In Conversation with Jayeeta Dutta

The iconic Bengali novel, Anand Math (The Abbey of Bliss) is an allegorical tale of revolutionaries struggling to liberate their motherland.

The story features a scene where the protagonist, weary and exhausted after years of strife and struggle, hiding in a desolate forest, expresses his angst and desire by speaking out to the woods over and over again – “Will my desire ever be fulfilled?”

As he persisted with this question, came the answer – “What can you pawn for it?”

“Even my very life” was the response.

“Life is a trifle”, was the answer. “Everyone can give it up”.

“What more have I got? What more could I give?”

The answer came: “DEVOTION”.

The Indian spiritual heritage has always maintained that giving up your life, running away from life, cutting oneself off from the whole world, are easy ways out. 

It is the hanging out there in the midst of everything, being with the whole chaos of the world, while staying centred and grounded, that is the hallmark of the Indian spiritual thought.

It is very easy to die for a cause. “Living for a cause” is a spiritual act.

In this novel, this conversation results in the protagonist falling in love with his motherland in a whole new way. He goes about describing the surreal beauty and the nurturing nature of motherland in the most exquisite way. 

That gave birth to the National Song of India, Vande Matram, which stands for “Salutation to the Mother”.

The personification of the Nation as a “Mother Goddess” gave a new dimension to India’s struggle for independence. 

This is a complete snapshot of the life-affirming spirit of Indian ethos that celebrates all aspects of life, good or bad, as a flow of the divine.

Krishna – The Purpose of Purposelessness

Jayeeta has woven disparate yarns of themes, stories and movements which are very Indian and very Kathak, with the surreality of Western classical music to create a confluence which is absolutely sacred.

Krishna, the most ‘loved’ god in the Indian pantheon, who forms the core essence of much of the cultural heritage and folk-lore in India, championed an alignment of living in this world with leading a spiritual life. 

The ultimate teachings of Krishna, compiled as the Bhagwad Gita, were imparted in a battlefield.

The core teaching of this scripture exhorts us to carry out our responsibilities without attachment to results. The essence of this teaching is to align oneself with the flow of divine, rather than acting out of individual will for specific outcomes and gains.

We always seek a reason to do things. We act to achieve specific outcome.

In Higher States of Consciousness, things just exist, actions just flow. There is no reason for any transpiration, no agenda to any action, and no intended outcomes for expressing yourself.

The action itself is the purpose of carrying out the action.

The purpose of purposelessness is the highest purpose of our existence and our actions. This is best exemplified in the Indian classical art forms.

Art as the Flow of Divine

There are many reasons that lead to creation of art.

A lot of art emerge from a place of lack, scarcity, contraction, suffocation, rules. An art form then becomes a means of surmounting a limitation.

If everybody listened to me and did my biding, I wouldn’t need anything extraordinary. Since they don’t, I learn the art of seducing others into my line of thinking, master the skill of mesmerizing them to look at things my way, develop an expertise in seeding and amplifying desires to make them want what I’m peddling out to them. 

This leads to an “art of persuasion”.

A lot of art all over the world across all times were reactions to sufferings and brutalities. People had to resort to symbolic representations, metaphors and allegories to express what they want without getting harmed.

Much of art is created to mirror the society. It presents dark shadows of our existence, and carries shock value to wake us from slumber.

Art is also created to cater to our need for kicks, thrills and a gush of adrenaline.

Art could be created to give out meaningful messages, spread awareness, and instigate people into actions.

The Indian classical art forms, however, arise not from a place of limitation or need, but from an overflowing abundance.

It is an expression of the joy, ecstasy, beauty, aesthetics and divinity that one experiences within herself. Metaphors and allegories are a device to express that cannot be expressed. The Indian classical art serenades, seduces, and mesmerizes without any effort or intention to do so.

Just as a bird cannot not sing, and a peacock cannot not dance, an Indian classical dancer cannot not perform. 

She dances to align herself to the Flow of Divine. She represents divinity in action – in a seemingly purposeless way. 

Jayeeta Dutta – Rooted and Flying High

A distinct essence of Indian heritage lies in its “inclusion”. Since all paths, howsoever divergent, lead to The One, nothing is invalid or irrelevant.

Indian art has always been known to create great confluences with other cultures. Confluences have always been considered sacred by Indians. While we consider rivers as sacred, the confluence of rivers form our most sacred places of pilgrimage.

Ghunghroos tinkling to Turkish March 

Every Indian dance form has its traditional methods, styles and accessories. The music, rhythm, costume, themes are well-defined by tradition. Kathak is mostly performed to Indian classical or light music. The heavy anklets, ghunghroo, usually tinkle to beats of Indian percussion. When you hear them tinkle to the beats of Mozart’s Turkish March, you experience the Indian urge to reach out and merge with all that’s beautiful. 

I came across a Kathak production, “The River Flows in You”, by Jayeeta Dutta, which has 7 story-telling instances, each set to iconic pieces of Western Classical Music. 

In a movement called ‘murmuration’ set to Pachelbel’s Cannon, her movements depict a large group of starlings flying together creating unique displays in the sundown sky. 

In another piece ‘Transcendence’, she recreates the story of Krishna delivering the message of Bhagvad Gita to Arjun in the midst of battlefield, while displaying his cosmic form called ‘Vishwaroopam’. 

The production also features Alice’s journey through wonderland set to Pedro Vall’s Zapateado, another theme that explores the cycles of life set to Johann Bach’s Arioso, a brilliant synchronization of melody and storytelling through the Dance of Peacock set to the Swan by Saint Saens, the strong footwork and pirouettes from Kathak, adorned with the intense sounds of anklets tingling to the rhythms of Mozart’s Turkish March, eventually culminating in a choregraphy set to Yiruma’s ‘The River Flows in You’, which narrates a traditionally popular narrative of Radha searching for her beloved Krishna.

Jayeeta has woven disparate yarns of themes, stories and movements which are very Indian and very Kathak, with the surreality of Western classical music to create a confluence which is absolutely sacred.

Jayeeta is representative of the Indian spirit of “being firmly rooted to the tradition and setting your eyes on the skies”. Fully grounded to her heritage, she grows tall into the highest skies of experimentation. From the ghats of Varanasi, to the Dora Strataou theatre in Athens, the Asia Pacific Museum at Warsaw, she has performed extensively in festivals in India and abroad.

She represents the best of traditional blending with the best of contemporary. An adept at technology too, her productions are an outpouring of intellectual brilliance and depth of thought intertwined with an artistic finesse, grace and elegance that makes it a treat to watch and contemplate through. 

Every movement of hers feels like a brush stroke that makes an indelible impact.

The serenity of her flow pulls you in powerfully, underscoring that stillness is mightier than turbulence ever could be.

It is no coincidence that the most remarkable of her productions is titled Kalantar – a Journey of Times. Her future productions include a depiction of the hardships and heartbreak of the political divide of those who are essentially one. Her production Ek Noor (One Light) is a depiction of the flow of divinity through diverse spiritual paths.

She is a direct disciple of the Kathak icon Pandit Birju Maharaj. Her devotion to her guru is a touching example of how Indians regard their Guru as divine embodiment. 

She has a wall in her home, dedicated to memories of her Guru, which she calls “the Maharaj-ji wall”. She seeks blessings from this space every time she steps out of her home, gets back in and at the beginning of any special, auspicious moment. 

NS: How do you as a Kathak artist embody the principles of Truth, Consciousness, and Beauty?  

JD: Kathak for me has been my guardian, my best friend and centre of my existence for decades. It holds mirror to my inner self and deep cleanses my mind and body to rejuvenate me every time I immerse myself to Riyaaz (deep and conscious self-practice). Even a speck of negative thought if hidden within, Riyaaz cleans it up and gives birth to a beautiful “me” every day. 

This “me” is unable to give space to any thought or wish, which is deviated from truth, wellness, compassion and gratitude. 

Beauty is born from this state of mind and is omnipresent as an embrace of selfless desire to submit. I believe most beautiful part is the feel of submission to almighty which I embody every minute when I’m at riyaaz, performing on stage, teaching a class, delivering a presentation or creating a composition.

NS: Kathak has a lot of emphasis on the idea of “Rasa”. How would you describe “Rasa”? How is “Rasa” different from entertainment?  

JD: Rasa is an intricate emotional experience of the “Rasika” (audience) who share the journey with the dancer on stage. It is the bhav (the expressive part) of a dancer’s storytelling that touches the Rasika who feels the mood within. 

My Guru Maharajji always mentioned that his body of Kathak was built by picking up content from surroundings, daily life, flora and fauna etc. He was well known for rhythmic compositions based on simple bols which pivoted on narrating short stories, e.g. depicting the gait of deer, snake, peacock, tiger, elephant or a conversation between two friends of disparate personalities, a mother hen feeding chicks, etc. 

He could easily create these expressions by reciting these rhythms, depicting movements and mesmerising the audience. 

I have seen entire auditorium rolling with laughter applauding such compositions in endless joy! 

I have seen a man tired after his hard day’s work forget all his stress and frustration and feel his mood uplifted by Maharajjis Kathak “bhav”.

It is entertaining too, but lasts beyond the moment and helps one savour the joy for a long time. 

NS:  What do “dancing” and “dance performances” mean to you?

JD: Kathak for me is pure worship and daily meditation. I do not dance to prepare for any performance. Performance when it comes up, is actually a small break of pattern of riyaaz in order to plan and arrange for the concert. 

My everyday dance, my daily prayer is an open and circular time, when I dive in without any plan. I may practice compositions to perfect them, polish an old work, recite complex bols to moderate my breathing and sense of laya (rhythm) and close my eyes and recall advices and teachings of my guru Maharajji.

A performance is like opening the door to an audience to share with them a part of me and my worship. It’s a culmination of preparing a concept I believed in, and seeing how it’s received. It’s about being connected with the world for those few hours, through the conduit of Kathak, yet staying sufficiently disconnected to maintain the same submission to almighty while on stage, as I do in Riyaaz.

The audience may think I’m dancing for them, yet I’m just being the medium through which art finds its flow. This realization is extremely satisfying and soothing.

It brings in a divine solitude, even in public.

NS: In the Indian tradition, most warriors learnt their martial skills from Gurus who were Rishis. Almost all forms of education and learning were imparted by Rishis, which makes it clear that Indians understood that learning and education is beyond skills and techniques, but involves a training of and transformation of consciousness. How did you experience this in your own training? How did you balance the learning of techniques with a mastery of your consciousness? 

JD: This is a very apt question. Most of my Kathak learning has been in line oral tradition of teaching. This included listening to stories, anecdotes, experiences, watching meditative processes adopted by senior musicians, and most importantly absorbing teachings of my Guru Pandit Birju Maharaj. 

His teachings were as much about Kathak technique as about the excavation of beauty within the form and within each one of us. He would find innovative ways to simplify complex steps, e.g. by filling a fractional gap in time-cycle with a simple phrase, etc.

Maharajji would choreograph simple number-based footwork compositions to depict a flight of a bird or waddle of a duck. His entire frame of teaching was pivoted on simplicity, relevance, modern and sustainable methods without any compromise on grammar. 

My years with Maharajji’s tutelage crafted a performer out of a dancer in me. 

I feel this touch of a legendary master in my dance journey has been extremely rewarding.

I had learnt technique long ago, and my dance had a spark of potential, but lacked the appeal of a real performer. He transformed my thinking, outlook and self-awareness in a quantum way. I can hardly recognise the me that existed before his tutelage. 

NS: You have learnt from one of the most iconic artists of recent times, Pandit Birju Maharaj of the Lucknow Gharana of Kathak, who was no lesser a Rishi of our modern times. 

How did he help shape you to become the artist that you are today?

JD: I run short of words to express my deep respect, gratitude and love for my Guru Maharajji. He was not just a Guru for my Kathak learning but a person who inspired me in every way. His deep gratitude for his ancestors who chose him as a worthy successor, his relationship with his parents, his ordeal with challenging livelihood, his constant sacrifices for Kathak that involved endless travel, his deep affection for all students, his inherent trust for humanity – everything about him inspired me.

He was a modern day Rishi who was just one of us, yet a much elevated soul.

Maharajji has chiselled many into sensitive artists and developed their sense of aesthetics. I’m grateful to have felt his touch on my dance journey, though quite late in his life. I’d constantly fly to Delhi where he lived and taught, or to other cities where he travelled to teach or perform, till pandemic hit us. 

Rather than learning his compositions, I tried to learn “how he thinks when he composes”. I tried to absorb – “Who he is? How does he thinks? What triggers his ideas? How does he give a painter like touch of color to a dull moment? How does he add climax? How does he command respect of his co-artists and musicians? How does he bow down to us, even though the entire world bows down to him?

This absorption vastly enriched me, my life and my dance.

NS: A lot of your works are very rich in tradition, but you have also produced an act “The River Flows in you” which is an amazing blend of the depths of Kathak story-telling with the musical genius of composers like Bach, Mozart, Pachelbel and more.

How did you conceive of this idea? 

How does the use of Western classical music blend with a deeply-rooted traditional form of Kathak? 

JD: I first visualised use of western classical music on my Kathak movements whenever I saw birds flying. There is a unique beauty in the flight of migratory birds which always appealed to my Kathak ang (body postures). 

Musically, it resonated with western music and I imagined how beautifully it would blend with Kathak. As an artist, I was greatly influenced by the Swan Lake ballet. I’d watched fascinating ballet choreographies and met exponents during my participation in dance conferences in Greece, Poland, Russia, Austria, etc.

Thus this experimentation of Kathak on western classical works was a normal evolution of my artistic journey. 

The classicism of the production is not in its purist forms, but the music speaks out the stories presented through dance. The blend of Western music with Indian story-telling was made possible by rhythms and expressions that built the choreography.

It took me months to choreograph each work to perfection. It started with sketching the dances on paper, and then embodying them. 

NS: You are a well-known Kathak guru in your own right. Your institute, Nahabat, is known for imparting the highest level of Kathak education, artistry and aesthetics to Kathak aspirants. What does the name “Nahabat” mean?

JD: I’m often asked why I named my second child – my Kathak institution – “Nahabat”. I feel I must share the emotion behind the name to express the culture and ethics of my institution. 

I grew up in a family strongly connected to Ramakrishna Mission (RKM) that included a spiritual bond and a personal bond between our family and the monks.

My connection with RKM was so deep that it terrified may relatives who feared I’d give up common life and become a yogi.

The Nahabat Temple at Dakshineshwar 

Nahabat was the name of a two-storied temple at Dakshineshwar (where Sri Ramakrishna lived), which housed musical instruments.

This holy musical space Nahabat was an integral part of my memory. I named my institution Nahabat to reflect the true essence of selfless and purposeful journey of music for myself and my students, and to meet the divine at every corner. 

The Nahabat ‘Shehnai’ wedding ensemble  

Nahabat is also the name for a musically blissful shehnai ensemble performance setup in Hindu marriages. As a young girl, the concept of live shehnai enchanted me. Listening to that music was the most delightful part of attending a wedding. I wanted this pure classical music to remain a melodious backdrop to our core lives, as Nahabat renders to the special occasion of uniting souls. 

Moreover, I learnt that Nahabat at Hindu marriages is often an ensemble of Muslim performers. The realization that music is above religion was enlightening. 

I later saw my Kathak Guru, an ardent Krishna bhakt, accepting musicians of other religious beliefs as his sons or daughters. His inclusivity helped me get out of residual negativity of family trauma of Bengal partition that we held for generations. 

I wished that my institution Nahabat will be a space of divine inclusivity where the only religion practiced would be music. 

NS: How would you describe your personal Kathak “Style” that you perform and teach? What factors do you emphasize on while working with your protégés? What values do you try to instil in them?

JD: I’m the sole teacher at my institution. I teach every student – child or adult, every beginner or master class. Every student is hand-crafted with care. While most students learn in person, I have taught online across US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand for over a decade. My online students are close, comfortable and have grown together. They often visit me at Bangalore to learn in person or perform in my productions.

I spend enormous time to teach unique life lesson “beyond Kathak”. My students are groomed in habits like simple dressing for Riyaaz, punctuality, regularity, device-independent learning and practice, teamwork, patience, honesty about mistakes, value traditions, respect seniors, expect and accept fairness, ensure transparency and treat dance as prayer. They learn not to be possessed by a sense of race, but be comfortable in their own journey. 

I work intensely on their foundation of footwork, rhythms, ang(body postures), hastak (hand movements), thehrav (sense of calm) and bhav (facial expressions). Respect and care for body readiness to meet the intensity of Kathak is also taken care of.

Warm-ups and cool-downs are intrinsically built into class schedule. My students’ age vary from 5 to 65 years and I customise body warm-ups to ensure a long, sustainable journey. My students have attended classes till their 8th month of pregnancy and restarted 2 months after the delivery.

I ensure that students appreciate difference between class room dancing and a stage act. At classroom we stay connected to roots and grammar with focus on mastering the technique. On stage, the focus is to make the audience feel engaged, entertained and enlightened. 

My students are part of all my ensemble productions and even travel with me for performances. Most of them call me “Didi” (elder sister), including those elder to me. We share a sisterly bond and truly care. 

My students are an integral part of my existence. When I’m no more, I’ll continue to live in the world through them. They will carry a part of me, my dance and my Guru within them, and my dreams will live on forever!