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Friday, 18 October 2019

Indian Kathak dancer Marami Medhi tells her stories in Egypt

Following last year's Odissi dance, India by the Nile 2014 brings yet another Indian classical dance form to Egyptian audiences, captivating Cairo and Alexandria viewers with masters of Kathaki

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 10 Apr 2014
Marami Medhi
Marami Medhi in Kathak dance performance, Cairo Opera House, 8 April 2014. (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim, courtesy of the Indian Embassy in Cairo)
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As part of the second edition of India by the Nile, the multidisciplinary festival bringing India's arts to Egypt between 1 and 20 April, renowned Indian Kathak dancer Marami Medhi performed in Alexandria on 6 April and in Cairo on 8 April.

Celebrated in her native India as an "A" artist, Medhi has been honoured with the prestigious Singar Mani title of recognition. Her international performances have captivated viewers with their technical mastery and visual appeal. Medhi, who has been dancing since the age of 15, is also founder of the Sur Sangam institute of Indian classical music and dance in Guwahati, a city in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam.

Last year, Egyptian audiences were treated to Odissi, one of the nine Indian classical dance forms and the oldest-rooted in rituals and tradition. Odissi was performed by three dancers from India’s renowned Nrityagram Dance Village, located outside Bangalore.

Together with her team, which consists of her family members in addition to two other musicians, Marami Medhi this year performed Kathak -- a much younger classical dance linked to Kathakars (storytellers) from northern India.

While Odissi developed from the culture surrounding the temples, its dance movements reflecting the sculptures there enclosed, Kathak originated from the storytellers' retelling of mythological epics through gestures which eventually metamorphosed into dance.

A crucial characteristic of Kathak – and probably the most interesting one – is the dance's incorporation of Muslim traditions, as it developed in the 16th century when India was ruled by the Mughal Empire. As such, Kathaki is today the only Indian classical dance form influenced by the two religions: Hinduism and Islam.

Odissi and Kathak
Left: Marami Medhi and Meghranjani Medhi in Kathak dance, Cairo Opera House, 8 April 2014. (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim, courtesy of the Indian Embassy in Cairo) Right: Odissi dance performed in Cairo in May 2013 as part of the first edition of India by the Nile.(Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Visually, Odissi consists of three bends in the body known as Tribhangi, or the tri-bent pose – at the neck, waist and knee – producing a light S-shape form. In contrast, the Kathak dancer remains upright in standing position, maintaining a straight backbone most of the time, with the body weight distributed along the horizontal and vertical axes. In the performance, much stress is placed on the rhythmic steps of flat feet and the sound emanating from the ankle bells worn by the dancer in numerous compositions and sequences.

Kathaki education may begin at any age -- Marami Medhi's own daughter Meghranjani, already a recognised performer today, began her education at the age of three. "I could see my daughter was interested in this dance. It would have been impossible for me to teach her otherwise," Marami commented to Ahram Online.

At the Sur Sangam institute, however, the youngest children to become accepted are five years old. "While everyone can learn and master Kathaki, it is important that training be accompanied by continuous body exercises, hand movement practice, foot walks and readings into the dance," she explained. 

Marami Medhi and Meghranjani Medhi
Marami Medhi and Meghranjani Medhi in Kathak dance, Cairo Opera House, 8 April 2014. (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim, courtesy of the Indian Embassy in Cairo)

Six months of initial training are required before the dancer can move towards the main studies programme. "Today, we have over 200 students enrolled at the school, with a majority of girls. Although historically performed by men, women carried on the dance in later centuries as Kathak began to be performed in royal courts by ladies who danced for the entertainment of kings," Marami went on. 

Meghranjani, who looks up to her mother and performs with her on stage, added that "the input of a guru or instructor in the formation of the dancer is no less fundamental than the body exercises. You need to accompany practice with theoretical knowledge in order to understand the origins, development and meanings of whichever dance form you choose to study."

"In Kathaki we are the storytellers, we elaborate on a chosen topic. For instance, among several different Kathak compositions we performed in Egypt was tukra [a short dance]. The more you read about tukra, the more you can give to it," Marami explains.

Marami's whole family is involved in this captivating art form. "Meghranjani dances with me while my husband is a classical vocalist, and he composes each dance we perform. Naturally, he performs with us. Our son is also with us on stage, playing the swarmandal [Indian harp] and the synthesiser."

Kathak dance
Musicians accompanying Marami Medhi in Kathak dance, Cairo Opera House, 8 April 2014. (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim, courtesy of the Indian Embassy in Cairo)

The team performs extensively in India and tours the whole globe. The troupe will visit a number of Middle Eastern countries after Egypt's performances. With such a demanding schedule, Marami continuously needs to balance between art and home. She comments that "it can be very challenging. I must dedicate a lot of time to maintain the school. Not only do we have many students enrolled, but we must also look into the teachers and musicians on board. I myself perform and, of course, I take care of my home."

Looking at her mother with pride, Meghranjani added: "The world is developing and we're developing with it. Today a woman can have a good education and position in society. She can also manage household responsibilities along with work. My mother is one such wonderful example. In India, many girls and women learn different dance forms and they often take this skill as a profession. With dance, you are indulged in performing arts, you can also teach students, you can promote this culture... It allows one to do a lot of social work while earning a living."

As the troupe performed their complex rhythmic patterns, the audience of the Cairo Opera's Small Hall was picking up the beat. "The Egyptian audience is very responsive and follows the rhythm in a remarkable way, join in with clapping. For us performers, it was definitely a wonderful experience," Marami concluded.

Marami Medhi and Meghranjani Medhi
Marami Medhi and Meghranjani Medhi in Kathak dance, Cairo Opera House, 8 April 2014. (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim, courtesy of the Indian Embassy in Cairo)

India by the Nile continues until 20 April with a large assortment of different art forms performed in Cairo, Alexandria and Hurghada. Check the festival's programme here.

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