header image

A Starry Solace

This morning I awoke before the dawn could open its eyes on my sleepy, (used-to-be) little town. In the night, the words had assaulted my ear – one of those nights where dreams are insistent, troubling and inspiring all at once; one can neither forget they were there, and yet their story eludes. So, I could not tell you what I dreamed, but I assure you it was enough to wake a groggy mind and body, a weary traveler after his journey home.

The words – the vestiges of dreams – would not let me go back to sleep. They flitted about in my mind, phantoms of images, and begged to be written in the solace of this town. They surely recognized the surroundings, when I had stepped out of my car late into the night: the smell of cow and fertilizer signaled a return to the very words that had been my ticket away from here, almost eight years ago.

So I took to the lightless morning, and stepped beneath the same star-carpeted sky under whose cover I had arrived but a few hours ago. I felt the cold valley chill of a March morning, and shuffled my way into the darkness. In my car, I drove past familiar signs, empty streets, squat, silent buildings a moment and an eternity away from raising their eyelids to the morning sun.

Here, I find leisure to rest without end, but also the inspiration to interrupt the reverie. That part of me which needs renewal is restored, even as my body leverages the strength to do so much more than my current everyday. It is a tension, a contradiction that I dare not challenge, for fear of destroying it in the process. In this hometown, I can do more; in this hometown, I find peace.

No doubt the words felt similarly roused in our silent descent into the valley. Radio off, I found them pouring out of me in prayer, thought, and speech, a raw confusion yet to be distilled into sensible language. And now, in the morning, I give them form, though I am not so bold as to say significance. These words are like those of years ago, those of a small-town teenager who hardly knew how to make them relevant to a dismissive world. Yet surely, having made me, they deserve their own place in my own humble chronicles.

It was not until I entered into a world 3,000 miles away that I had finally learned how to make my words work – how to make them pull at the heartstrings of people from a space unlike my own. Such words needed be vulnerable and vibrant, violent and viscous, purposed in every way for the steering of hearts and minds. But the words I find here, when I arrive, are mundane and flippant; I spend them without thought or frugality, and surely their empty proliferation on the page gives halt to the rare reader. I look back on the words of my past, and find them lacking in substance, a message, a theme to keep my companions engaged.

Here, too, I continue to struggle upon my returns. The words come easily, but what is the contribution of a world-traveled man when he comes back to this place? What are my proud, if tacit, claims to greatness when faced with the ordinariness – the blessed ordinariness – of who I am? I profess insight through experience, but such is derived from an abstract universe that holds no currency here. When compared to the blistered hands and feet of a community so connected to the fruits of its labor, what have I to show but some vague thoughts of the world, a rare, lucid commentary that holds no water for the needs at hand?

I struggle for substance, even as I seek to transcend. I am trapped between the two poles of the material world – the one ripe with needs, desires, the earthy scent of human bodies and human realities – and the quest for intellectual valor – sublime and removed, an “outside/other” that self-righteously proclaims the “good” of all mankind. I fulfill neither role at this point, and yet I find myself deriding the latter, even as I become more and more removed from the former, from reality (if only to avoid the real pains that accompany it).

These words pour out on a starry morning, as this sleepy town awakens. They betray an alienation and a longing for the past, which one can never recover. But in between those words lies the crux of what I fail to capture: an optimism of returning, again and again, to the birthplace of my language. For while I do find myself more distanced from the past during my time away, the act of returning repairs the foundation. Therefore, I wake not to the pre-dawn for fatalistic wonderings about my separation from this town, but to celebrate the ways that being here again fills me up for another adventure beyond it.

No doubt these days are filled with challenges to my joy, to my optimism, to a stolid independence tinged with fraternal love. The world threatens to break me down everyday, perhaps because I have been set on engaging in every possibility, always at my own risk. I am tired and run down, in need of rehabilitation. It is reassuring to know that there are yet places and times in this life where and when the words and I can find reprieve, where we can take solace and shape in the reverie of those whole eternities that take place before dawn.

Beautiful Words


Why are the most beautiful words written in times of hurt? How is it that the sharp edge of a fretful experience can allow us to speak, write, emote more eloquently than we have ever done before? Even sometimes incomprehensible, the language that babbles forth carries a raw, untampered texture that eludes the smoother, yet vapid, sounds that come out of our serenity. It’s the blood that discharges from a seemingly lethal wound: the rich redness whose color never wholly appears the same. Sometimes it is of the brightest tinge, with acid remarks issuing from our veins. And then there’s the most morose of maroons, slowly trickling away a contemplative dejection and self-accusation, all for the phantom spectator to look upon in vicarious suffering.

These words balance the line between performance and privacy. They make us question what is meant to be heard, and what is for ourselves. They seek attention, and yet are ashamed in their nakedness. So we take pen to paper, and stash the product in a solitary drawer. We send a few cryptic messages in a cellular bottle, and explain them away later on. We allude to our listless state in evaporating images, modernity’s blessing for the despondent, and then wait expectantly for the inquiries we do not wish to encounter. Prayers lie perfectly at this juncture, but surely our words resound trite and overdone to the God of eternity. Still, we say them, send them, cast them away, regretting their exposure almost immediately, but yet hoping for a fruitful return.

But what fruit could they yield? Words are, after all, just words, and those who have lost — truly lost — recognize the immateriality, the ultimate inconsequence of the verbal condolence. Today, we constantly encounter (and are responsible for) cathartic emissions on screens deceptively draped in soothing grays and blues. What can we gain from these? We hope the world, but receive only faint echoes of the pain we have made public to it. And even as we take in the travails of others, we either become overwhelmed by all that plagues those we love, or are desensitized to their proliferation.

And yet, the words abound. Despite their futility, their questionable value, they march forth from the wounded like so many final exhalations, only to find that perhaps, by releasing them, we might breathe again. Expel the poison, the tainted blood, even as it multiplies within you; hope for a spring of clean, fresh water from the depths of your soul, which you had forgotten. Let the words run dry with the infected blackness of the veins. Those who look on can only shake their heads in sympathy, but maybe that is enough — to know that the words (and the hurt) were real enough to be received, at the very least.

Perhaps that is the answer I’ve sought all along. To be heard, our words must be worth hearing. To be such, they must be beautiful. We invite, sometimes ensnare, others into our struggles by the exceptionally gory and enrapturing effusion of literary distinction. We leverage our woes to create our greatest works, to be looked on in validation of the struggles we all face. It is hardly insidious, though not without some latent intent; it is humanity at its lowest, creation at its best. It is Picasso’s ear on a page, Juliet’s body as canvas, the dancer’s convulsions when nothing else will do. All such art — like these words — is to be looked on and admired, testifying to the world that we are vulnerable, yet still living.


Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.44.25 AM Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.44.38 AM Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.44.59 AM Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.45.12 AM Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.45.24 AM Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.45.40 AM Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.45.55 AM Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.46.06 AM Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.46.16 AM

Traveling Farther. Getting Closer.

Just two months ago, I sat almost 9,000 miles across the globe. I stared solemnly at the choppy waters as they grazed the cement tripods below my dangling feet. I raised misty eyes to the hazy skyline at the far end of Marine Drive. I said hello again to a city that was both a stranger, and the most intimate of partners. I shared a photo with the world, speaking of Mumbai as though she were this knowable being, a long-lost lover, another home that had made me who I was in the brief months we’d spent together in years past. But this other, this mysterious person-thing-place I was coming again to know, was someone so much smaller – and yet intricately more complex – than that concrete jungle could ever be.

In my travels, I was becoming reacquainted with… myself.

For much of my time in India this summer, I was working on my Hindi with a Critical Language Scholarship in Jaipur. During one of our first weekly program meetings, our resident director introduced us to Pico Iyer’s “Why We Travel”. At the time, it meant little to me; to be honest, never having finished reading the full piece, I still can’t say the article itself is what moves me. And yet, since I’ve returned to California, and been thrown back into a life that is both my own and yet so foreign, I often return to the question of “Why I Travel”. And the only answer I can truly come up with is that this distance from the world that I know – from the world that “knows me” – forcefully diminishes the distance between myself and I.

A narcissistic encounter, to say the least. But a necessary one, at that. On the other side of the world, while I was putting together my translation and thoughts on Ye Dooriyan, it was not just the geographic and cultural distances I was trying to cross. It was merely by traveling that physical distance that I was to cross the smallest and most significant of chasms: that within my very soul. For I would hardly consider myself much of a traveler – the pain of flights, a tacit distaste of tourism, my uncanny ability to remain lethargic and lazy in an exciting space with a million new things to see and do. These no doubt disqualify me in any strict definition of the word. So why do it? Why leave family, friends, home – wherever that is – thousands of miles away, to flee to Mumbai, put up with the cost, the pain, to spend hours outside of meetings and fieldwork alone in a mass of people who know nothing more about me than the paleness of my skin?

The understanding that was obscured in these fleeting moments is revealed best in retrospect. I have fond memories of Mumbai, but not simply in meeting new people, carrying out interviews, seeing almost every Bollywood film that came out. I also cherish those Marine Drive moments of meditation; working alone in any given café for hours on end; sitting in my hotel room late at night binge watching Suits; reading; praying; thinking. I cherish the silences that held up my reflection, when I could almost hear God speak to me in the stillness, where the plainness of the moment allowed for the stripping down of my soul to its bare minimum.

In a world that moves so quickly, with commitments to family, friends, hobbies, and work, we are all required to be so much more than just ourselves. (During a particularly emotional, tragic, difficult year, I felt that as much as anyone.) We adorn ourselves with the daily; pile on the connections, the relations, the expectations that are necessary for any social human life. But when the decoration begins to hide the person behind it all… It’s time to set it aside, piece by piece, and gaze into the mirror that lies behind the solitude.

I like to think on the past year of my life as a piece of art in the making. (Let’s call it abstract art, as a disclaimer to any claims of self-adulation.) Last fall through the early summer was a crucible: I was forged in the fire of loss, transition, passion, pain. I ended the academic year markedly different than I was when I had begun, and I think my everyday life demonstrated that well enough. But returning to Mumbai, as one face of many, I was exposed to the balmy winds left in the wake of the monsoons. They cut into me, sanded me down, smoothing out the rough edges. They turned a hardened soul into something more recognizable, something workable and malleable. Far from perfect – no doubt many rounds in the fire yet await me in my life – but far better than the previous iteration.

It is only now, as I tentatively dip my feet into the lapping waters of life, with all its emotions, dreams, romances, disappointments, and wonderfully textured beauty, that I begin to see what that all was for. As I sat along Marine Drive that day – tinted a dreamy gray and blue in my memory – my feet circled far above those waves. Now, having refined or shed some of those heavy moments of the past (though hardly all of them), I can gradually wade into the sea, free of the weight that would have dragged me under only months ago. I see myself better for the time away, and better again upon coming back to the world of those I love – and of those I am to love in days to come. It reminds me that I am a constant work-in-progress, from the day I was born, to the day I pass from this earth.

But it is only moving to and fro across its very face that I prepare myself for such a day; and when this wandering (and wondering) ceases, I pray to God that the building up and breaking down, the adornment and the laying bare, will result in a man worth remembering wherever it is his feet had tread.

Kadam Leke, Samajhna Baatein

कदम लेके, समझना बातें: कथक नृत्य और मानव वैज्ञानिक सिद्धांत

मैं मानव विज्ञानी हूँ। मगर मैं भी मानव हूँ। मेरी ज़िंदगी में बहुत सारे रास्तों पर घूमा हूँ मैं, फिर भी जीवन में बहुत और यात्राएँ अभी बाक़ी हैं। तो अगर मैं मानव विज्ञानी हूँ, कैसे मेरी कहानियाँ और मेरा काममेरा शोधअलग रखूँ?

शायद यह तो ज़रूरी नहीं है। दुनिया में कहा जाता है कि विज्ञान में, न राय न ही कोई व्यक्तिगत अनुभव नहीं होना चाहिये। ताकि पढ़ाई में हमारी कहानियों के लिये कोई जगह न होशोध से हमें खुद को निकालना पड़ता है। पर मेरा सोच है कि अगर हम मानते हैं कि यह भूमिका अहम नहीं है, हम सिर्फ बाहरी कारकों को उपेक्ष कर रहे हैं। इसलिये मैं मानव विज्ञान – “एंथ्रोपोलॉजी” – पढ़ता हूँ, एक अध्ययन का विषय जिस में हम पहचानते हैं कि हमारी कहानियाँ और दूसरों कि कहानियाँ एक ही होती हैं। शिक्षा में, हम इसको कहते हैं, “रीफ्लेक्सिव एंथ्रोपोलॉजी

इस तरह से मैं कहता हूँ कि मैं विज्ञानी हूँ, और मैं कलाकार भी हूँ। एक दूसरे के बिना नहीं हो सकता हूँ। दरसल, मेरा शोध इस संयोजन के चारों ओर घूमता है। ग्रेजुएट स्कूल से पहले, मैं एक बॉलीवुड नाटक में काम करता था। हमारे टूर के द्वारा, मैं बहुत सारे हिनदुस्तानी लोगों से मिला पूरे दुनिया में। उनसे मिलकर मुझे प्रेरणा भी मिली मेरे पी.एच.डी. के विषय के लिये। मैंने फैसला किया कि उनके बारे में मैं लिखूँगा। पूछना चाहता था, क्यों अलग अलग देशों में बॉलीवुड फिल्म, संगीत, और नृत्य इतने खास हैं? मैं समझ सकता था कि विदेशियों के लिये संस्कृति, संस्कार बहुत महत्वपूर्ण हैजैसे एक अजीब दुनिया में इन चीज़ों में खुद को डूबने से बचा सकें। मगर ये सब, क्यों बॉलीवुड के द्वारा? इसका जवाब पाने के लिये मैं खोजने लगा।

यह तलाश सही से यूनाइटेड स्टेट्स में शुरू हुई। लेकिन नहीं कह सकता हूँ कि यह मेरी योजना थी। जैसे एक टूर के दौरन घटना से मेरा पहला विचार मुझे मिला था, वैसे ही इसकी शुरूआत भी हो गयी। इस के वजह से भी मैं विश्वास के साथ कह सकता हूँ कि मेरी कहानी और मेरे विषय कि कहानी जुड़ी हुई हैं, क्योंकि जैसे ही मैंयू.सी. इरवाईनपढ़ने पहुँचा, वैसे ही मैंने एक नयी नाच कंपनी से संबद्ध किया। इस टीम का नामयू.सी.आई. ज़मानाथा, और यू.एस. का राष्ट्रियएच.एफ.डी.” (हिन्दी फिल्म डॉन्स) लीग में मुकाबला करती थी। जब मैं इस टीम में शामिल होने लगा, मैं सिर्फ सोचता था कि यह तो शौक के लिये होगा। मगर जल्दी से मुझे एहसास हुआ कि यह लीग सिर्फ शौक नहीं हैपरंपरा, संस्कार, और सामाजिक घटना है।

मेरा मतलब है कि इस लीगइस संघ मेंबहुत सारे पहली पीढ़ी के भारतीयअमेरिकी छात्र होते हैं। इन प्रतियोगिताओं में, हम तो सोचते होंगे कि अलग अलग टीमों के नाच की शैलियाँ थोड़ी-सी परंपरागत होंगी। लेकिन जब इस लीग में – जिसको लोग कहते हैं “ड सिर्कट” – मैं नाचने लगा, तब मैं देख पाया कि इतनी सीधी बात नहीं हैं। जैसे एक नर्तक ने मुझसे कहा राष्ट्रीय फाइनल के दौरन: “हम नाच के द्वारा अपना संस्कार नहीं दिखा रहे हैं – हम उसे बना रहे हैं”। तभी, मुझे पता चला कि मेरा शोध नाच के बारे में होगा। मेरे पी.एच.डी. सलाहकारों ने कहा था कि मेरे नाटक का अनुभव मेरा बल था, लेकिन तब तक मैं नहीं जानता था कैसे यह अनुभव इस्तेमाल करूँ। उस दिन से, मैं जानता हूँ कि हालाँकि मज़े के लिये मैंने नाचने शुरू किया, फिर भी एक प्रक्रिया में आ गया हूँ मैं – एक अत्यंत ख़ास चीज़ जिसके द्वारा एक पूरी संस्कृति फिर से बन रही है।

इसलिये जब मैं जयपुर आया था, सबसे पहले मैंने कथक सीखने का फैसला किया। आने से पहले, मेरी कॉलेज थीसिस सलाहकार ने मुझसे कहा कि उनके एक्स-पति के कथक गुरू का बेटा यहाँ रहता हैं, और वह जयपुर कथक केंद्र के मालिक और प्रमुख गुरूजी हैं। उनका पूरा नाम गुरूजी राजकुमार जावड़ा है, और आजकल वह और उसका परिवार काफ़ी मशहूर हैं उनकी “जयपुर घराना” नामक कथक की शैली के लिये। उनके घर में बहुत साल पहले से, इस शैली को बढ़ावा दिया गया है, और आज भारत के तीन मुख्य घरानों में से एक जयपुर घराना मान जाता है।

छह हफतों के लिये मैं गुरूजी और उनके बेटों से सीखता था। रोज़ मैं उनका घर जाता था, और जितना वे सब सीखा सकते हैं डेढ़ महीने में, उतना मैंने सीखा। और सिर्फ कथक नहीं बल्कि कथक की बोलें, तबला की बोलें, और थोड़ा-सा हिन्दुस्तानी गाना। ऐसे मेरा लक्ष्य था कि मैं हिन्दी के अलावा मैं कई भाषाएँ सीखूँ। क्योंकि अगर मुझे अपने विषय की भाषा नहीं आती, तो कैसे दुनिया के दूसरे लोगों को समझाऊँ अपनी भाषाों में? मेरे लिये, यह नाच, ये बोलें, ये ताल – सब तो भाषा हैं, और मेरे समझने के लिये केवल शब्दों का अनुवाद नहीं चलेगा। अगर मैं नाच और संचलन के बारे में लिखूँगा, तो फिर सिर्फ बदन और नाचने की भाषा के द्वारा ठीक से सीख और अनुवाद कर सकता हूँ। ऐसे मेरी कहानी ज़रूरी भी है – अगर नर्तक नहीं होता, तो कैसे सीखता? और अगर नहीं सीखूँ, तो दूसरों से कैसे बताऊँ? यह तो शोध नहीं होता। यह तो टूरिज़्म होता।

तो उन कथक कक्षाओं में, एक छोटा-सा कमरा गुरूजी के घर की छत पर, मेरा शरीर मेरी चाबी बन गया। सबसे अहम है कि सिर्फ कला नहीं सीख रहा हूँ – एक पूरी संस्कृति सीख रहा था। यह कला मेरा रास्ता – मेरा माध्यम – था। इसलिये वह जो मैंने सीखा और जिसके बारे में मैं लिखता हूँ एक खिचड़ी लगता होगा: कभी कभी एक कथक के प्रदर्शनों की सूची का हिस्सा, कभी कभी एक चीज़ जो गुरूजी ने कहा, कभी कभी एक याद, एक व्यक्तिगत सम्बंध इस नाच के साथ। अभी भी मेरे मन में गड़बड़ होती हैं, मगर फिर भी इस महत्व को नहीं मना कर सकता हूँ। एक सीधी तरह के इंतिज़ाम करने की कोशिश में, यह बात तीन खंडों में प्रस्तुत की जा सकती हैं:

१) संचलन और अनुशासन

२) परिवार और परंपरा

३) आवाज़ और सुपरिचय

संचलन और अनुशासन: ज़िन्दगी का ताल

रोज़, उस छोटे कमरे में, घुँघरू बाँधकर (दाई पैर पहला), मैं नाचने लगता था। सबसे पहले प्रणाम किया जाता है:

दोनों हाथ दाहिने,
फिर बाएँ,
फिर पीछे,
फिर आगे।
हाथों से फर्श छूना
(आशीर्वाद लेना)।
कलाई एक दूसरी से घुमाना,
और उठकर खड़े हो जाना।
बाँह ऊपर और बाहर फैलाकर,
चक्र में चलना,
चार तालों के लिये।
अंत में,
हाथ बीच में रखना,
छाती के सामने,
फिर शुरू।

पहले हफते में, जितना भी तब तक मैं सीख चुका था, उतना मैं रियाज़ करता था जब तक गुरूजी आएँ। लेकिन घर में सब सुन सकते होंगे, क्योंकि एक दिन गुरूजी की बेटी ने दरवाज़े तक आकर कहा, “सुन लो, सिर्फ ततकार करना अभी!” उस दिन से मुझे मालूम चलने लगा कितना अहम ततकार है, हालाँकि सीधा लगता है।

ततकार कथक का सबसे मूलभूल कदम है। आठ तालों से बनता है:

दाएँ, बाएँ, दाएँ, बाएँ
बाएँ, दाएँ, बाएँ, दाएँ
(सिर्फ पैरों से, तीन गतियों में आता है)।

शुरूआत में, मैं सोचता था कि इस का रियाज़ सिर्फ वक़्त खत्म करने के लिये था; रोज़ लगभग तीस मिनट के लिये बस ततकार करता था। मगर थोड़े दिनों में, मुझे पता लगा कि यह तो कथक के अनुशासन की बुनियाद थी। इससे मेरे पाँव और मेरा मन मज़बूत हो गये। जितना मैं सिर्फ ततकार रियाज़ करता था, उतना ही भी सब दूसरी चीज़ों में मैं सुधरता था। एक बार, गुरूजी ने मुझसे कहा कि रोज़ वे भी ततकार रियाज़ करते हैं – दो या तीन घंटों के लिये। वे कहते थे इससे उनकी प्रतिभा में निखार आता है।

ततकार के अलावा, मैंने कई चीज़ें सीखी: नौ तोरे, तीन आमद, तिहाई, गुरू वंदना, पल्टा, और थाट। मगर सबसे ज़्यादा मैंने सीखा कि कथक की रचनात्मकता अनुशासन से आती है। इसके बिना सत्यता कथक में नहीं मिलेगा।

परिवार और परंपरा: रोज़ की जुगलबंदी

संचलन और अनुशासन ज़रूरी हैं कथक नाचने के लिये। मगर कथक भी एक माध्यम है जिसके द्वारा परंपरा और परिवार अनुरक्षित होते हैं। इस कला के लिये नृत्यकला होती है – ज़िन्दगी के लिये भी।

रोज़, जभी गुरूजी से मिलते हैं, उनसे आशीर्वाद लेते हैं। और जभी रियाजं खत्म हो, प्रणाम करके आर घुँघरू उतारकर, फिर से आशिर्वाद लेते हैं – गुरूजी से, घुँघरू से (चहरे से लगाते हुए), और तबले से। हर चाल के साथ एक मतलब है, और गुरूजी का पूरा परिवार ऐसे रहते हैं – ज़िन्दगी भर नाचते हुए।

गुरू पूर्णिमा के लिये मैं गुरूजी के घर पे था। इतना बड़ा उत्सव था। सब उनका परिवार – बेटे, बेटियाँ, भतीजे, भांजे गुरूजी के घर पे आये थे। हम सब भेंट लाये थे गुरूजी और गुरूमाँ के लिये। देख पाया कि ये भी नृत्यकला थी। हमारी पूजा (जैसे नाच भी) के द्वारा हम परंपरा की रक्षा कर रहे थे, और यह गुरूजी का परिवार भी संभालता था। ऐसे था कि कई हफ़्तों के दौरन इस परिवार में मैं भी स्वीकार हुआ, और ऐसे भी मैं परंपरागत  और पारिवारिक नृत्यकला को समझ पाया।

आवाज़ और सुपरिचय: देश-विदेश का नृत्य

हालाँकि मैं एक दूसरी दुनिया से आया था, मैं संचलन के द्वारा सीख पाया। मगर कई चीज़ों मेरी अपनी दुनिया की याद दिलायी थीं। आम तौर से, ये यादें आवाज़ से आती थीं – जैसे संचलन से इस परंपरा आया, वैसे आवाज़ से मैं अपने आप के इतिहास को याद करता था। विशेष रूप से जब मैंने एक नया आमद सीखा था। उस आमद में, तीन तीन-कदम चक्र होते हैं:

ता ता-ते, ता ता-ते, ता ता-ते –
ता ता-ते, ता ता-ते, ता ता-ते –
ता ता-ते, ता ता-ते, तत तत ता।

पहली बार जब यह मैं रियाज़ कर रहा था, मुझे एहसास हुआ कि इन चक्रों की आवाज़ घोड़े के सरपट दौड़ने की आवाज़ के जैसी लगती थी। मैं ऐसे याद रखता था, कयोंकि बचपन में, मैं अपने परिवार के खेत पर काम करता था। उन दिनों में मेरे घोड़े के सरपट दौड़ने का तरीका और मैं एक जैसे थे। सिर्फ आवाज़ से हमको पता चलता था अगर मैं ठीक से चला रहा था।  वैसे आजकल घूँघरू की आवाज़ से मैं जानता हूँ अगर तीन-कदम चक्र ठीक से करता हूँ।

लगता है कि सिर्फ शब्दों से यह अनुवाद नहीं हो सकता। केवल बोली हुई भाषा नहीं समझ या समझा सकती है। बदन और आवाज़ से यह तो होता है। अगर यह कथक इतना अहम है परंपरा के लिये जैसे मैंने कहा, शायद हम कह सकते हैं कि एक नया रास्ता होना चाहिये हमारे मानव विज्ञान में। क्योंकि जितना भी हम लिखें और कहें, कुछ नहीं असली ज़िन्दगी का स्थान खड़ा हो सकता है।

Kadam Leke, Samajhna Baatein:
Kathak Nratya aur Manav Vigyanik Siddhant

Main manav vigyani hoon. Magar main bhi manav hoon. Meri zindagi mein, bahut sare raston par ghooma hoon main, phir bhi jeevan mein bahut sari yatraen baki hain. To agar main manav vigyani hoon, kaise meri kahaniyan aur mera kam – mera shodh – alag rakhun?

Shayad yeh to zaruri nahin hai. Duniya mein keha jata hai ki vigyan mein, na ray na hi koi vyaktigat anubhav nahin hona chahiye. Taki padhai mein hamari kahaniyon ke liye koi jagah na ho – shodh se humen khud ko nikalna padta hai. Par mera soch hai ki agar hum mante hain ki yeh bhumika ahem nahin hai, hum sirf bahri karkon ko upeksh kar rahe hain. Isliye main manav vigyan – “anthropology” – padhta hoon, ek adhyayan ka vishya jis mein hum pehchante hain ki hamari kahaniyan aur dusron ki kahaniyan ek hi hoti hain. Shiksha mein, hum isko kehte hain, “reflexive anthropology”.

Is terah se main kehta hoon ki main vigyani hoon, aur main kalakar bhi hoon. Ek dusre ke bina nahin ho sakto hoon. Darasal, mera shodh is sanyojan ke charon aur ghumta hai. Graduate school se pahele, main ek Bollywood natak mein kam karta tha. Hamare tour ke dwara, main bahut sare Hindustani logon se mila pure duniya mein. Unse milkar mujhe prerna bhi mili mere Ph.D. ke vishya ke liye. Maina phaisla kiya ki unke bare mein main likhunga. Poochna chahta tha, kyon alag alag deshon mein Bollywood film, sangeet, aur nratya itne khas hain? Main samajh sakta tha ki videshiyon ke liye sanskriti, sanskar bahut mahatvapurn hai – jaise ek ajeeb duniya mein in cheezon mein khud ko doobne se bacha saken. Magar ye sab, kyon Bollywood ke dwara? Iska jawab pane ke liye main khojne laga.

Yeh talaash sahi se United States mein shuru hui. Lekin nahin keh sakta hoon ki yeh meri yojna thi. Jaise ek tour ke dauran ghatna se mera pehla vichar mujhe mila tha, vaise hi iski shuruaat bhi ho gayi. Is ke vajeh se bhi main vikshvas ke sath keh sakta hoon ki meri kahani aur mere vishya ki kahani judi hui hain, kyonki jaise hi main UC Irvine padhne pahuncha, vaise hi maine ek nayi nach company se sambandh kiya. Is team ka nam “UCI Zamana” tha, aur US ka rashtriya “HFD” (Hindi Film Dance) league mein mukabla karti thi. Jab main is team mein shamil hone laga, main sirf sochta tha ki yeh to shauk ke liye hoga. Magar jaldi se mujhe ehsaas hua ki yeh league sirf shauk nahin hai – parampara, sanskar, aur samajik ghatna hai.

Mera matlab hai ki is league – is sangh mein – bahut sare pehli pidhi ke Bharatiya-Ameriki chatra hote hain. In pratiyogitaon mein, hum to sochte honge ki alag alag teamon ke nach ki shaliyan thodi-si parampagat hongi. Lekin jab is league mein – jisko log kehte hain “the circuit” – main nachne laga, tab main dekh paya ki itni sidhi bat nahin hain. Jaise ek nartak ne mujhse kaha rashtriya final ke dauran: “Hum nach ke dwara apna sanskar nahin dikha rahe hain – hum use bana rahe hain.” Tabhi, mujhe pata chala ki mera shodh nach ke bare mein hoga. Mere Ph.D. salahkaron ne kaha tha ki mere natak ka anubhav mera bal tha, lekin tab tak main nahin janta tha kaise yeh anubhav istemal karun. Us din se, main janta hoon ki halanki maze ke liye maine nachne shuru kiya, phir bhi ek prakriya mein aa gaya hoon main – ek atyant khas cheez jiske dwara ek puri sanskriti phir se ban rahi hai.

Isliye jab main Jaipur aaya tha, sabse pahele mainne Kathak sikhne ka phaisla kiya. Aane se pahele, meri college thesis salahkar ne mujhse keha ki unke ex-pati ke kathak guru ka beta yahan rehta hain, aur woh Jaipur Kathak kendra ke malik aur pramukh Guruji hain. Unka pura nam Guruji Rajkumar Javda hai, aur aajkal woh aur uska pariwar kafi mashur hain unki “Jaipur Gharana” namak Kathak ki shaili ke liye. Unke ghar mein bahut sal pahele se, is shaili ko bhadava diya gaya hai, aur aaj Bharat ke teen mukhya gharanon mein se ek Jaipur Gharana man jata hai.

Cheh hafton ke liye main Guruji aur unke beton se sikhta tha. Roz main unka ghar jata tha, aur jitna ve sab sikha sakte hain dedh mahine mein, utna maine sikha. Aur sirf kathak nahin balki kathak ki bolen, tabla ki bolen, sur thoda-sa Hindustani gana. Aise mera lakshya tha ki main Hindi ke alava main kai bhashaen sikhun. Kyonki agar mujhe apne vishya ki bhasha nahin aati, to kaise duniya ke dusre logon ko samajhaun apni bhashaon mein? Mere liye, yeh nach, ye bolen, ye taal – sab to bhasha hain, aur mere samajhne ke liye keval shabdon ka anuvaad nahin chalega. Agar main nach aur sanchalan ke bare mein likhunga, to phir sirf badan aur nachne ki bhasha ke dwara theek se sikh aur anuvad kar sakta hoon. Aise meri kahani zaruri bhi hai – agar nartak nahin hota, to kaise sikhta? Aur agar nahin sikhun, to dusron se kaise bataun? Yeh to shodh nahin hota. Yeh to tourism hota.

To un Kathak kakshaon mein, ek chota-sa kamra Guruji ke ghar ki chat par, mera sharir meri chabi ban gaya. Sabse ahem hai ki sirf kala nahin sikh raha hoon – ek puri sanskriti sikh raha tha. Yeh kala mera rasta – mera madhyam – tha. Isliye woh jo maine sikha aur jiske bare mein main likhta hoon ek khichdi lagta hoga: kabhi kabhi ek Kathak ke pradarshanon ki suchi ka hissa, kabhi kabhi ek cheez jo Guruji ne keha, kabhi kabhi ek yaad, ek vyaktigat sambandh is nach ke saath. Abhi bhi mere man mein gadbad hoti hain, magar phir bhi is mahatv ko nahin mana kar sakta hoon. Ek seedhi terah ke intizam karne ki koshish mein, yeh baat teen khandon mein prastut ki ja sakti jain:

1) Sanchalan aur anushasn
2) Parivar aur parampara
3) Awaaz aur suparichya

Sanchalan aur Anushasn: Zindagi ka Taal
Roz, us chote kamre mein, ghungroo bandhkar (dai pair pahela), main nachne lagta tha. Sabse pahele pranam kiya jata hai:

Donon haath dahine,
Phir baen
Phir peeche,
Phir aage,
Haathon se pharsh chhoona,
(Aashirvad lena).
Kalai ek dusri se ghumana,
Aur oothkar khade ho jana.
Baanh upar aur baahar phailakar,
Chakar mein chalna,
Char taalon ke liye.
Ant mein,
Hath beech mein rakhna,
Chhaati ke samne,
Phir shuru.

Pehle hafte mein, jitna bhi tab tak main sikh chuka tha, utna main riyaaz karta tha jab tak Guruji aaen. Lekin ghar mein sab sun sakte honge, kyonki ek din Guruji ki beti ne darwaze tak aakar keha, “Sun lo, sirf tatkar karna abhi!” Us din se mujhe malum chalne laga kitna aham tatkar hai, halanki seedha lagta hai.

Tatkar Kathak ka sabse mulbhul kadam hai. Aath talon se banta hai:

Daen, baen, daen, baen
Baen, daen, baen, daen
(Sirf pairon se, teen gatiyon mein aata hai).

Shuruaat mein, main sochta tha ki is ka riyaaz sirf vakt khatam karne ke liye tha; roz lagbhag tees minute ke liye bas tatkar karta tha. Magar thode dinon mein, mujhe pata laga ki yeh to kathak ke anushasn ki buniyad thi. Isse mere panv aur mera man mazboot ho gaye. Jitna main sirf tatkar riyaz karta tha, utna hi bhi sab dusri cheezon mein main sudharta tha. Ek baar, Guruji ne mujhse keha ki roz ve bhi tatkar karte hain – do ya teen ghanton ke liye. Ve kehte the isse unki pratibha mein nikhar aata hai.

Tatkar ke alava, mainne kai cheezon siki: nau tore, teen amad, tihai, Guru Vandana, palta, aur thaat. Magar sabse zyada maina sikha ki kathak ki rachnatmakta anushasan se aati hai. Iske bina satyata Kathak mein nahin milega.

Parivar aur Parampara: Roz ki Jugalbandi
Sanchalan aur anushasan zaruri hain Kathak nachne ke liye. Magar Kathak bhi ek madhyam hai jiske dwara parampara aur parivar anurakshit hote hain. Is kala ke liye nratyakala hoti hai – zindagi ke liye bhi.

Roz, jabhi Guruji se milte hain, unse aashirvad lete hain. Aur jabhi riyaaz ho, pranaam karke aur ghungroo utaarkar, phir se aashirvad lete hain – Guruji se, ghungroo se (chehre se lagate hue), aur table se. Har chaal ke sath ek matlab hai, aur Guruji ka pura parivar aise rehte hain – zindagi bhar nachte hue.

Guru Purnima ke liye main Guruji ke ghar pe tha. Itna bada utsav tha. Sab unka parivar – bete, betiyan, bhatije, bhanje Guruji ke ghar pe aaye the. Hum sab bhent late the Guruji aur Guruma ke liye. Dekh paya ki ye bhi nratyakala thi. Hamari puja, (jaise nach bhi) ke dwara hum parampara ki raksha kar rahe the, aur yeh Guruji ka parivar bhi sambhalta tha. Aise tha ki kai hafton ke dauran is parivar mein main bhi svikaar hua, aur aise bhi main parampagat aur parivarik nratyakala ko samajh paya.

Aawaaz aur Suparichya: Desh-Videsh ka Nratya
Halanki main ek dusri duniya se aaya tha, main sanchalan ke dwara sikh paya. Magar kai chizon meri apni dunya ki yaad dilayi thin. Aam taur se, ye yaadein aawaaz se aati thin – jaise sanchalan se is parampara aaya, vaise aawaaz se main apne aap ke itihaas ko yaad karta tha. Vishesh rup se jab mainne ek naya amad sikha tha. Us amad mein, teen teen-kadam chakra hote hain:

Ta ta-te, ta ta-te, ta ta-te –
Ta ta-te, ta ta-te, ta ta-te –
Ta ta-te, ta ta-te, tat tat ta.

Pehli baar jab yeh main riyaaz kar raha tha, mujhe ehsaas hua ki in chakron ki aawaaz ghode ke sarpat daudne ki aawaaz ke jaisi lagti thi. Main aise yaad rakhta tha, kyonki bachpan mein, main apne parivar ke khet par kam karta tha. Un dinon mein, mere gode ke sarpat daudne ka tareeka aur main ek jaise the. Sirf aawaaz se humko pata chalta tha agar main theek se chala raha tha. Vaise aajkal ghunghroo ki aawaaz se main jaanta hoon agar teen-kadam chakra theek se karta hoon.

Lagta hai ki sirf shabdon se yeh anuvaad nahin ho sakta. Keval boli hui bhasha nahin samajh ya samjha sakti hai. Badan aur aawaaz se yeh to hota hai. Agar yeh Kathak itna ahem hai parampara ke liye jaise maine keha, shayad hum keh sakte hain ki ek nya rasta hona chahiye hamare manav vigyan mein. Kyonki jitna bhi hum likhen aur kahen, kuch nahin asli zindagi ke sthan mein khade ho sakta hai.

Taking a Step, Understanding the Words:
Kathak Dance and Anthropological Theory

I am a human scientist (anthropologist) [1]. But I am also human. In my life, I have travelled along many paths, and yet many are still left to travel. So if I claim to be an anthropologist, how do I keep these stories and my work – my research – separate?

Perhaps this isn’t necessary. The world often says that, in science, neither opinion nor personal experience should be included. That is to say, in our studies, there is no place for our own stories; we must extract ourselves from our research. But my thinking is that, if we truly believe that this background isn’t important (or undesirable), we are merely ignoring these actually existing external factors. It is for this reason that I study anthropology in particular, a topic of study in which we recognize that our stories and those of others are actually one. In academia, one might call this recognition “reflexive anthropology.”

In this manner I say that I am a scientist, and an artist as well. I cannot be one without the other. In reality, my research revolves around this combination: Before graduate school, I worked in a Bollywood dance show. Through this tour, I met many diasporic South Asians all around the global. While meeting them, I stumbled upon inspiration for my Ph.D. research topic – I decided that I would write about these people. I wanted to ask: Why, in these various countries, do Bollywood film, music, and dance remain so special? I could understand that culture and ritual remains important for migrated populations – as though one could thus save oneself from drowning in this strange world. But why through Bollywood? Thus, I began searching for my answer.

This search began in earnest in the United States. But this isn’t to say that such was my plan. In the same way that I stumbled upon my first idea – almost by accident – during tour, my work also began by incident through life events. It is because of this that I say with confidence that my story is inseparable from the story of my research subject – because as soon as I reached UC Irvine to begin my studies, I joined a new dance company. The team’s name was “UCI Zamana,” which competed in a national “HFD” (Hindi film dance) league. When I joined this team, I simply thought that it would be for fun. But I quickly realized that this league is not just about fun – it is about tradition, identity, and societal phenomena.

This is to say that, in this league – in this association – many first-generation Indian-American students participate. In these competitions, one would therefore think that many of the styles of these teams would appear somewhat traditional. But when I started dancing in this league – which is popularly called “the circuit” – I managed to see that the situation is not so straightforward. As one dancer told me during the national finals (Bollywood America): “We’re not showing our identity through dance – we’re creating it.” At that point, I came to the realization that my research would have to be about dance. My Ph.D. advisors had told me that my performance experience was a strength, but until that point I did not know how I would use this experience. From that day, I’ve known that, although I began dancing for enjoyment, I had walked into the middle of a process – an extremely important event through which culture was being recreated.

Therefore, once I arrived in Jaipur, my first decision was to begin studying Kathak. Before coming, my thesis advisor had told me that her ex-husband’s Kathak guru’s son lived in the city, and that he was the head (and main Guru) of the Jaipur Kathak Kendra. His name is Guruji Rajkumar Javda, and these days, he and his family are well-known for their particular school of Kathak – the Jaipur Gharana. Many years ago, this school of Kathak had come into renown, having been passed down in their household, and today, the Jaipur gharana is considered one of India’s three main Kathak schools.

For six weeks, I learned from Guruji and his sons. Every day, I would go to their house, and however much they could teach me in a month and a half, I learned. And not just Kathak, but also Kathak “bols”, tabla bols, and a little bit of Hindustani singing [2]. Thus, my aim in Jaipur – besides improving my Hindi – was to learn some other “languages”. After all, if I could not understand these various languages, how do I communicate them to the rest of the world? For me, this dance, these “bols”, these beats – they are all languages, and to understand them, words alone will not do. If I am to write about dance and movement, I can only learn and translate properly through my body and dance. In this manner, my story also became necessary; if I were not a dancer, how would I learn? And if I could not learn, how do I communicate to others? Without my story, this would not be research. It would be mere tourism.

So in these Kathak lessons, in a small room on Guruji’s roof, my body became my key. It’s essential that I am not just learning art – I was studying an entire culture. This art was my path – my medium. Therefore whatever I learned, and whatever I write about will likely seem an eclectic mix: sometimes a small sampling of Kathak demonstrations, sometimes something that Guruji had once said, sometimes a memory, a personal connection with the dance. Even now, it’s all a hectic entanglement in my mind, but I still can’t deny its importance. In an effort to organize these points, they may best be presented in three parts:

1) Movement and Discipline
2) Family and Tradition
3) Sound and Familiarity

Movement and Discipline: Beats of Life
Every day, in that one little room, ghungroo bound (right foot first), I would begin to dance, pranam first:

Both hands right,
Then left,
Then back,
Then forward
Hands touch the floor
(Take blessings).
Revolve wrists one around the other,
Rise and stand.
Arms up and spread out,
Walk in a single circle,
For four beats.
At the end,
Bring hands to center,
In front of the chest,
Then begin.

For the first week, however much I had learned at the time, I would practice as much until Guruji arrived. But everyone in the house must of have been able to hear my practicing, as one day, Guruji’s daughter showed up at the door and said, “Listen, just tatkaar right now!” From that day, I began to understand how much importance was ascribed to tatkaar, however straightforward it seems:

Tatkaar is Kathak’s most essential step, and is made of eight beats:

Right, left, right, left
Left, right, left, right
(Just with the feet, it comes in three speeds)

In the beginning, I thought that practicing tatkaar was just to kill time; every day, I practiced only tatkaar for around thirty minutes. But in a few days, I came to understand that such was the foundation of Kathak discipline. From tatkaar alone, my feet and mind became stronger. However much I practiced tatkaar alone, my ability in other facets of Kathak proportionally increased. Once, Guruji told me that daily, he too practiced tatkaar – for two or three hours. He would say that even his skill was continually strengthened by it.

Besides tatkaar, I learned a handful of things: nine todas, three amads, tihai, Guru Vandana, palta, and thaat. But above all, I learned that Kathak’s creativity arises from discipline. Without this, authentic Kathak simply cannot be.

Family and Tradition: Daily Accompaniment

Movement and discipline are requisite to dance Kathak. But Kathak is also a medium through which tradition and family are maintained. Choreography is an essential part of this art – and for life as well.

Daily, whenever one meets Guruji, he must take his blessings. And whenever there is a rehearsal, after doing pranam and tying one’s ghungroo, blessings are taken again – from Guruji, from the ghungroo (having touched them to one’s face), and from the tabla. With every movement, there is a meaning, and Guruji’s family similarly lives this way – dancing throughout life.

For Guru Purnima, I was at Guruji’s home – it was quite a celebration. His entire family – sons, daughters, nephews and nieces – had come to Guruji’s house. We all brought gifts for Guruji and Guruma (his wife). I could say that this in itself was a type of choreography. Through our pooja (which was like dance, as well), we were maintaining tradition, and this was also a maintenance of Guruji’s very family [3]. Such it was that I had been accepted into this family over a few weeks, and in this way, too, I was able to comprehend traditional and familial choreography.

Sound and Familiarity: The Dance between Homeland and Foreign

Although I had come from another world, I was able to learn through movement. But several things reminded me of my own other world. Usually, these memories came through voice. Just as tradition came through movement, my memories of my own history came through sound, especially when I had learned a new amad once. In this particular amad, there are three three-step chakkars (rounds/circles):

Ta ta-te, ta ta-te, ta ta-te –
Ta ta-te, ta ta-te, ta ta-te –
Ta ta-te, ta ta-te, tat tat ta.

When I was first rehearsed this, it hit me that the sound and rhythm of these rounds sounded much like the galloping of a horse. In this way, I was able to commit this particular amad to memory. This was because, in my childhood, I had helped a bit on my family’s ranch. In those days (so long ago), the loping of my horse and I would function as one. I could often tell whether I was riding well or not by that audible rhythm alone. In that same way, from the singing of my ghungroo, I can tell today whether those three-step rounds are being executed correctly.

It seems to me that translation cannot happen by words alone. Spoken language by itself cannot be understood nor make others understand. This true translation occurs through body and sound. If Kathak is so important a tradition, as I have said, perhaps we can also say that such requires new path in our study of (and through) anthropology. After all, however much we write and say, nothing can perfectly replicate the embodied life.

[1] Anthropologist in Hindi is roughly translated to “manav vigyani,” literally meaning “human scientist” – hence the introductory wordplay that doesn’t translate well to English.

[2] The most literal translation for “bols” from Hindi is “speech”; they are the spoken rhythms of Kathak, tabla, and other rhythmic forms. Their added feature is a designation (through particular syllables) of the particular strike required to make that rhythm.

[3] Guru Purnima is a holiday held in celebration of teachers. Oftentimes, poojas – Hindu religious ceremonies – are held as part of the festivities in households.