Chhandam’s first annual Kathak Pratiyogita (competition) was on December 18, 2011 in Fremont, CA. The Pratiyogita featured Chhandam Youth Dance Company (CYDC) members, who competed with one another in a traditional Kathak Jugalbandhi – completely based on improvisation. The event was judged by senior teachers and members of the Chitresh Das Dance Company. Pt. Chitresh Das, himself, was also present to witness the event and cheer along the young, fearless competitors.
My head whirls with the familiar blur of selvar kamese and nervous faces. Someone murmurs something about a rematch. I hear my name. I hear the other dancer’s name. Something about ending with 81 chakkars. I rise slowly to my feet, take a deep breath, and walk towards the center of the room to face a crowd of parents, judges, teachers, and five-year-old students who fidget with excitement. A crackle of applause, a chorus of hoots. Someone sets the laya, and the steady rhythm of the tabla pulses through my veins. I smile at my partner — she smiles back, like we’ve been doing this for ages. The room goes silent.
The final round of the Pratiyogita begins now.
In an exhilarating Sunday afternoon, the Chhandam Youth Dance Company and the Fremont Chhandam branch experienced a roller coaster of hidden talent, risk-taking, and intense energy in Chhandam’s first annual Pratiyogita competition. Insiders refer to it as a “cutting contest,” a term used by modern tap dancers to describe contests where dancers are paired up at random to battle their improvised technique to beat. In Kathak terms, this improvisation, or Upaj, involves a great deal of layakari, the ability to understand taal and play with rhythms. Judges looked for the four elements of Kathak, which include layakari as well as tayari (readiness), khoobsurti (beauty), and nazakat (delicacy and subtlety). But beyond the technical aspect was the psychological: participants would be judged for their attitude, their emotional control, their courage and risk-taking, and the extra bit of “oomph” in their every move.
The competition began when two names were pulled out of an envelope with names from the junior division, ages 8 to 12. Seniority played no role — a new YC member had every possibility of competing against a more experienced third-year, who could well compete against a senior member. “First-years” awed the audience and their fellow YC members alike with their raw energy, stunning confidence, and challenging attitude. Contestants caught their opponents off hand with a sudden burst of abhinaya, and some intimidatingly circled their opponents with moving chakkars; others even ventured for the daunting triple pirouettes.
But of course, every move had been engineered and executed in the spur of the moment. “I had all these amazing things planned,” I heard one senior contestant whisper after the final round, “but when I got up there, it all just slipped away and suddenly all I knew was tatkar.” I would venture to add that along with the dissolution of all things planned, nervousness also slipped away and left the energy of happiness in its place. Winning or losing had not once entered my head; all that crossed my mind was my next move. The judges were equally reluctant to name winner. After all, isn’t Upaj a way of life? Improvisation can deem no two people winner and loser; life is a game where an individual holds his victory in his own hands.
If the judges were impressed, the parents were stunned. One Fremont parent, also a student at Chhandam, requested to personally express her gratitude to the Chhandam community for the opportunity to participate in such an event on behalf of the Fremont branch. Her words rung true in every ear in the studio; because everyone, finalist or otherwise, parent or student, had become a winner that day.