Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Gauri Sharma Tripathi – Dancing with grace around the world

Text by Ashanti OMkar
Pictures by Akin Falope

In this very interesting insight into the life of Kathak dancer and pioneer in the West, Gauri Sharma Tripathi, we discover lots of hidden delights and get a real understanding of the diligence that is required to soar the heights that Gauri has, in her career as a dancer, moving along the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, where she has lived, performed and taught many a discerning student.

Gauri’s latest offering, Ta – The Beginning is modern innovation, which transcends the borders of music and dance, to make it appealing to anyone, regardless of knowledge of the art, colour or race, who attends a performance. With music from Niraj Chag, of the coveted Dum Dum Project working on some of the contemporary music pieces and amazing, beautiful, British born singer, Reena Bhardwaj (the voice of Yeh Rishta in MF Hussain’s Meenaxi – one of 2004’s top numbers, by AR Rahman), alongside Faheem Mazahar on vocals; Dilruba and Sitar maestro Baluji Shrivastava (though blind, he is an incredible musician), this performance was one to not miss – Queen Elizabeth Hall was the perfect location and Gauri simply sizzled in her grace and swanlike intricate movements, with her 4 students following to synchronized perfection.

Gauri tells of her upbringing: “Born in a Brahmin family from UP (Uttra Pradesh), my Father a nuclear scientist and Mother a degree holder in history, a beautiful Kathak dancer and a PhD holder in Kathak dance, way back in the 50s. I was born in Lucknow and brought up in Rajasthan, spent my higher education in Mumbai. My mother is my guru and she exposed me and guided me to grow in this field. Both Ma and myself spend time together in India and UK, teaching, work on new items and most importantly hearing the anecdotes of the great gurus - so inspiring. In my training, my parents also prepared me in the trial and tribulations of a profession like dance with a firm and stable pad to bounce out from the training was very holistic, of course specific to Kathak. My Guru was strict and demanding work wise, good guidance and more importantly tools to make what I have learnt grow. She believes in sharing and giving, so do I. I believe that classical styles have enough fuel to keep us ignited; once the ignition is spurred up it draws you into it. Our traditions are old some written and some are been shaped up by us as we hold on to some as it helps us to constantly evolve ourselves.”

Gauri didn’t stop there, instead, she opened her mind and broadened her horizons by moving to Nigeria, Africa: “The journey from India to Nigeria was a very interesting one. At that time, professionally, both on the stage performance and TV work was booming. I was doing a lot of performances, advertisement films, choreographic work, in general having a great time. So the decision to move to Nigeria as opposed to what people said not to go was a building ground for myself, as I left everything behind, but always believed that certain connections with India will continue to inspire and lead me on.”

She goes on, reminiscing: “In Nigeria, we lived in Port Harcourt, a very interesting place. As I worked with the local youth group and did performances with them, had a lot of time to do Riyaz (practice), and reflect on the work I had put in India. I learnt a lot and also realised that rhythms and body movements are so universal and also there are so many common points which link us all together.”

On her initial move to Europe, she reveals, “From Africa to Switzerland was a complete flip of the coin. I continued my journey with performances and teaching Dance at the International school in Geneva, and training MBA students in aerobics. But the turning point in my realisation and understanding of my art form came with a brush with contemporary dance, when I met with Dominic Gabella, a dancer and a teacher at the Bejart Ballet Company in Lausanne. We met and instantly chemistry came about with a desire to work together, to look for commonalities and more importantly differences. That led to the creation of its own synthesis.”

She continues: “The piece that we created brought me into a different understanding and dimension of the dance form. While we were discussing and reflecting on the synthesis we had created in the warm studios of Lausanne, I am sure the Bollywood location hunters were outside, looking at the pristine beauty of Switzerland. That is where I realised the inbuilt resilience, strength and the deep-rooted traditions that we come from. It is almost like the undercurrents of a big ocean.”

Roots mean a lot to Gauri and she tells us: “my love affair with India was there when I was born and brought up, but my romance with India has grown more so now. Each year I visit India not only to perform, but also to connect with the air, the water, and the smell that I miss. Starting from the immigration line at Mumbai airport, the smell in the air and the sound of the ceiling fan is so exciting and invigorating. My visits each year take me to Gorakhpur, Barpar, a village (a real village), Lucknow, Delhi, Mumbai and Vaishno Devi. As time goes by the urge and the hungriness to see our country grows. The same rickshaw becomes an installation of art, and also the changing face of society is almost like looking into a picture frame of colours, which every time I go back is changing.”

“My roots of Kathak are deep”, she articulates. “My mother is my guru, and she taught me in a way that gave me the foundations and also the tools to evolve and grow within the dance form. My mother learnt from Guru Lachu Maharaj, and I also remember being in his lap when I was very small. Maharaj-ji is another doyen who has been a personal inspiration for me. From these deep roots I find a strong source of belief and grounding.”

On audiences and reactions, she says: “The Indian audience is the best testing ground to see how well you are evolving yourself within the art. As there are so many performances that they are exposed to, a critical audience is much required for any artist. The zest, the talent and the hard work that I see within our generation, is inspiring. But the lack of opportunity always takes them in different directions. Everyone is hungry and the eyes are constantly wandering to absorb and link up, and the dance forms do provide that.”

On her many students and her astonishing achievements: “I have believed and constantly would continue to push in giving an holistic flavour of Kathak dance to my pupils, and I also trust its existence and a bright future in a young generation even though they might be few who take this art form forward, it will be the quality which will matter and not the quantity. Performing in front of the queen was at first a very exciting and also at the same time a certain reverence remained, when we presented our piece in the Westminster Abbey. Two years later we were called back, and that was the time I met with her at Buckingham Palace. She remembered the piece and congratulated me on its beauty.”

She created a definitive website on Kathak, - she fills us in that “it is geared to attract young people to this art form. It is a forum where I hope to build an online global community of Kathak lovers – Kathak on the Net.”

On her very own production company, on Kathak, as Kathak is what mild mannered, but bright, bubbly and energetic Gauri lives and breathes, she says “ANKH my company can also be understood as A New Kathak Horizon. The lens in which I present Kathak in a new light, while holding on to the deep traditions of India.”

She concludes with a message to her fans: “continue searching and living by the Kaleidoscope of colours through which you see Kathak dance and varied shapes it takes in time. Peace, Love and infinite imagination.”