy in this project, in the dancers and the whole team involved.

“In the end I would like to say that this is a beautiful project with dancers from India, and it would be a great pleasure if those in Canada and abroad would come and see it,” says Gupta.

All audiences, especially those of South Asian descent, are invited for an evening of dance highlighting themes such as romance, the inner search of spirituality and the never-ending dance in nature.

Tickets can be purchased online/phone 604-689-0926. For more information, please visit:

www.firehallartscentre.ca

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