Manjari Chaturvedi Strives To Erase Stigma Surrounding Courtesans
Manjari Chaturvedi is a force to reckon with. As the creator and only performer of Sufi Kathak in the world, she has blazed her own path in Indian classical dance. Her work, over the last 20 years, in 28 countries and in collaboration with 385 musicians, speaks volumes. She is not only unusual in terms of dance forms, but also a unique visionary when it comes to empowerment and awareness.
Manjari, who grew up in Lucknow, found her calling at an early age. While taking the traditional form of Kathak to a different level by creating her own style, she founded the Sufi Kathak Foundation. As SKF’s founder, Manjari works to spread awareness about India’s intangible heritage in music and dance. SKF also works to preserve the gradually fading more than 700-year-old mystical traditions in music.
Now, ‘The Courtesan Project’, the brainchild of Manjari, is creating a much needed buzz. Through this, she is changing the narrative surrounding courtesans. Also, Manjari recently performed at Tata Memorial’s fundraising initiative for the Women’s cancer awareness.
SheThePeople.TV engaged in a detailed conversation with Manjari about Sufi Kathak, her foundation, ‘The Courtesan Project’ and more.
The Sufi Kathak Foundation
Manjari, who has worked with almost 400 musicians from small towns, has closely seen their struggles. “I always wanted to help them and did that sporadically till I found an organised way to do so. Also, at the same time we archive and document the oral art forms,” she says. SKF supports marginal artistes and provides research opportunities to scholars and students under the Foundation’s banner.
SKF also aims to create a world of cultural unity by spreading the message of love of the saints. With this, Manjari aims to evolve a humanist outlook, creating centers, training classes, workshops and musical concerts to promote music, qawwali, folk and classical dance across the world.
“My dance form is representative of the great mystical traditions of our subcontinent”
Manjari has marked a historical step in the field of performing arts with this art form. Sufi Kathak, conceptualised and created by her, has taken 20 years of intense work in mystical poetry, music and classical Indian dance. She has travelled extensively in Egypt, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and worked with artistes from Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and also artistes and scholars in India (Punjab, Lucknow, Kashmir, Rajasthan) and studied the dance and music forms in those regions related with mystical traditions.
“What results is a new dance form that uses classical dance to narrate and interpret mystical poetry. This brings out the nuances of music and poetry through the language of body, which expresses the rapturous heights of spiritual ecstasy,” she explains.
The Courtesan Project
Manjari has been involved in spiritual and mystical dance form since 1998. However, a Delhi concert titled ‘Nazo’ – an ode to the courtesan — she did in 2009, is what propelled her towards a new direction. “I had Zareena Begum from Lucknow come and sing some compositions of old style that the mirasins and tawaifs in Awadh sang, and I performed to them.”
In 2004, Manjari had met Zareena Begum when a stroke left the Begum paralysed. SKF extended her medical support. It was when Begum mentioned her desire to perform once again on stage in a banarasi sari, that teared Manjari up. She returned to Delhi promising that she’ll make it happen. It was when she went around asking for sponsorships that she felt a certain “sniggering disdain that people showed towards the performance art of tawaifs”.
All of this and more led to more research. Eventually, Manjari did not only end up doing a performance for Zareena Begum but also conducted a seminar on the art of the Tawaifs and Baijis titled “The Last Song Of Awadh”. This generated a terrific response.
“It shocked me how in an extremely unfair record of history based on gender inequality, the men pursuing these arts became ‘Ustads’ and the women pursuing the same arts became ‘Nautch Girls'”
Manjari points out that how current generations of the erstwhile male court dancers talk about the family lineage whereas generations of the women court dancers live with a sense of shame. These women never disclose their lineage or any connection with the erstwhile courts.
“My efforts are to remove the social stigmas associated with the courtesans and give them their respectful place as artistes par excellence.”
The project speaks volumes about causes that need to be discussed and the change that we need as a society. Helming this project has been a difficult ride for Manjari. “Why I say difficult, it’s because it involves a social stigma. They’ve been called “fallen women” because of a mindset that hasn’t been thought of, questioned, discussed, debated as an art form, it has merely been shunned. We still don’t have videos of “mujra” performances by courtesans, everything is available only as a Bollywood version, and we all know how far removed that would be from the original. More so, because our image of a courtesan is largely Bollywood influenced and not by trained Kathak dancers to depict the expertise of an art form.”
“Anything new and pathbreaking is always seen with skepticism”
There were many who tried to deter Manjari from the path she intended to follow. “Why we are so ashamed of our own history and why only vis-à-vis women, why not the men performers? How did gender become the judgement of an art?” she asks.
This project predominantly has the Darbari Kathak performance by her. Darbari Kathak is a dance style that originated in royal courtrooms of a bygone era. Characterized by exquisite costumes, this style relies heavily on the hands and the face for expression. A unique style, suited both for intimate settings and for larger than life royal courts, it is rarely performed by the classical dancers now.
Soul Stirrings: Fundraising concert at Tata Memorial
Manjari performed at the fundraising concert at Tata Memorial, Mumbai, this year for the Women’s Cancer Initiative. She brought out the art and the stories of forgotten women performers, “The Courtesans” or “The Tawaifs”. “At the best of the times, the life of a woman is challenging, she is always pitted against many odds, whether at professional or personal level, and her resilience is what gets her through. I have deep admiration for Deveika Bhojwani who has spearheaded this awareness and possible solutions towards breast cancer,” she adds.
Manjari, whose own sister was struck by cancer, understands the trauma that women go through, both physically and mentally. The attempt, she adds, is to sensitise people and raise awareness of the on-ground reality of health for women, living in urban India.
“Uff Malka Jaan & The Velvet Courtesans”
The concert relives the magic of The Courtesan, the muse for poets, painters, sculptors, artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers and the creative thought at large. This production also has actor Neesha Singh who narrates stories and anecdotes from the lives and the times of the Tawaifs and the Courtesans.
The courtesans or mehfil singers as they were later called, performed abhinaya seated on stage to the verses sung as ghazal, thumri and dadra. “The Performing art of the Courtesan” is a rich legacy, an invaluable heritage, deliberately lost and brushed away by social stigmas attached to it, says Manjari.
“Art is always affected by the times in which the artistes live.”
Talking about the classical dance forms and the shift over the years, Manjari says that the classical dance traditions today are competing with a varied sense of entertainment options. “The dances which were meant to be an out of body experience for audiences are now merely an entertainment option. That itself takes a toll on the form.”
However, she believes the renewed interest in tradition may bring out the revival of the art forms. “Globally, our dance forms are much sought after,” she adds.
She draws her inspiration from every woman around her. “All women inspire me with their beauty, strength and their absolute conviction in what they do. Women are the easily spiritual beings as they understand the surrender in love,” she adds.
“I have travelled many places across the world and I still feel that India is a beautiful land of syncretic cultures where arts flourish.”
She is not only performing but also reaching out to several people in one way or another to create change. One thing that keeps her going unwaveringly is the message of love she wants to spread across. She says India is one country where people connect with arts easily, provided you lead them well. “I spread the message of the great mystic saints and poets, of the love and surrender in this love. This is relevant in today’s world where we are being broken into fragments, borders, boundaries, castes, religion and classes. But where is humanity?”
“We need to connect the hearts today”
Manjari believes in connecting the hearts of people and bridging the gap between them. Reflecting on her projects, she urges there’s need for more work that will bridge different concepts and bring people closer to each other with understanding. She adds, “there already are enough people and radical organisations everywhere, always ready to divide hearts. This is where the messages of love of the saints become relevant in today’s time.”
“I have touched upon so many unexplored subjects through my dance that have remained ingrained in the minds of the people. That itself is a blessing.”
Manjari believes her journey is all about communicating an internal experience with an audience. “It’s a never ending beautiful path of an internal experience that can be shared through the language of the dance. As a dancer, one is aware of each and every muscle of the body and hence in complete awareness of oneself. The subsequent transformations in dance therein leads to inside one’s inner self,” she reflects.
Her journey, she says, has been a fantastic ride and she would not exchange it for anything in this world. “Dance is what makes me who I am. I tell stories through dance,” she concludes.
Featured image credit: Manjari Chaturvedi