Classical East Indian dancer Reshma Seetahal remembers breathing a heavy sigh of relief between smiles to the audience when she completed her Rang Manch Pravesh at Queen’s Hall last month. The graduation dance recital marked her introduction to the stage as a professional solo dancer or “kathakar” after years of dedicated training.
Pushing through physical pain, a law degree, a new career, and detractors, she became the first Kathak dancer in the country to be solely trained and presented by a Trinidadian guru of the art form. Her teacher is recognised stage performer, choreographer and producer Dr Satnarine Balkaransingh, who was formally trained in Kathak at the Kathak Kendra in Delhi during the 1970s. To complete such an achievement, one has to be ready physically, emotionally and spiritually, Seetahal shared with Sunday Guardian recently.
Fascinated by its animated, entertaining choreography, Seetahal enjoyed Bollywood dance for most of her early years. She first observed Kathak, a major form of Indian classical dance originating in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh, after seeing Bollywood actress Madhuri Dixit perform in the 2002 Bollywood movie Devdas.
“I was absolutely mesmerised by her style, technique and grace. That captivated me. And the footwork that went along with what she was doing, I didn’t completely understand, but I was just blown away by it,” Seetahal recalled.
Reshma Seetahal performs a technical aspect of Kathak at her graduation recital marking her introduction to the stage as a professional Kathak dancer.
Originally, Kathak was performed by travelling “kathakars” also known as storytellers. The ancient form of dance used rhythmic movements to tell the epic tales from the Hindu scriptures, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. It later became popular in royal courts during the Mughal period when Muslims ruled much of South Asia from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
It was at Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu College that Seetahal was formally introduced to Indian classical dance.
When inter-house competitions for Divali came around, Kathak, along with other dance forms, Odissi and Bharatanatyam completely absorbed her.
“Bollywood dance was no longer fulfilling to me. I wanted something more out of Indian dance, something that was of more substance and meaning. I just knew that classical dance was something I wanted to do,” Seetahal said.
She happily embraced classical Indian genres as a subject at school and began to develop her “mudras” or hand gestures, and her footwork, telling “kathas” or stories through her movements.
Amidst physical setbacks due to a medical condition, Seetahal poured her energies into her studies and pursued law at the Hugh Wooding Law School, St Augustine. She was called to the bar in 2016, but dance had kept its hold on the young performer.
“I started Kathak professionally under Dr Balkaransingh during the second year of my law degree. (Before that), my doctor had advised me not to engage in contact sports or anything too vigorous for some time,” she explained.
Pointing out that it took her ten years of training to finally graduate as a student of Kathak, Seetahal said it was important that dancers understood the principles of any of the eight forms of Indian classical dance to gain structure and discipline in dance and other aspects of their lives.
“It was only after two years that I was allowed to go on a stage (as part of a group). My teacher told me I had to perfect certain things. There is a special discipline required for this. I did four levels of exams and research papers as well. You have to be patient, you have to be understanding, and you have to be persistent.”
Reflecting on the challenges she had to overcome to realise her dream, she said she had to work through pains in her body, attend physiotherapy sessions for a medical condition, balance her professional life and filter out the negative comments of others who thought she was not good enough.
“That period of adversity made me even more determined to overcome those obstacles and to pursue the knowledge of this art form relentlessly.
“I want people to know that it doesn’t matter what challenges life presents you, once you have your goals and that faith, you can achieve anything. Stick to it, have that consistency; that perseverance to press on no matter what. I had to keep reminding myself of this,” she recalled.
Reshma Seetahal balanced law studies and a new career as an attorney with studying Kathak dance.
Giving insight into aspects of Kathak, Seetahal said because of the Mughal rule, the Indian classical dance became a combination of Muslim and Hindu themes, nuances and other characteristics. She sees technique, facial and bodily expressions, and drama as prescribed by famous Indian sage Bharata Muni in the performing arts text Natya Shastra as important to Kathak. Movements are sharp, vertical, rounded and graceful with rapid and varied pirouettes or full spins on the heel. Engaging footwork or “tatkar” which resembles the elegant footwork of the Spanish Flamenco is also an essential element of Kathak, as are “Nav Rasa” the nine deep emotions like love, sorrow, compassion, and courage conveyed by the dancer.
A string of small metallic bells known as “ghungroos” is used on each ankle of the dancer to emphasise the rhythmic foot movements of the dancer, adding to the dramatic effect.
Costumes are usually vibrant and attractive. Female dancers wear colourful sarees that are tied to allow for greater movement. Lehenga choli, a long, gathered A-line skirt and short mid-riff top which is sometimes adorned with a dupatta or veil, are worn by some dancers, while others prefer the Mughal-inspired costume of an angarkha, a top, tightly fitting above the waist, consisting of an asymmetric opening and secured by thread ties or loops, and the churidar, tight-fitting trousers.
Male kathak dancers choose between a dhoti with a pleated or frilled cloth hanging from the waist to the knees or the Mughal-styled kurta churidar, a long, loose collarless shirt and tight-fitting trousers, with caps.
As the Rang Manch Pravesh represents the dancer’s ascendance to the stage as a professional kathak artist, the dancer must demonstrate full command of the repertoire of Kathak, highlighting its technique or “nrit” and expression “nritya”.
The first Rang Manch Pravesh of the Kathak Kala Sangam, Seetahal’s recital was presented before a live audience by her teacher Balkaransingh, along with her parents Mr and Mrs Kissoon Seetahal, as is the custom with such events.
Reshma Seetahal in her Mughal expressive piece “Sargam Geet in Raag Malkauns” at her Rang Manch Pravesh.
Opening with a performance dedicated to Mother Durga the Hindu goddess of strength and protection, and presenting pieces across the Kathak repertoire, including a Mughal piece in the Urdu language about the pain and separation of a female dancer in an ancient emperor’s royal court, Seetahal was moved by the audience’s reaction. She was surprised by the impact her dancing could have on the emotions of others as some said they cried, she recalled.
Seetahal has presented and participated in various lectures and conferences, including “Teaching Hindi through the Indian Performing Arts” and has performed dances to assist with social causes. In 2019, as an assistant in a workshop with Habana Dance Co of Cuba, she helped to showcase the similarities between Kathak and Flamenco. That year, Seetahal was also involved in the Caribbean Festival of the Arts (Carifesta) IV and aided Balkaransingh in the programme “Mentoring by the Masters 2019” developed by the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts.
She represented T&T at a virtual conference hosted by the South African Indian Dance Alliance, two years ago. She feels that locally, as a foundation dance, Kathak needs to be promoted more.
“I think that classical dance is overshadowed by the desire for Bollywood music which is different although in Bollywood you would see some classical dance. Bollywood music is popular in Trinidad. A large sector of those who follow Indian music would be exposed to that because it is played on the radio stations quite often. But what accompanies Kathak is Hindustani classical music which is structured. It has ‘taals’; fixed rhythmic beat cycles, and ‘ragas’; musical sounds based on set rules.
“While I appreciate that Trinidad and Tobago is multicultural, in order to preserve some semblance of authenticity of the Indian cultural art form, it should still exist. In my respectful opinion, I don’t think it is sufficiently marketed and we have very few teachers of the art form in Trinidad,” she said, adding that Balkaransingh and artistic director of the Susan Mohip Dance Company Susan Mohip were the only two local ones who currently did so.
Now qualified to teach others, she aspires to join their ranks as a guardian of the Indian art form that has brought her spiritual and emotional fulfilment.
“When I embraced the art of Kathak dancing, I finally understood the meaning of inner peace. Dancing takes me to a happy place and fulfils me both emotionally and spiritually. The way that I feel when I dance, I really connect with a higher spiritual power,” she said.
“I really started to mature and to feel completely grounded and comfortable within myself. Dance is my devotion.”
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