Carolina Masala

America's racist past collides with classical kathak dance in 'Sister India'

Legend has it that Bindadin Maharaj, son of the great 19th-century kathak dancer Durga Prasadji, once performed in a competition pitting his father's pension against the hands of pakhawaj drummer Kodau Singh. Apparently the seven-year-old boy danced so quickly that, even after 16 hours, his feet were a blur, and Singh broke his rhythm in exhaustion. Although the king granted Prasadji's request to spare Singh's hands, the drummer went into exile for some time, shaken by the experience of being bested by a dancer.

No one has ever threatened the members of Rita Mustaphi's Katha Dance Theatre with dismemberment if they fail to keep up. In fact, according to Mustaphi, even if a dancer and drummer meet for the first time on stage, they are less interested in besting one another than in finding common ground through improvisation and "dance syllables." Kathak footwork includes some dozen unique steps for each foot, represented by short sounds like "tat" and "thei." This symbiotic relationship between rhythm and movement is present in all of Mustaphi's works, including Sister India, which premieres this weekend at the Southern Theater.

I'm dancing as fast as I can: Kathak choreographer Rita Mustaphi
Courtesy of Kathak Dance Theatre
I'm dancing as fast as I can: Kathak choreographer Rita Mustaphi

The swirling, fluid, and obviously intricate kathak ("katha" means story) dance form emerged from the Uttar Pradesh region of northern India centuries ago as a means of interpreting Indian epics and poetic literature. Mustaphi, who lives in Minneapolis and has two adult children, was first exposed to kathak while growing up in Kolkata (Calcutta), India. She later studied under today's foremost kathak master, Pandit Birju Maharaj, an artist whom Mustaphi still acknowledges as her "guru." Since founding her company 16 years ago, Mustaphi has sought ways to update the style by using it to interpret contemporary stories. This has involved embracing both Eastern and Western themes, including the 2002 novel Sister India by Peggy Payne that inspired Mustaphi's latest effort.

"Many immigrant stories we hear are about people coming to America," says Mustaphi by phone from her home. "But in this story an American goes to India and faces the clash of cultures." Payne's novel is the story of Madame Natraja, a white woman (originally named Estelle Wilson) who flees North Carolina during the 1950s after her father kills her African American boyfriend. "She ends up in India because there is a spiritual notion about the place," Mustaphi continues. "She tries to change her image but she's carrying all this baggage from the past. Then there's a clash between Hindus and Muslims and an orphan girl dies. [Natraja] learns that she has to speak up, not just for herself, but also, in essence, for peace."

Mustaphi, who will be joined by a 21-member cast of children and adults, is particularly excited that Payne will be attending a performance and signing copies of her book. "She gave the copyright only to us," says Mustaphi. "We haven't met and have only corresponded through e-mail. We haven't told her much yet. Her book has many, many characters, but we just trace the main characters and suggest the other ones." Beyond this sweeping plot, Mustaphi's work will recreate scenes of Indian life, including a market transformed under curfew and a funeral pyre by the river Ganges.

"You don't just physically go to places, you go within yourself," observes Mustaphi as she reflects on the meaning of Payne's book and the personal journeys she takes within her own dance experience. "Whatever you are doing--footwork, a lot of rhythm--all of a sudden it goes to a dead stop and you hold that energy, you radiate it. That's the grand part--that's what everybody looks for in kathak."

 
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