Usha Gupta's never-ending search planted seeds for Khoj – A Contemporary Kathak Dance Extravaganza

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      Classical Indian dance choreographer Usha Gupta was in Maui when she had an epiphany that led to the creation of Khoj – A Contemporary Kathak Dance Extravaganza.

      The Edmonton-based dance artist was standing near the shore and noticed three or four colours in the ocean.

      She was stunned by the beauty and it made her think that her exploration of pure Kathak and Bharatanatyam dance was endless. Within these dance frameworks, she says she can create anything she likes.

      "The search is never ending, like an ocean is never ending," Gupta tells the Straight by phone from her home in Edmonton.

      The Hindi noun khoj literally means "search" or "inquiry" or "quest" or "investigation". As part of her quest, Gupta has sought ways of integrating contemporary dance within Kathak without breaking the bridge to this ancient Indian artform. 

      In essence, she's reimagining Kathak choreography.

      "Kathak tells a story with the hand gestures, the movements, footwork, and expression," Gupta explains.

      The 81-year-old choreographer is a member of the Edmonton Arts and Culture Hall of Fame. Last month, she received a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Indian Societies in Edmonton.

      But with all the plaudits that she's received in her career, Gupta has not lost the desire to keep searching and continue growing as an artist.

      "I will not say that I know everything," she insists. "But whatever I have learned in my life, I do absolutely pure Kathak. That is my media."

      Gupta grew up in the Punjabi city of Jalandhar, which has produced more than its share of artistic giants. They include the great Indian film director and producer Yash Chopra, celebrated actor Sunil Datt, and current Punjabi singing and acting sensation Diljit Dosanjh.

      She says that where she came from, people are very much interested in the arts. And her family introduced her to classical dance when she was only four or five years old.

      Her first dance was Manipuri before she moved on to the Lucknow version of Kathak, which is her specialty. Gupta also trained in Bharatanatyam, which is a South Indian classical dance.

      Since then, she's learned aspects of another classical Indian dance form, Odissa, which she teaches in her studio along with Kathak and Bharatanatyam.

      "Kathak is my very favourite dance," Gupta insists. "It's sensual, it's rhythmic, it's graceful, it's strong."

      She promises that Khoj – A Contemporary Kathak Dance Extravaganza integrates storytelling and technically precise dancing in a "very beautiful manner". It will be presented at the Firehall Theatre from September 21 to 24.

      "I never want to go out of Kathak and take Bollywood into my dance," she declares. "No, not at all! Not even one percent."

      She acknowledges that in the past, she has danced to the songs of legendary Indian playback singers Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, whose songs formed a staple of Bollywood films for decades. And she will choreograph the odd piece using Bollywood music for a student who wishes this.

      But Gupta has never included Bollywood works in the repertoire that she creates in studio for her company, Usha Gupta Dance Entourage.

      "Choreographing Bollywood dancing is very easy for us," she says. "It’s a peanut for us.”

      Bangalore-based Praveen D. Rao composed the music for Khoj – A Contemporary Kathak Dance Extravaganza, with Edmonton-based Brian Webb serving as the dramaturge. It's performed by dancers Riya Mittal, Anuj Mishra, Sarah Virji, Palak Dhiman, and Noah Damer.

      Usha Gupta continues striving for new interpretations of Kathak.
      Sohail Kashif

      A life full of twists and turns

      As a six-year-old girl, Gupta's happy childhood was shattered by the horrors of Partition. In 1947, an estimated one million people died in communal violence, with much of that occurring in Punjab where the British colonizers drew a boundary separating the new countries of India and Pakistan.

      "In front of us, people were killed," she says with sorrow. "It was very sad and very tragic."

      She grew up in a family of Hindu Banias who refused to consume animal products, not even eggs. But in an unexpected twist, she ended up marrying a man who eats meat. And now she cooks it for him even though she remains a vegetarian.

      For two decades, Gupta was a teacher in the Middle East. In those years, she also worked with the Indian embassies in Dubai and Doha, creating Indian dance shows.

      They were attended by many famous politicians, including former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, and former Indian president Giani Zail Singh.

      She visited Canada in 1987 when her daughter married her husband. That's when her new in-laws decided to stage a big show for Gupta, where she sang and danced.

      "They were so impressed with me," Gupta recalls. "They said 'Usha, you must come here. We need a person like you here.' "

      Her husband moved to Edmonton the following year and Gupta arrived on May 21, 1989. By July 4 of that year, she had launched a dance school with two students but the number grew to 150 in a short period of time.

      "They didn't even know at that time what was the difference between Bharatanatyam and Kathak," Gupta says with a laugh. "I started my school in my basement at that time. And people took me in with open arms."

      Gupta hasn't lost her connection to India and in February, she plans on visiting her son who lives in the Bandra area of Mumbai.

      "I'm from Bombay now," she quips.

      The Firehall Arts Centre presents Khoj – A Contemporary Kathak Dance Extravaganza by Usha Gupta Dance Entourage from Wednesday (September 21) to Saturday (September 24) at the Firehall Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit the website.