Art enables the artist to tell a story to an audience. The story, when enhanced by body movements, text, characters, emotions, expressions, and hand gestures, becomes poetry in action.
In North India’s most popular classical dance form Kathak, the ‘dancer storytellers’ were called ‘Kathakars’. From the wandering Kathakars, who told mythological stories in the early Gupta period (4th century CE), to the artists in the Mughal courts of Babar and Jahangir (16th & 17th century CE), then to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who was an artist himself, the Gharanas (schools of dance) which focused on specific stylistic and technical features, and finally to the modern-day artists who blend tradition with social, political, and environmental issues to tell their stories – Kathak has come a long way.
Kathak uses ‘Thumris’ (expression-based numbers like ‘Padams’ and ‘Javalis’ of Bharatanatyam) to tell stories – stories of love, anger, separation, heroes and heroines. Thumri originated from the term ‘Thumakna’ which refers to rhythmic movement and stylized gait. These semi-classical compositions combined melody and rhythm with a couple of lines of text/ poetry, which was more colloquial. Some Thumris reflected Shringara rasa (the amorous flavour of love and romance) and some, ‘Bhakti’ (devotion).
While the early Kathakars and forest dwellers told the stories of the divine (early Gupta period 4th century CE), the traditional compositions also explored love and beauty with Shyam/ Krishna as the hero of the story. Many traditional compositions also compared the ‘Nayika’ (heroine) to nature by likening her dark long tresses to the dark clouds, her gait to that of a peacock, or the majestic gait of an elephant, and her tears to raindrops. The compositions covered the entire gamut of heroines from the ‘Natyashastra’ (the bible of Indian classical dance). The dancer brought to life the little stories from the love lives of these Nayikas in innumerable ways using gestures, movements, and expressions. They used ‘Sanchari’ (expansion of the storyline) to help the audience experience the tender moments in the life of the Nayika.
Later, rulers like Nawab Wajid Ali Shah went on to write Thumris, set them to music, and also danced to various Thumris, where he played the role of Krishna. The others like Pia Rangeelay, explored the aspect of love through Thumris, where the subjects were the lover and his beloved, and not specifically Gods as heroes of the Thumris, as it used to be in the traditional compositions. Much later, during the British rule, when Indian classical dance was considered nautch, the presentation of the Nayika became more sensuous and enticing, the style of singing more provocative, and thus a lighter version of the Thumris emerged.
Pali Chandra brings the Thumri tradition to Switzerland
The Lucknow Gharana (school of dance) came into existence mainly in the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. The Lucknow style of Kathak dance is known for its graceful movements, elegance, natural poise with dance, and ‘Abhinaya’ (expressions). The Gharana’s contribution to Thumris is unparalleled.
Keeping up the thumri tradition is Pali Chandra, one of the present-day exponents of the Lucknow Gharana. Trained under Smt. Kapila Raj (the Queen of Abhinaya in Lucknow), Pali Chandra’s mastery over the Thumri shines through be it when she speaks about them, or performs them or conducts a workshop to share her knowledge. Her approach to understanding the Nayika, the text of the poetry/composition and choreography of the Thumri is fascinating.
Be it the Abhisarika Nayika workshop in Aargau in November 2019, or the online Thumri workshop in July 2020, her love for this expression of art is evident. While keeping up the traditional Thumris of the Lucknow Gharana, Pali Chandra has also composed and performed her own Thumris. Her composition ‘Kahe Ko Ram’ (Why Rama) has Sita asking Rama why he did not reciprocate the love, and complete surrender she showed him. Another composition, ‘Agnikund se bankar’ (from the holy fire), is based on Draupadi. Her compositions deal with women- their sense of individuality, the inner fire, their strength, and resilience, while taking inspiration from tradition, in choice of heroines, and style of writing.
When it comes to the Abhinaya (expression), it is said that life experiences help enhance artistry. Pali Chandra believes that her experiences of having lived in different countries and having been exposed to various cultures, have made her a better artist. The performer in her keeps you spellbound as she tells the story of yet another Nayika through her Thumris.
Pali Chandra Images credit – Kali Jal
Rasgunjan – Author Pt. Birju Maharaj Publisher Popular Prakashan
Nayika bheda in Kathak – Author Chetana Jyotishi – Publisher Agam Kala Prakashan
Dance in Thumri – Author Projesh Banerjee – Abhinav Publications
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