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Palace of Fine Arts

San Francisco, California

June 28, 2003

As I sat observing the illustrious and spell-binding kathak master Pandit Birju Maharaj, his percussive footwork talking, cajoling, then ringing in thunderous harmony with tabla wizard Zakir Hussein, I thought of a long-ago cultural lesson I received about the divisions between Eastern and Western cultures. An elderly Indian man sat down beside me and recounted his story--his origins, the meaning of his name and the makeup of his family. Before long an African man in traditional dress joined us, and the Indian gentleman asked me to repeat what he'd told me. Nervously I did, and although I recited all the major points, I appeared to miss some of the details. When the Indian man corrected the account, he said, "The trouble with Americans is they are not very good listeners."

Watching kathak will make a good listener out of almost anyone. Whether it is abstract pattern (nritta) or narrative (abhinaya), the material of this North Indian dance is hauled up out of a seeming chaos of noise and shaped into rich, textured expression. Even the concert title, "Saptak," is the name for a musical run of seven notes. To see the dance was quite literally to hear it.

The evening built languorously. The first two hours were devoted to Maharaj demonstrating with a playful modesty an array of masterly patterns and dazzling variation in series of threes, fives, and sevens, and diabolical mixes. He made repeated obeisance to the Indian consul general, who was in the audience and had not only seen Maharaj dance as a young boy but had watched his legendary father and uncles. These segments were interspersed with interludes of abstract dance to canned music by a combination of charming but still evolving dance students of the Tarangini School of Dance in San Jose (the evening's hosts), and several seasoned performers, including the womanly Saswati Sen, and Maharaj's youngest son, Deepak Maharaj, also an accomplished musician.

By mid-concert the man who has been credited with raising kathak to new levels of mastery was demonstrating a veritable bible of percussive patterns signifying everything from an insect to a snake to the noise of silence. "Everywhere is the timing," said Maharaj in halting English, which quickly lapsed into Hindi.

Although much of what Maharaj had to say was lost on me, it was made comprehensible by his feet, which created as many varied tones as Hussein rang out on his tabla. Silence, he showed us, is communicated as a fevered, low-level rattle, which is just as silence often sounds. A snake was an undulant, sibilant rhythm full of crescendo and diminuendo on top of which he added imagistic details--surging arms, bobbing head, and half-lidded, knowing eyes all slipping in a serpentine dance downstage.

By the time Maharaj got to the abhinaya segment, the deeply sensual and rigorously intellectual world he had built over the course of the evening reached full flowering. With dramatic skill rarely seen onstage, he rendered the story of Krishna pretending to be a shepherd looking for his cow in the butter pot belonging to a dowager. Rhythm, numbers, gods, and animals converged in a single landscape. It looked divine. It sounded even better.
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Author:Murphy, Ann
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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