Indian dancer Manjari Chaturvedi seeks to have audience feel ‘Sufi kathak’ moves

Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic September 6, 2012

When Indian classical dancer Manjari Chaturvedi makes her American debut on Sept. 22, she will not be wearing the bright, ornately embroidered costume that is typical of kathak dancers.

“I don’t want people to concentrate on the beauty of the body,” she said by phone recently from her home in Delhi.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

Chaturvedi’s startling pronouncement — a dancer, shunning physical beauty? — puts her in rare company. Especially when she goes on to say that she’s uninterested in impressing audiences with her technical mastery or complicated rhythms.

But staking out new territory is nothing new for her. Chaturvedi, 37, claims to be the sole practitioner of “Sufi kathak,” a form of dance she created that blends the gestural storytelling of Indian kathak dance with the spinning meditation of Sufism.

She’ll be dressed all in black for her performances at the National Museum of the American Indian during the Smithsonian’s Sufism symposium, “Searching for the Divine Through the Arts.” Chaturvedi says her aim is to enter an ecstatic state with her twirling rotations and to convey what that feels like to the audience. It’s all about the transference of energy.

Using the body to create an out-of-body experience is an intriguing concept and one embraced by Sufism, which is variously practiced as a mystical order of Islam or, with growing popularity, as a more loosely defined spiritual expression. After all, the Whirling Dervishes are one of Sufism’s icons. The circular “trance dance” that the Dervishes unspool, in their white robes and brimless hats, is a physical form of worship, meant to sweep the participants into union with the divine. (The Whirling Dervishes also will be part of the symposium, which will include a Sufi-inspired work by local dancer Tehreema Mitha as well as musical performances, films and scholarly talks.)

But for Chaturvedi, who spent years learning the precise finger and hand gestures, eye movements and full-body expressiveness of the kathak and bharatanatyam dance forms, getting audiences to see beyond her physical presence is a challenge of another sort.

“I’m dancing with a body; I can’t negate that,” she says. “But if I wear a multicolored outfit, that takes away from the dance. . . . Black helps me to negate the beauty aspect and present the form as it is.”

The coming fall season has no lack of novelty. Consider, for starters, the West Sumatran contemporary dance company Nan Jombang at Dance Place, the talented Dan Hurlin bringing a new puppet-intensive piece to the American Dance Institute, and the National Ballet of Canada’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” at the Kennedy Center, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Yet Chaturvedi’s maiden voyage here stands apart for its flip-flopping of dance conventions.

If the dance scene can seem preoccupied with fabulousness — with bodies stretched to the limit and beyond, with technology blinking from every corner, with pounding musical excitement — here is something quiet, simple and very new indeed. Even as it is derived from a centuries-old history.

“Just dancing for entertainment never appealed to me,” Chaturvedi says. Back in the 1990s, as she began wondering what to do with the intoxicating feeling of surrender she experienced while dancing, she also started reading Sufi poetry. Inspired by its images of love, openness and a formless, abstract deity, she traveled to Egypt, Turkey and Uzbekistan to trace the roots of Sufism, hoping to find a way to use the rich expressiveness of Indian dance to convey Sufi thought.

“I had nothing to follow,” she says.

In fact, she had to fully reconsider Kathak dance, to unlearn what she’d learned about it, and reshape its vocabulary. Kathak, which is steeped in Hindu mythology, “is all about telling stories,” Chaturvedi says. “The gestures, the eyes, all depict a particular deity. We are taught that; it’s like a language. Now I had to reinterpret those hand gestures to depict a formless deity, who did not have eyes, or a particular stance or snakes around him.”

She has been performing Sufi kathak since 1998. She has toured India and Europe, and the audience response has been gratifying.

“They say, ‘You were dancing onstage, but why do I feel that I was dancing?’ That’s when I feel that my energy is reaching out to people,” she says. “I want them to experience it — not just watch something beautiful.”

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