An Introduction to Kathak

Although dance of any style and genre fascinates me, my background is in contemporary. So like you, I’m excited to learn more about South Asian dance styles.

Blogging has created the perfect opportunity to have a catch up with my dancing friend, Katie Ryan. I first met Katie four years ago, when she was a final year student at London Contemporary Dance School. As part of their BA degree programme, LCDS offer the opportunity to study Ballet or South Asian Kathak technique in support of contemporary. Katie was studying Kathak, so I thought this would be a good place to begin our conversation…

What made you decide to study Kathak alongside contemporary during your training at London Contemporary Dance School?

I had already been training in another style of South Asian classical dance called Odissi since I was 6. Although Odissi and Kathak are different in a lot of ways, there are some common principals which run though South Asian dance and I thought it would be good to keep developing my strengths in these areas whilst training in Contemporary dance.

What would you say are the fundamental differences between these two dance styles?

Although they often share the same venues and programming in a UK theatre context I would say classical forms of South Asian dance such as kathak, bharatanatyam and odissi are more parallel to ballet in that they are formal styles with a set technique and codified movement vocabulary that identifies the style and its particular aesthetic. Traditionally South Asian classical dance uses a combination of abstract and narrative composition. There is a very strong link between the music composition and movement composition – the rhythm of the percussion is mirrored by the rhythm of the dancer’s footwork, the musical phrasing generally matches the movement phrasing. Historically the narratives expressed through dance have been religious poetry set to music and interpreted by the dancers – these narratives are mostly from the Hindu mythological tradition, but there are also many Islamic influences in kathak. Many of the South Asian dance styles have evolved from temple dance forms – danced worship – to be the stage art forms they are today. Kathak has a different heritage – a combination of a storytelling tradition and a performance tradition from the royal Mugal courts gave birth to this dance style.

So…those are distinct differences in historical development, content and context.

In terms of differences in movement vocabulary and technique between kathak and contemporary, kathak would be set apart by its use of rhythmic footwork, multiple turns on the heel, detailed use of hand gesture, more limited use of floorwork (kneeling and sitting – yes, lying down and rolling – very unlikely), eye movements, animated facial expression – sometimes quite exaggerated/stylised, more limited use of jumping or rising (small jumps or rises are used, but less frequently than in contemporary).

There would be a different list again for each style of South Asian classical dance…but the common elements would be:

  • rhythmic footwork
  • animated facial expressions
  • detailed hand gestures

It is important to note that the above are all characteristics of the traditions, but they do not define it – as with all dance forms they are evolving into more contemporary/ neo-classical forms or extending the boundaries within the classical tradition.

Are there any similarities between contemporary dance and Kathak?

Hmm..tough one – it’s also very hard to define contemporary dance – which I would say is more amorphous!

Common elements between kathak and contemporary dance could be: grounded quality, a fluid movement quality, use of high speed movement… I’m sure there are more…

What Kathak dancers and performances have inspired you?

Akram Khan (Desh & Zero Degrees are my favourites)

Aditi Mangaldas

Kumudini Lakhia (choreographer and director of Kadamb)

Aakash Odedra

Yuko Inoue

Gauri Sharma – my teacher at LCDS

Urja Thakore

Diya Kasturi 

What are your top tips for anyone who would like to learn to dance Kathak? and for events and classes listings.

There are lots of classes out there now and you can even do exams in kathak with the ISTD syllabus if you want. 

Katie Ryan (left) performing as part of Odissi Ensemble with Khavita Kaur. Image credit - Simon Richardson


First Impressions of South Asia

I was laying face-down on a stained mattress, my skin soaked with sweat and my face soaked with tears. One thought pressed against the walls of my skull: What am I doing here?

Every one of my senses was overwhelmed and exhausted. In a single short walk from the taxi to my hostel, I’d smelt sugars, spices and various secretions; I’d heard horns and laughter, music and prayer; I’d seen one hundred near-crashes and one thousand near-witnesses; I’d tasted the musk of an air totally drained of its vitality; I’d felt a street full of people stop and stare.

I’d only been in India for three hours, but already it had defeated me.

India (Credit: Alex Plim)

I never thought that England would be that different from South Asia. I went to school with people from Pakistan, ate Indian takeaways every couple of weeks, and would often happen upon a Bollywood film while channel flicking. These experiences shaped my perception of South Asia into something romantic and dazzling, a sub-continent drenched in colour and bursting with life.

I was right, of course: South Asia is bursting with life, but for someone who grew up in the middle of England, that life can seem too copious, too intense, and too overwhelming. It’s impossible to describe just how it feels to step out of the airport in Delhi and into a tussling mass of people, each vying passionately for your attention, desperate to be noticed and given an opportunity to sell their service. The barrage doesn’t diminish until you arrive at the sanctuary of your hostel, and even then you are constantly aware of the activity from which you are separated by only a thin wall.

Indian Elephant (Credit: Alex Plim)

I spent ten days in India before heading to Nepal, a move I labelled at the time an escape. Here, I found life to be far more manageable, and I was able to process and enjoy what I experienced straight away rather than retrospectively, which was a total contrast to my first impressions of India. Indeed, it wasn’t until I got back to England six months later that I reflected upon my first day on the sub-continent and began to understand how seminal it had been.

I misguidedly placed immediate blame upon India for destroying my preconceptions and shoving me so far beyond my comfort zone, a feeling perpetuated by the ceaselessness of the place. What I should have blamed was my romantic expectations and the ideal I had formulated in my mind, which led directly to an elevated level of anticipation waiting to be realised. The reality of India was not actually any worse than this, it was simply different, which is exactly what creates a culture shock.

South Asia has a way of levelling people, of ignoring presumptions and doing things on its own terms. It forces eyes to open and view the world differently, to see beauty in the smallest things and appreciate what you have, not what you lack. In doing so, it presents a greater challenge than many are ever likely to face, but with it rewards that are everlasting and profound.

Survive the culture shock, and you’ll discover an enthralling part of the world that is impossible not to love.

Writing to you…

So, Monday evening I was at the Southbank Centre and there I sat on the Clore Ballroom floor as I listened to Nikesh Shukla’s talk entitled ‘The Ethnic Writer: How to Avoid Labels’.

First and foremost it was great to hear Nikesh define himself as a writer and to be so passionate about his craft.

It struck me just how important it is to believe in what you do and in what you write.

We can all be pigeon-holed in some way (in this instance, as an ‘ethnic writer’), but who is to say that we have to accept this label or indeed conform to it?

In his talk, Nikesh Shukla spoke to us about how, because publishers are interested in numbers and selling potential, it is essential that you, as a writer, know how you want to sell your writing. As a writer you also have to be your own promoter and willing to work on your own marketing too. You have to be able to talk about what you have written and what the audience will get from it.

Of course, as a writer you want your writing to have a wider appeal and you strive to get your work published. The publishing deal is the ultimate aim, but as Nikesh Shukla said, it is important to find ways of raising your own profile and raising awareness about what it is that you do. This is where social networking could prove very useful. Maybe you could host an event to showcase your own work in some way? Or find your own ways of self-promotion?

As a writer, validation from sources outside of your own family and friends (even though that is a lovely thing too!) is important in order to help you realise that your writing can have a wider appeal.

So it seems that to all those aspiring writers out there, the message is ‘keep going’!

Persevere with what you WANT to write, as Nikesh Shukla said yesterday, “as long as the piece is well-written, there WILL be an audience for what you have written”.

Happy writing!

A Bridge between East and West

I first heard the Sachal Jazz Ensemble on YouTube. Most people did. A group of Pakistani musicians placing their own spin on five and a half minutes of the most popular jazz music ever written is pretty difficult to ignore. At first it was novel, then it was catchy, but always it was unique. If the inevitable comparisons with Marmite were to be made, I was happy to take a piece of toast and spread the Sachal Jazz Ensemble all over it.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who felt this way.

Almost every chair in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was occupied on Tuesday night to see the ensemble play its world premiere performance. It was hardly surprising, given that Sachal’s rendition of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five has received over 340,000 views on YouTube in a single year, which, I’d tender, means it’s already reached more western ears than almost any other sound wave to have emanated from Pakistan.

I’ve become used to the charming humility that many South Asian performers assume, but there was an added dimension to this group’s humbleness. For a long time, during General Zia ul Haq’s dictatorial regime in Pakistan, these musicians had to set down their instruments and concentrate on forms of employment besides music, which would have made a performance at something like Alchemy far beyond any realm of possibility. If anyone could be forgiven for walking on stage with a defiant swagger, therefore, it’s these guys. Yet they didn’t.

Sachal Jazz Ensemble

The ensemble somehow reminded me of the big band I used to play in while at school, albeit the sound they produced was, inevitably, very different. The stage was crammed with performers – I lost count at 25 – and they were all following large manuscripts which, presumably, translated Western notes into the musical language of the East. Each musician concentrated intently on their copy in the same way I used to stare furiously at my own music stand, mindful that if I lost my place I’d likely never again find it, while a conductor stood at the front of the stage with flailing arms, trying to keep everyone in check.

But this was hardly surprising, serving as a constant reminder that despite their tight, balanced, studio-polished sound, this ensemble are very much breaking new ground, doing something incredibly innovative and fresh. And they’re doing it with jazz, no less; not rock, not pop: jazz. I began to wonder whether it would be possible to turn the tables, to interpret South Asian music through a Western mouthpiece, but somehow I doubt it would be done quite so well, a testament to the group’s outstanding ability.

During Jude Kelly’s introduction to Pete Lockett’s concert on Sunday, Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director described Alchemy as an exploration of the dialogue and ongoing exchange between English and South Asian cultures, a sentiment that seemed particularly pertinent to this performance. The Sachal Jazz Ensemble have essentially created an entirely new genre of music, building a bridge over which musical enthusiasts can cross from East to West and back, and I hope it’ll be used as a gateway by listeners from both sides to discover music they may otherwise never have heard.

A Response To The Art of Listening

The Art of Listening

I was sat with my eyes closed when I found myself listening to the sounds of the world.

And all of a sudden I was at the zoo. It was made of the noises I was surrounded buy on the tube, resembling all sorts of animals and characters in my mind: the breaks of the train had so many tones! And each tunnel hosted a different community of creatures, who sang and complained and whispered one another imaginary thoughts.

It was the day after I attended a workshop with Ansuman Biswas, The Art of Listening. I realised how much information we have to ignore, every second of our lives, in order to avoid going crazy with all this talking of the world!

I recently heard that most accidents that involve cyclists happen because they are not visible. Well, of course they are visible! But for the driver they don’t stand out enough in the hierarchic scale of things to see in the street. If there is a situation where a truck is maneuvering, a pedestrian is crossing, a car is over-taking and the cyclist runs beside the driver, in order of importance the big fat truck will prevail and the bike will get squashed.

This is to say that the cyclist is the peripheral sound, which we unconsciously decide not to take into account! The cyclist is a sound? Erm, it is information which we perceive but do not pay attention to because it does not demand it. So how many cyclists do we kill each day by ignoring the sounds of the world? Food for thought.

I came out of the workshop thinking how small did I feel compared to the cultural heritage that belongs to some eastern countries and at the same time how great I felt being able to receive and being moved by what I had just attended. ‘I am lucky’ I thought, and I went to find a little corner to spend some time with myself and digest the flux of information circulating inside my body after the intense 90 minutes of listening.

Continue reading

Musical Collabor-Asians

I remember the feeling well. It was like someone had found their way through my eardrums and into my skull, awakening every synapse in my brain and inducing a rush of adrenalin known only to those who have experienced an epiphany through music. I no longer consider Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith’s rendition of ‘Walk This Way’ to be the pinnacle of musical endeavour (I was fourteen at the time…), but the ramifications it had on my musical outlook were profound, and remain so to this day.

Musical collaborations represent a fascinating marriage of minds, a blending of influences and ideas that might otherwise never be merged. Perhaps most interestingly of all, however, they often combine disparate cultures, and in doing so introduce audiences to things they may never otherwise have encountered. In this sense, musical collaborations have the ability not only to create innovative forms of art, but to abolish social barriers and reach further than a piece of music ordinarily might.

It is this principle that makes the collaborative projects at this year’s Alchemy, of which there are many, particularly exciting. These events present accessible introductions to South Asian culture, and consequently have the potential to capture new audiences and forge fresh paths of musical discovery. If you’d like to do some background listening to make the most of the Alchemy concerts, check out the following tracks:

Norwegian Wood (Flickr credit: Marxchivist)

‘Norwegian Wood’ – The Beatles

You’ll struggle to find anything about the musical confluence between India and the West that does not mention ‘Norwegian Wood’, track number 2 on The Beatles’ 1965 album, Rubber Soul. This song is often credited with the first use of a sitar on a popular music track, heralding a genre that became known as Raga Rock. Although it represents a collaboration of ideas rather than musicians, it was the beginning of a musical journey for George Harrison and The Beatles that would thrust Indian music to the forefront of the world stage.

‘Ragas in Minor Scale’ Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass

The same journey turned Ravi Shankar, a virtuosic sitar player from Varanasi, into a household name, and he remains to this day possibly the most famous India musician ever to have graced Western ears. His collaboration with Philip Glass in 1990, on the album Passages, is an excellent gateway to both artist’s works, with the track ‘Ragas in a Minor Scale’ offering a particularly dazzling display of what can be done on a sitar. It’s also well worth checking out Shankar’s work with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he is almost as famously associated as The Beatles.

Sitar (Flickr credit: Noel Feans)


Shakti combined the formidable talents of John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain, along with a smattering of other outstanding musicians, in a group that infused Indian music with jazz, and in doing so became one of the first musical projects to be labelled World Fusion. ‘Joy’ is the opening track on the group’s eponymous first album, and is an electrifying example of what can happen when experts from the East meet the best from the West. Pursue any of the musical strands that comprise this group and you will not be disappointed.

‘O…Saya’A. R. Rahman and M.I.A.

When Slumdog Millionaire was released in 2008, it placed a spotlight on Indian culture that could be traced from its spectacular visual displays through to its groundbreaking soundtrack. ‘O…Saya’ was one of the film’s most popular songs, written by Indian composer A. R Rahman and M.I.A., a British artist of Sri Lankan descent. It represents a modern take on musical collaboration, for it was composed via email and is notable for the plethora of cultural influences that can be heard throughout its three and a half minute duration.

‘Take Five’Sachal Jazz Orchestra

Another example of a collaboration of ideas rather than musicians, the Sachal Jazz Orchestra made international headlines last year when a video of their rendition of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ went viral. Originally from Pakistan, this group explore Bossa Nova and Jazz standards using South Asian instruments, and performed their world premiere at Alchemy on 17th April. Upon hearing the group, Brubeck himself summed up the magic of musical collaborations when he said ‘East is East, and West is West, but through music the twain meet’.

Images by Marxchivist and Noel Feans

It’s all begun…

Subtle Kraft Co.
'Cravings of Intimacy & Solitude' - Image credited to Gabriela

So Alchemy is underway. Over the next ten days we will get the opportunity to experience artistry, beauty, harmony and deliciousness as South Asia comes to Royal Festival Hall.

Alchemy explores the contrasts and connections between cultures in the UK, India and South Asia. This festival at Southbank Centre got me thinking…how do I, as an individual, as Kimberley, have a connection to both of these cultures?

In my case, my connection is simultaneously ‘very close to home’ but also, strangely far away…

I am mixed race – my Mum is from the UK and my Dad is originally from India.

However, the strange situation arises when part of your heritage remains hidden from view. So, to explain a bit more… I have been born and raised in the UK, but circumstances have meant that I have only ever known my Mum’s side of the family. Therefore, I have been raised in a Caucasian family where in fact I am the only one with a dual cultural heritage.

I was only made aware of this in my late teens, but it is a factor that greatly intrigues and interests me because as I have got older I have realised that in fact there is part of my identity that I have yet to discover and ‘get to know’.

Although I can appreciate that there is a big disadvantage to not having been bought up being dually exposed to both cultures, now I am consciously making the choice to change that by educating myself and embracing the diversity within Indian culture that is part of who I am.

I’d love to have an adventure and go to India at some point, but until I raise enough funds I am going to enjoy this exploration, satisfying my senses of sight, sounds, touch, tastes and smell with all the different events by delving head first into what Alchemy Festival has to offer. Come and join me!

Find what draws you in…what catches your eye?…What inspires you to learn more?

What or who connects you to South Asia?

Have fun discovering!!

Katie Ryan and Khavita Kaur (part of Odissi Ensemble). The photography credit is Simon Richardson