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A kathak dancer's journey

Shambhu Maharaj would approve

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ELEGANCE ITSELF: The artiste today. Right, Chatterjee at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai in 1993, with Sitara Devi (left) and Damayanti Joshi

In these award-hungry times, have you heard a dancer say, Don't give it to me ? Meet Manjusree Chatterjee.

Earlier this year, the phone rang in the Delhi home of a 71-year-old dancer. It was the Sangeet Natak Akademi on the line, with the news that she had been chosen as this year's award winner. The committee had unanimously agreed that Manjusree Chatterjee should be honoured for her immense contribution to the natwari style of kathak (the dance of Radha-Krishna ), whose most famous proponent was the great Shambhu Maharaj.

The dancer's daughter laughingly describes her mother's reaction: "She actually said, 'Mujhe mat dijiye (don't give it to me). Why don't you give the award to someone younger?' Imagine!"
Chatterjee's reaction was in character. For more than three decades now, she has quietly run a dance school and held an annual festival of dance and music where emerging artistes have shared the platform with revered names like Birju Maharaj, Girija Devi and Ali Akbar Khan.

Her journey started in the late '40s when her mother took her to Nalin Kumar Ganguly, a kathak dancer in Calcutta. "Other than the nritya-natika based on Rabindra Sangeet, other forms were not really acceptable to the bhadralok (upper classes) there, " says Chatterjee. "My bua (aunt) was horrified that I was learning kathak. 'How will my daughters get married?' she asked my mother. " It's another matter that the same aunt was immensely proud when photographs of her beautiful niece performing at different functions for leading dignitaries appeared in the national dailies.

When Shambhu Maharaj insisted that the talented dancer should move to Delhi, her mother sent her there in 1959. "He told Ma that I'd be well looked after, get everything - education and dance training - except for machchli (fish), " she laughs.

Once her training commenced, post the ganda-bandhan (formal initiation by the guru with a thread-tying ritual) ceremony, Maharaj told her firmly to concentrate only on practice, and not even to think of a performance for the next five years. But three years later, he allowed her to perform as a solo artiste. Around the same time, in 1961, he asked her to perform a kavit padant (piece of poetry). Seeing her gat-ang (hand movement and facial expressions), he gave her the title of 'Natwari Nritya Nipuna' (proficient in Natwari Nritya). "The paper signed by him is among my prized possessions, " says Chatterjee. "It's actually aashirwaad (blessing) from my guru. "

It was around that time itself that another kathak great, Guru Sunder Prasad, asked her if she would be interested in learning the Jaipur style as well. "Although he and Shambhu Maharaj were great friends, Sunder Prasadji did not want Maharajji to feel he'd usurped his student. And there was I - I could not upset either of the two great gurus. So, I'd quietly go and learn from guruji in the morning and from Maharajji in the evening, " she smiles. When Shambhu Maharaj learnt of this a few months later, he was tickled, "Achcha! Sunder Prasad mujh se darta hai? (Oh! Sunder Prasad is scared of me?) " She points out: "That's the kind of healthy camaraderie that existed in those days. "

With such eminent teachers, Chatterjee soon came to counted among the top kathak artistes of the '60s, alongside Damayanti Joshi, Roshan Kumari and Sitara Devi. She remembers how the audiences of the time chipped in by being patient and appreciative. At Pune's Sawai Gandharva Festival (of music), when dance was first introduced in the early '60s, the 8, 000 plus crowd sat late into the night waiting for her Natwari Nritya. "The way they showed their appreciation was unbelievable, " says the artiste who has shared the stage with Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Gangubai Hangal, Ravi Shankar and Baba Allauddin Khan.

In 1971, she married Chandi Chatterjee, whom she had met ten years earlier. "With performances all over, kabhi (sometimes) Guwahati, kabhi Indore, kabhi Bombay, kabhi Benaras, there was actually no time for marriage. " After she had a daughter, Chatterjee "slowed down a bit". She also had her dance school to run. The school is as important to her as her career on stage. "Now I have almost stopped performing, but people still come to see my students, " she says. These young girls will now carry forth the legacy of Pandit Shambhu Maharaj's Natwari Nritya.

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