Students of kathak will tell you that if there is one dancer Birju Maharaj loves to watch with avid interest, it is Michael Jackson. For the greatest living legend of kathak, there is something deeply rivetting about the one-man Jackson gharana.
Dancer-producer Anand Bhatt shares Birju Maharaj’s fascination with the king of pop. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, he was one of the best-known Jackson impersonators in the United Kingdom. He also trained in kathak for 13 years, though he chooses not to perform. In his three decades in dance, Bhatt found that the expressive and dynamic elements of Jackson’s style, cemented and strengthened his links with kathak.
In December, Bhatt taught a roomful of young kathak artists some essential Jackson in a movement material class in Delhi. The sassiness, the commanding here-watch-me swagger, those small delicate shifts in body weight, the flick of the wrist, and the quicksilver changes – all typically Jackson – form a language that the dancers at Drishtikon Studio, run by avante garde kathak artist Aditi Mangaldas, were comfortable with.
“What I found amazing was that [the sense] that kathak conveys is often seen in Jackson’s dance – that lightning effect, striking hard but vanishing quickly,” said Mangaldas. “Also it is good for classical dancers to challenge their muscle memory, which gets rather set in a pattern if we don’t get into an uncomfortable zone and question ourselves.”
Bhatt’s fascination for the moonwalker started when he was all of three. Born to a Gujarati migrant family with African roots, he recalls watching the video of the song Thriller, released in 1983, from behind a curtain in his London home, fascinated and terrified in equal parts.
“His [Michael Jackson’s] dance is a lot like kathak in that it tells a story – it had a start, a middle and an end, a clear narrative that I found fascinating,” said Bhatt. “I was hooked to the visual experience he offered.”
The first opportunity to do a Jackson came after the family shifted to a working-class estate in Leicester, when Bhatt was nine. Dressed on a whim in a saree, at a large family gathering, he decided to break into a Jackson medley. Impressed by the skills, Bhatt was gifted a suit and tie to pull together the Jackson look, and within two months, he was on stage, performing on Billie Jean as an MJ impersonator at a mayoral fund raiser in Leicester. It wasn’t long before Bhatt became a fixture at community events in the city – suit, tie, hat and MJ moves in place.
“I was like a big fish in a small pond, dancing at about 150 odd venues, which were not very prestigious,” he recalled.
When he turned 14, the family decreed that Bhatt needed to learn kathak. It turned out to be a tough switch. “Apart from the task of having to learn the grammar of kathak afresh, culturally it was a big shift – this was nothing like urban dance,” Bhatt said. “The whole idea of subjugating to a guru, the entire aura around classical dance…and [since] I was not a native Indian learning kathak, it was conceptually like learning a new language.”
After four years Bhatt dropped out – it was too much effort reconciling kathak and a working-class childhood in a tough neighbourhood. Jackson, though, continued to be a part of his life till 2004, when the artist, with his white skin fixation and child abuse allegations, became something of an untouchable in the entertainment industry.
“Anyway, I was clear that being a talented MJ impersonator was not going to [be my] career,” Bhatt said. “I wanted to be a clinical psychologist.”
Around the same time, Bhatt started Bollywood dancing classes at Desi Masti, a school he founded in 2003. He was quite likely the first teacher of the form in Leicester, at a time when filmi thumkas weren’t quite the global phenomena they are today.
The school was the stage for an important collaboration that would have a profound impact on Bhatt’s career. This is where Bhatt met Aakash Odedra, a dancer from Birmingham with roots in Saurashtra and Mumbai, who had perfected his kathak under Nilima Devi in Leicester. In 2006, the two dancers decided on an exchange arrangement – Odedra would teach Bollywood, kathak, jazz and contemporary dance to Bhatt’s Bollywood students and in turn, get to use Bhatt’s Desi Masti studio space. The sacred lines that divided classical, popular and contemporary dance in India were practically non-existent in UK’s Asian dance scene, leaving enough room for experimentation.
The following year, Bhatt and Odedra danced kathak together at a programme hosted by Indian-origin MP Keith Vaz. The event turned out to be a turning point in Bhatt’s career. “It was mortifying,” Bhatt recollected. “It was clear I wasn’t a natural kathak dancer and Akash was ahead. He was electrifying. That was the last time I performed kathak on stage. But I knew what I could be was a good judge of talent.”
Bhatt became a producer with the Akash Odedra Company in 2008. And in curious ways kathak and Jackson again came together to help Bhatt create a buzz around Odedra’s talent. Odedra is now arguably the best-known young Indian classical-contemporary dancer in the West.
In 2009, Bhatt resurrected his Jackson career – but this time as a show producer – doing two big hit events around the singer’s works. He followed this up with a tribute, Timeless, when Jackson died. The return to his life as a Jackson impersonator also piqued Bhatt’s interest in kathak. He took up the dance form again, this time as an aware and interested learner.
“MJ moved to vibration, not just beats, and that was so close to what we do in the percussive form in Indian classical dances,” Bhatt said. “And his dance was liberating, like it was dispossessed from the body – you find that intrinsic to kathak. Look at his emphasis on the small things: the glance, the movement of a single finger – almost like mudras – the placement of the hip…[together with the] delicacy that you note in classical dances.”
Bhatt produced a solo that was choreographed for Odedra by Akram Khan, the wunderkind of kathak-modern dance, in 2009. Rising, staged at the prestigious British Dance Edition in 2012, drew acclaim for Odedra’s kathak but not enough buzz to break through the clutter.
“Aakash said we need to get people talking about his dance,” said Bhatt. “So at a gathering of international dancers and producers he asked the DJ to play Jackson and said to me, ‘Go out there and do something.’ I danced – any Jackson work has so much energy [and soon] promoters were circling [around] us with the question ‘Who are you guys?’”
Soon after, Odedra landed his first big performance at the Cinars festival in Canada. He performed Akram Khan’s Rising, which was described by The Guardian dance critic Judith Mackrell as the “dance equivalent of a red-carpet event”, and the rest was dance history. Today, both Jackson and kathak inform Bhatt’s decisions on production.
“MJ was magical on stage, his work was large-scale [and] audience-focused,” said Bhatt. “Typically, our classical dance performances are not great on scale or audience focused. He taught me the need to ensure that the audiences expect quality and scale in performances.”