When the four-minute black-and-white recording comes to life, a tall, muscular dancer fills the frame with his striking presence. He sits with his right arm outstretched, fingers pointing and forlorn gaze fixed in the distance. There is no audio track and you might think the video is frozen except that the hands of those playing the tabla, sarangi and harmonium are in motion.

With infinite grace, the dancer retracts his arm, eyes still searching the horizon. That he is singing a song now silenced by time adds to the poignancy – a nayika in a state of eternal wait. The title of the recording tells you it is Kathak’s favourite thumri on love and longing playing, Kaun Gali Gayo Shyam.

Apathy has erased not only the sound on this film, but also the recognition richly deserved by one of the greatest Kathak dancers, gurus and scholars of the 20th century, Mohanrao Kallianpurkar. In a history dominated by the flamboyant gharana stars, the self-effacing colossus who quietly broke creative and social barriers is now reduced to, at best, a footnote. Few know of him today, except dance historians and the stalwarts of the early to middle decades of the last century. As for the young, even those who learn to dance to his syllabus, texts and compositions do not know his name.

Courtesy: Nad Roop.

Aamad (approach), a documentary on the master’s creative genius by auteur Mani Kaul for the National Centre for Performing Arts, survives only in damaged patches. A snatch of thumri bhaav (enactment) on Kaun Gali and a sliver of a dance class he conducted are among the few remnants of the film that have weathered half a century of neglect.

“He didn’t get his due,” said Kumudini Lakhia, 92, a dancer who is legendary both for bringing a new creative aesthetic to Kathak and for speaking up against the form’s sacred cows. “No one talks of a Mohanrao gharana, though they all dance his works. Few even bother to acknowledge his compositions on stage.”

Trying to redress this wrong are a few art scholars and Kathak dancers, especially the second and third generation beneficiaries of his immense talents as a teacher. Nearly four decades after Kallianpurkar’s death, they are stepping up to document his fascinating life story and unique place in the history of Kathak.

Through the pandemic, renowned Kathak dancer Shama Bhate, her shishya Shama Bhide and arts scholar Arshiya Sethi worked on a painstakingly researched book on the maestro’s life and art. Titled Non-Gharanedaar Pt Mohanrao Kallianpurkar: The Paviour of Kathak, and enriched with his writings as well as QR code-accessed video clips of both the dancer and his students illustrating his work, the book arrived in the market in January. A few months later, Poornima Pandey, one of the handful of his students active on the dance scene, and her shishya Ruchi Khare published another tribute in Hindi, Yug Drishta: Pt MS Kallianpurkar, Kathakacharya.

Courtesy: Nad Roop.

Together and individually the books reveal fascinating details about the master, including the astonishing firsts he pulled off. He was the first nationally acclaimed non-gharanedar Kathak dancer, melding the best of both the leading styles, Lucknow and Jaipur. He created a pedagogical and performance outline for an art that was historically open-ended and orally transmitted per the whimsy of the masters and, thereby, shifted the focus from the lineage to the art. He also choreographed some of the most rhythmically complex Kathak works and ballets on literary themes that were a departure from the usual Radha-Krishna theme.

“I would call him the pataka (flagbearer) for non-gharanedar dancers,” said Shama Bhate. “He led the path for dancers from all kinds of backgrounds to enter the field. After him came Kumiben, Maya Rao, Padma Sharma and many other legends. My guru Rohini Bhate, who was one of his ace disciples, brought the dance to Maharashtra, especially Pune, where Kathak is now so vibrant that the city is now recognised as a gadh (hub) for the form.” Bhate’s dance school in Pune, Nad Roop, took the first big step towards acknowledging Kallianpurkar’s legacy in August 2013 by hosting Sansmaran, a festival of his works and disciples.

Courtesy: Nad Roop.

Quick Learner

To understand why Kallianpurkar’s foray into Kathak’s gharana-bound domain made for a revolution, we need to take a look at its historic and social evolution. Dancers from diverse backgrounds today crisscross styles and experiment with freedom and ease, but in the early 20th century, when he stepped into the form, it was a still a cloistered, clan-centric tradition.

The form we know now as Kathak came together in the 1930s and is an amalgam of multiple rich traditions – the performative storytelling by ‘Kathaks’ (tellers) of the Krishna/bhakti lore, the music-centric art of the highly talented tawaifs, and various folk and ritual strands.

The anti-nautch movement was at its peak by the ’30s and the form had become the monopoly of traditional Kathak clans. One of these was spearheaded by Bindadeen Maharaj, a dancer in the court of Wajid Ali Shah. Known as the Lucknow or Awadh gharana, it was marked by fluidity, grace, imagination and nuance. The other big hub of Kathak was Jaipur, characterised by virtuosity and vigour.

It was into this rich but chaotic and idiosyncratic world that a quiet 20-year-old from a progressive family of bankers, lawyers, scholars and doctors walked in, recounts The Paviour of Kathak. The youngster from Hubli had watched Jaipur gharana’s Sundar Prasad dance in Bombay and was smitten enough by it to defy family conventions and seek a life in dance.

Courtesy: Nad Roop.

A quick learner, Kallianpurkar helped Sundar Prasad set up and run the Bindadeen Maharaj school of Kathak in Girgaum in the 1940s, creating a thriving hub for the art in the megapolis. “I recall watching him dance at age 9 when my mother took me to the school,” said Lakhia. “He was so magnificent that I only had eyes for him.”

Impressed with his talent, musicologist SN Ratanjankar asked him at age 26 to head the dance department of Marris College, now known as Bhatkhande Music Institute, in Lucknow. It was here that the dancer shone not only as a teacher, but as a pedagogue and administrator, investing Kathak with discipline and system.

“Here was an Indian classical dancer who was thinking academically in the 1940s, drawing up definitions, setting the Kathak vocabulary, a syllabus, researching for seminar papers, clearly articulating an art that banked on the oral tradition of transmission till then,” said Bhide. “If today there is uniform definition of what is aamad, kavit, uthan – till then defined loosely – it is because of him. I would say that a bulk of Kathak textbooks we now refer to him were his work and the institutionalising of Kathak though it is not acknowledged.”

A recording of Uttara Coorlawala’s Ushas Sukta choreographed by Mohanrao Kallianpurkar who also sings and plays the sitar for it.

Modern Maverick

Though Kallianpurkar remained immersed in the running of Marris College, he continued to feed his own passion for Kathak. He sought the tutelage of Achhan Maharaj, who had inherited the Lucknow gharana mantle from his uncle Bindadeen Maharaj.

The most important element he brought to Kathak, says Lakhia, was discipline. Kathak is described as khula naach (open format) – unlike say Bharatanatyam with its set margam (path) – which allows free reign to improvisation but also makes room for clutter. “This is a form where you can learn and simply go haywire with your performance because of the temptation to show off on stage, more and more chakkars, more and more footwork,” she said. “He was a disciplined dancer himself, though his skills were manifold – abhinaya, footwork, movement, vocabulary, he had it all. And you see that in his students too.”

Dancers and scholars today point to an even more unique trait: Kallianpurkar learnt under legendary old-world masters, who ushered Kathak into a new phase, but whose social behaviour remained feudal. By contrast, he himself remained cosmopolitan, eclectic and unfailingly courteous all his life. He was the first of the modern gurus of Kathak, freely giving, open to fresh ideas and new ways to learning, teaching and performing. In a way, he was a bridge between a bygone era and the new, democratic one, says Bhate.

Courtesy: Nad Roop.

“He accepted all the rules of the old system for himself but did not inflict them on those who followed him,” said arts scholar Arshiya Sethi whose first encounter with Kallianpurkar’s legacy was in 1989-’90 when she saw his student and a current guru at the Kathak Kendra, Subhash Chandra, dance. “He was modern, maverick, inclusive. He was a gurubhakt himself but he didn’t expect gurubhakti from his students. It was so beautifully done, the rare aspects of Kathak, the breath control the micro muscles at work.”

Contemporary Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas recalls being drawn to these qualities as a teenager. After his retirement from Marris College, Kallianpurkar remained active as a guru, hosting masterclasses and workshops at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Kathak Kendra and Lakhia’s renowned dance school in Ahmedabad, Kadamb. It was in the balcony of the Mangaldas home that Kallianpurkar first taught the students of Kadamb, a nascent institution then.

“He was himself a sadhak (seeker), but as a guru he was very open-minded, erudite and comfortable with his works being reinterpreted by dancers,” Mangaldas remembered. “I have done so myself. And he was a treasure house of material, fascinatingly complex and unpredictable. For example, he could work mnemonic syllables like ta thunga in infinite fractional ways, sometimes spacious and light and at other times fast and dense.”

Courtesy: Nad Roop.

Between the 1940s and 1950s, Kallianpurkar choreographed Kathak ballets with unusual, often literary, themes. This included works based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace; Kalidas’ dramas Shakuntala, Vikramorvashiyam and Meghdoot; and Bhavabhutti’s Malti Madhav. Among his most offbeat works was one choreographed for contemporary dancer and scholar Uttara Asha Coorlawala, Ushas Sukta.

Dancers who now look back at his incredible body of work are astonished that how little is known of him. The last word on this goes to the irrepressible Kumudhini Lakhia:

“He was too simple, no politics, no publicity and this in a field that is rife with politics. He wasn’t into ‘hamara gharana tumhara gharana’ debates, he kept it straight at all times. He spoke softly, would not argue, show off…but public mein aana chahiye thoda (you do need to showcase yourself). And remember, organisers used to be hung on the khandani.”

Courtesy: Nad Roop.

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.