Patience might be the last word that many kathak dancers think of when either practising or preparing for a show. After all, for the most part, kathak is known these days for fast, stomping footwork and pirouettes that leave the audience dizzy in their seats. But for Nahid Siddiqui, one of the foremost proponents of kathak today, patience is the key to unlocking the potential — of both the form and the dancer.
In town as the featured mentor of the annual Angikam Seminar in Kathak and Choreography, which ran from September 31 to October 2 at Toronto’s theatre and studio space The Citadel, Siddiqui taught kathak dancers the importance of slowing down.
During a two-hour Saturday morning session that went from fine-tuning technique to talking about aspects of choreography that go beyond simply interpreting words to a song, she consistently called out the dancers to “listen to yourself” as they stood in one place, beating out the rhythm of the accompanying music with their feet in a practice known as tatkar.
“For me, it’s not just tatkar,” says Siddiqui, demonstrating a point of waiting for the beat to finish, rather than anticipating the next beat by stamping out a syncopated beat during the footwork practice. “This is the whole world to me.”
To truly understand Siddiqui’s deep relationship with kathak, it’s important to understand the circumstances under which she came to the arts. When she was a young child, her father was falsely imprisoned for a year and half. The eldest of three children, Siddiqui had to grow up quickly. “I became more mature. I used to stay alone a lot. There was a big tree outside our house. After school, I used to sit on it, making up stories of princesses.”
At the same time, Siddiqui loved dancing. She made up her own dances based on popular songs of the time. “When we went to weddings, I would have a cassette tape in my pocket, waiting to be asked to dance.”
While Siddiqui’s father was in jail, her mother unexpectedly found herself becoming the family breadwinner. With only an elementary school education, Siddiqui’s mother had limited options. “But she had beautiful voice and a beautiful face,” says Siddiqui. Her mother tried out for a job at a radio station. She soon became a famous actress, and Siddiqui found herself attending arts events where her mother acted as a host for the show. Her mother was keen on Siddiqui attending music classes to keep her busy during summer vacations from school. Instead, Siddiqui found a kathak guru who took her on as a student.
“I was able to express myself. Things that I couldn’t say, I was able to bring that out in my dance,” she says. She was soon considered a rising star, and then a national icon. But in 1978, when military rule was established and the arts deemed as un-Islamic, she found herself banned from performing. Siddiqui eventually settled in England and developed her own style of kathak, the aesthetics of which are inspired by Islamic art and architecture.
“Dance was life for me,” she says. When banned from dancing, “it was like telling me to stop breathing.”
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Siddiqui’s approach to the form has changed the life of many kathak dancers. For Deepti Gupta, the artistic director of Angikam as well as Arzoo Dance Theatre, it was a performance that she caught in New Delhi in 1985 that was pivotal in her own development as a kathak dancer. At the time, Gupta, who had trained in contemporary dance and kathak, was in India to find her own space in between these worlds. She saw Siddiqui perform at the Sharad Chandrika Festival (associated with the harvest moon) dedicated to solo performances of kathak.
“She performed a thaat (usually the first composition performed, involving graceful movements and stance that play with the rhythm), and it was simply mesmerizing,” says Gupta. “She didn’t follow any rules.” Gupta says that performance opened the possibility to “make the form my own. And that’s what Angikam is about. As choreographers, you need to go inwards first, and then you are able to create something.”
For Mushtari Afroz, a student of kathak dance, the workshop with Siddiqui gave her an opportunity to examine kathak in a way she hadn’t explored before.
“I have attended many dance workshops — kathak, eastern and western dances,” she wrote in an email. “In a large number of cases, kathak workshops have left me confused with their attempt to teach more materials than what a brain can possibly consume in a few hours. In two days at Angikam, [Siddiqui] re-introduced me to the value of going back to the basics, which are simple and which we tend to ignore in the name of complexity.”
Angikam also gave attendees a chance to hear from other mentors such as lighting designer Brad Trenaman and Dance Collection Danse co-founder Miriam Adams. When Adams talked about the 15 Dance Laboratorium, Toronto’s first experimental dance venue, which saw fifteen classically trained ballet dancers create and present their own work, and fund it by putting in $15 each, it obviously struck a chord. Krystal Kiran, a kathak dance student and performer listening to the talk, got up and put down $15.
“And one by one, the others did too. I think there were fifteen dancers there. It was all spontaneous, nobody had planned it,” says Gupta. “My intention was to inspire young Canadian kathak dancers to make their own space in Canadian dance history. I think we’re on our way to do that.”