For those of us raised on Kathak in the United Kingdom, the Banaras gharana is a strange, wild creature. Glimpsed only through clips on the internet, the Caliban of Kathak seems to creep and crawl around the perimeter on the fringes of our known world, never fully seen but at times presenting itself as an 'other' that beguiles as much as it perplexes. The prevailing style of Kathak in the United Kingdom is Lucknow gharana, regardless of the sub-style the teachers take their training in. Opportunities to see and learn Jaipur gharana are rare; Banaras gharana, near impossible. I was, therefore, reasonably intrigued when it came to my attention that Jayanti Mala, daughter of the notorious Kathak dancer Sitara Devi, would perform as part of the Alla Rakha Foundation's concert at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan at the end of last month. I've seen enough bad Kathak to know that a dancer's claims about his or her lineage have no bearing on their ability to dance. The doubts I had at the start of the performance were blown to powder in the first five minutes; and here I must skip to the end of the performance to explain why.
"It wasn't very refined," said someone on their way out. Damn right it wasn't. There was none of the smarmy, unctuous 'purity' of line which other styles advocate; none of the chloroform of sanitised movements which drip onto an audience blinking in the glare of the stage lights like patients in an operating theatre. What was there may have seemed raw, but it was warm, it was honest and it was clear. Every single tukra bol could be heard on the ghunghru; Jayanti Mala couldn't restrain herself from joining in with Yogesh Shamsi-ji's tabla; and it was a rare delight to see her unrestrained abhinaya when dancing the Banaras gharana speciality of kavit. Not only that, but a small nuclear facility seemed to be supplying her dance with power (so much so that the safety-valve venting of some steam resulted in an on-stage spat between her and Abhay Shankar Mishra, who was accompanying her on the pakhavaj).
In fact on second thoughts, in this context, I would problematise the concept of 'refinement' (as well as my assertion above that the performance wasn't refined). What's refinement anyway? A quick search of the internet dictionaries (which has somewhat depressingly replaced my Concise OED for convenience) renders the following: '1. fineness or elegance of feeling, taste, manners, language, etc; 2. an instance of refined feeling, manners, etc; 3. the act or process of refining; 4. the quality or state of being refined; 5. a subtle point or distinction; 6. subtle reasoning.' Leaving aside 3, 4, and 6 as perhaps not directly applicable, I would find it hard to argue that Jayanti Mala's dance had no fineness to it, no subtle points and no distinction. In fact, a fellow dancer of considerable experience was amazed at the abhinaya and the coquetry that Jayanti Mala presented, as things that my friend herself found hard to do even as a long-trained dancer in Bharatanatyam.
There were refinements and niceties galore; but they are details to which we are unaccustomed. Her 'Hori' abhinaya piece was filled with old-world Kathak, such that is rarely seen nowadays and that evoked the charm of a bygone time. The tukras she presented were filled with intricacies, not only of technique but of expression. Her presentation was bold, brassy and Banaras.
The dare is to accept that sometimes things may not be as 'graceless' or 'unrefined' as they may first seem, to accept that they are merely refined in different ways, ways to which we are unused, ways which may take us out of our comfort zone into new modes of viewing and appreciating the same dance we thought we knew so well. As Kumi-ben says, 'There is no right or wrong in dance; there is only good dance and bad dance.' I hope she'd agree that this was unarguably good dance.
And as for Banaras gharana: 'Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not'.