Since its founding in 1978, Birju Maharaj’s student, Janaki Patrik, has been running the company Kathak Ensemble and Friends. In a time of dance companies going by the, name of their founders, this is an unusual deviance. In the programme notes that accompany her production, Janaki usually attributes the choreography to “Janaki Patrik with the Dancers”. This kind of credit to dancers, whom choreographers often see as pawns in the process of the choreographic design, is another self effacement. “Oh it’s never just about me-the art is very big for just me to carry alone” says Janaki in a soft voice and with gentleness of demeanour.
Janaki’s commitment to Kathak dance comes despite, and has survived many forms of dance training by masters, including intensive ballet training and training in the Cunningham technique, for which she won a scholarship, and was taught by none other than Merce Cunningham himself. It also comes filtered through a life long association with the arts, and a family history of artistic training. Her father was a boy soprano, “a soloist with a beautiful voice” she explains as she shows me his picture. “His mother wanted him to have an education since he had such an inquisitive mind about science. They were a family of modest means, and so she used his beautiful voice to get admission in the Grace Church boys’ choir. The school for the choir boys, who sang several times a day and could not attend regular school, was academically excellent. That is how we had the gift of music at home” she explains.
Her own natural musical talent was evident at a young age when she would play by just watching her father’s fingers move on the keyboard. Soon she went on to “first train on piano, where my teacher would teach by touching my fingers, then to a flautist who was a band leader and taught me with a sense of fun, helping me to recognise my notes in the music sheet, by drawing faces on them, and preparing me to go on to train with the first flutist from the Chicago Symphony!” In Chicago her family changed her church to the Unitarian Church that was “close to the Universal Humanism of Swami Vivekananda, but I still felt inadequate as it did not have enough spiritual depth”, she explained.
Academically Janaki was studying Latin and Russian poetry. “I could read Pushkin and Dostoevsky in Russian, enjoying thoroughly the music in my life and the musicality in Russian poetry that has a strong oral reference”. It was at that time that in 1963 she met Pt. Birju Maharaj at Swarthmore College. “Despite being quite young at that time, he had just got the Sangeet Natak Akademi award at the age of twenty eight. As I looked on mesmerised, I had an epiphany and knew that in Kathak I would find my poetic, musical and spiritual calling”. Ever conscientious, Janaki completed her academic degree Phi Beta Kappa, which is the oldest honor society for the liberal arts and sciences in the United States — widely recognized and considered as the nation’s most prestigious honor society celebrating academic excellence. “I could have joined a doctoral programme right away, but then I would never have become an artiste”, she explained.
From 1967, using her own money, she began coming to India in pursuit of Kathak and her desire to study with Birju Maharaj. “I had learnt a bit of Kathak in New York City, from Gina Lalli, who had been a student of the great Guru of yore, Vikramasinghe, direct disciple of Pt. Achhan Maharaj of the Lucknow gharana. I had written to Kathak Kendra that was formed in 1964, asking about their admission policy. To my surprise they wrote back and invited me for an audition and I danced all that I knew for Maharaji and the Director. I don’t know what I’d have done if they wouldn’t take me as a student, but they did. And the rest is history”. It was not an easy shift, and she credits her Girl Scout ‘Primitive Encampment’ training, which taught her how to live off almost nothing, with the skills that she would employ in India. “I could if I want eat almost nothing and just drink water. I lived with a middle class simple family that had much more love to offer, than privilege to call upon. Roti with chutney was often what I ate. All I did was study the world of Kathak- with blinders”, recalled Janaki of her early days at Kathak Kendra which was at that time located at Mata Sundari Road.
In her class were other international students- Manoranjan Joshi from Nepal and Nirmala Nandu from Mauritius. For Kathak Kendra’s Annual Day at Sapru House, Maharaj ji created a small item for the three of us, for which Kumudini Lakhia designed the costume. She happened to be in Delhi to take our end-of-year exams. After I danced my exam, she made me realise the importance of warming up. She gave me suggestions for the SaraswatiVandana, which I had danced for the exam , and in one demonstration which was a powerful lesson in itself, made me realise how far I still had to go in understanding the micro-movements, the links between the poetry and movement and the power of the nazar ka kaam”.
From Monday to Saturday Janaki danced long hours in Maharaj ji’s class, but come Sunday she had other plans. “Sundays would be spent with the dancers of the Kendra’s Ballet Unit. Bharti Gupta was most generous. I even would learn from Shashwati Sen, who but a child then knew a lot. I remember she taught me different types of ‘ghunghats’. They were all so generous with tips and insights that opened up the glory of the multiple artistry involved with the fascinating world of Kathak.”
Janaki studied thumri with Siddheswari Devi, who was teaching at Kathak Kendra then, and whom Janaki called “Mataji”. She even learnt table from none other than Purushottam Das, pakhawaji. As Janaki accompanied Maharaj ji and the Kathak Kendra “ballet unit” she also got a wonderful opportunity to meet other great artistes of India. “I met Begum Akhtar and Bismillah Khan, and never missed any concerts at Sapru House which at that time was the hub of Delhi’s cultural life and the venue of so many memorable concerts.
It was only after five trips that she was sent by Fulbright as a Senior Scholar to research the poetry of Kathak’s repertoire. But thereafter, once again began her own personal travels, till another opportunity came in the form of a fellowship from the American Institute for Indian Studies to study curriculum and syllabus as well as modern trends in Kathak.
By then Janaki had already created some landmark works in Kathak, with the dancers that she had trained. Her teaching career though intermittent allowed her to pursue her own performances as well as the choreographies she presented. Her work titled “Ka-Tap” made a big impact even as it brought Kathak and Tap onto a seamless choreography. More recent works include “Mandala X” based on the Nasadiya Sukta which used a core of western orchestration with solo Indian instruments. Her most recent choreography “We Sinful Women” based on Pakistani feminist poetry has earned a tremendous response “from the right sort of people” specifies Janaki.
“I have learnt a lot from my Gurus, whether Piano teacher Mary Fredenburgh, or Merce Cunningham or Maharaj ji. While the touch of their hand was slight, with subtlety they were able to pass tomes of artistic knowledge, and leave a deep and indelible mark on my heart and soul”, says Janaki in conclusion. That is the kind of teacher she wants to be- but it is the twenty first century and her city deems her dance as ethnic, and the colour of her skin may stand in the way!