Rajendra Gangani is regarded as a leading proponent of Kathak, and it is easy to see why. His movements are delicate, precise and expressive, his rapport with musicians magnetic and pleasing. In casual conversation, the dancer sometimes merely stands eyes closed and clapping, shaking his head as if something was not quite right, then finally nodding with excitement at the four musicians. It is also a casual conversation with the audience, and literally when he walks up to his microphone. He tells us that the rhythmic pattern is like the tail of the cow, illustrating with his hands as he speeds up and slows down the sound of his bols.
His bols remind me of rap and spoken word, except that the syllables are sounds without meaning, evoking a kinesthetic response simply through their texture and dynamism.
I enter the theatre like the worst spy in the world — an outsider dressed completely differently, and apparently belonging to a different realm. There is history here, rules and customs I know nothing of; truly, this is always the case, but in this instance, the act of being in the audience feels of huge cultural importance.
In the middle of the show, Rajendra Gangani says “you are not the audience, you are the artist” — charming and witty, he deflects attention from himself and tells us point blank that the experience is created together. This is not a performance event but a cultural universe. It has a soulfulness that comes from surviving upheaval, as the art form of Kathak has.
In an anecdote he tells us about the morning’s rehearsal, rambling with words at first — but in his dance, his poeticism crystal clear. He simply blinks and makes little moves with the rhythms of the tabla, his face enjoying the light rain. The rain becomes a storm, and then he humorously wrings the water out of his hair. The audience laughs. It is so simple — the joy of standing in the rain, being in the moment — and reliving and evoking that same moment for us indoors, hours later.
Towards the end, as my contemporary attention span is waning, Rajendra Gangani shows off fantastic speed and control in the signature turns of Kathak, stopping perfectly with the strikes of the drum. The show seems to end, as the music quiets, but in one final hurrah, the dancer balances on one leg, making complex, delicate rhythms with his free foot, sending vibrations through his body as he builds into ecstatic rapture. Like a virtuoso conductor, his flying hair and flurried arms show us the music. He gets a standing ovation, and the festival organisers present both he and the High Commissioner of India to Singapore with plaques.