History bears witness of women who have emerged beyond their limitations, following where their heart leads. Ketaki Hazra is one such inspiration. The 72-year-old has been teaching students in the UAE the Lucknowi gharana of Kathak (Indian classical dance form) since the last 34 years and counting, she is a pioneer of sorts for introducing the dance form to the UAE expatriate community. And you may ask what’s so out of the ordinary about teaching young enthusiasts to dance?

Well, read on and I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

An expressive face adorned with equally expressive kohled eyes and a melodious voice, gestures me to pull a chair next to hers. Guru Ketaki is just the person you would want your dance instructor to be. And why is that? It’s the earnest simplicity with which she yearns to guide, tutor and instruct you. No guesses then what makes her a household name in the old Karama area of Dubai.

Ketaki Hazra
Image Credit: Ketaki Hazra

Being a disciple of Guru Jai Kumari Devi, Ketaki’s passion for the art of dancing was kindled and initiated at the young age of seven. She continued her training with Guru Bela Arnab even after marriage. However, life took over, added responsibilities, put her dancing feet to rest. But not for long. Bahrain…. and then Dubai, realigned her to what destiny had in store for her.

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Ketaki began teaching Kathak, Bharatnatyam and Manipuri dance forms as well and since Kathak is a performing dance form, she began organising an annual non-profit Indian classical dance concert Nrityanjali (since 1986, every year to this date- impressive huh?). Said to have evolved from a tradition of storytelling that involves dance, mime and music, “the girls had to perform on the stage to gain confidence,” believes the teacher originally from Kolkata.

Ketaki began teaching Kathak, Bharatnatyam and Manipuri dance forms as well and since Kathak is a performing dance form, she began organising an annual non-profit Indian classical dance concert Nrityanjali (since 1986).

Unfortunately, in a tragic accident in 1996 she slipped, fell and landed on her back injuring her spinal cord. Making things more difficult was her prognosis of a severe case of Osteoporosis that hindered her from standing on her feet and dance. After the incident when she couldn’t even get up, Ketaki felt severely depressed.

However, that didn’t stop the students from flocking to her doorstep in Karama to continue learning to dance. She continued earning the recognition of being a highly respected teacher in the dance circles, and being lovingly called ma’am Ketaki. Her students unknowingly and unconditionally continued to give her the support and strength she needed in these times of trial and tribulations.

Nonetheless, misfortune continued to challenge her. Ketaki fell twice again and severely damaged her back. After three surgeries, standing and dancing was not an option, she recalls that there had been several times then that she wondered giving up, but her students’ love, respect and devotion held her together.

Image Credit: Ketaki Hazra

No question about the devastation this realization may have on an individual, but not for a woman of steel that Ketaki was. She managed to sing and dance, finding expression to emote and mentor her students with facial expressions and using hand gestures to form the swirling moments.

She patiently encouraged the learners to follow the beat of the song and corrected their form the very moment she noticed it (by just the sound of their ghungaroos – bells tied on strings), even when her severe backache wouldn’t allow her to get out of the bed. She instructed the footwork by tapping her feet on the ground. “I don’t dance anymore myself, but I can guide them with a glance here, or an expression or gesture there. And they quickly understand my instructions.”

After three surgeries, standing and dancing was not an option, she recalls that there had been several times then that she wondered giving up, but her students’ love, respect and devotion held her together.

For years, she has invited a dear friend, Keshab Mukherjee, an associate professor (now retired) of Rhythm at the Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata to provide live tabla accompaniment at the annual shows. He usually arrives a few days before each show to work in coordination with Ketaki to further fine tune the students’ sense of rhythm so essential in Kathak.

Although classically-trained, Ketaki solemnly believes that more than just a passion, dancing is in her blood. Be it sorrow or joy, Ketaki destresses and channels all her emotions into dance. To her credit, she has the Jailal Challenge Shield – one of the most prestigious Indian national awards.

Image Credit: Ketaki Hazra

To this day, she continues to shape the lives of students as young as four years to 50 years old. She engages them such that the class helps discipline and builds confidence within them. A teacher in the true essence of the word, she is always looking to incorporate other musical and dance forms, such as folk, into performances and is keen on women’s themes and narratives. Apart from Kathak she also teaches Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore’s dance dramas and folk songs.

Ketaki has over the years taught several hundred students but she hasn’t kept a count. The dance form has sparked a lot of interest amongst the expatriates here and she has taught dance enthusiasts from several communities, including Indians, Iranians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. No wonder this teacher is at the centre of a close-knit community.

And as we sit in her living room, students walk in, touch her feet and take their place. They admit she’s more than a guru (teacher) to them. The students not only assemble in the living room of her apartment around a common purpose of interest but have formed an alternate family here.

She continues to be their friend, confidant and one of their biggest sources of inspiration.

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Listening to people, Yasmeen Maqbool acquaints herself to their life’s feature. What inspires and encourages, she’s always on the lookout for ‘passionistas’ and weaves their stories to bring to you the movers and shakers of today! Her only other true indulgence is spending quality time with her green fingers while listening to Jagjit Singh ‘ghazals’.

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