As part of the Oxford Offbeat Festival, the Sona Lisa Dance Company performed Eleven, twelve, thirteen at The Old Fire Station, a series of dances and spoken reflections based around the traditional rhythms of Indian Kathak. It was a fascinating program, impressive in its professional standard and its often breath-taking beauty; a show of multiple collaborations, devised and woven together by Artistic Director Sonia Chandaria Tillu.

Kathak is the Hindustani name for one of the eight major forms of Indian classical dance. The origin of Kathak is traditionally attributed to the traveling bards of ancient northern India known as Kathakars or storytellers.  It is important to the art of these North Indian dances that they communicate an entire story through non-verbal actions and bodily movements: head turnings, eye glancings, finger shapings, distinctive torso positions from squats to turns and leaps. The intricacies of the stories must be honoured, as well, by the costume colours, the breathing, the hair style and its ornaments of flowers and/or jewels. All the visible details of deportment and dress signify elements of the dramatic story.

The feet of a Kathak dancer are bare. However, sitting low on the ankles are rows of silver bells so that the stamping is both earthed in its thuds and musical at the same time, a wonderful sound to the audience’s ear – strong shimmering sound.

For the Friday 21st June program, two women performed the Kathak dance elements: Sonia Chandaria Tillu and Jaina Modasia. Both are disciples of Guru Sujata Banerjee; and, while remaining under her training, Sonia has branched out independently to create and manage her own dance company.  This show marked the premiere of Sonia’s company’s first independent production.  On this evening’s programme the ensemble included musicians, a singer, and spoken word poets.  Sonia divided up the programme into three distinct sections, each based on a philosophical reading of characteristic Kathak rhythms.

With music by Atul Desai, in the first section “Eleven” the dancers explored the “rhythmic patterns and possibilities within an 11 beat time cycle”.  Spoken word poet Avi Tillu’s Hearts & Minds was inspired by Armistice Day, 11/11, with music by Shammi Pithia.  The two dancers in innocent and playful moods were dressed in bright oranges and greens and seemed to be “playing” as children might: hopping, jumping, gliding: “not a bullet need be fired in the war of hearts and minds,” they danced.  Freewheeling arms, impish eye glances, flicking hands and feet conveyed joyous games among the dirt and the silenced guns.

The delightful beginning of this section is followed “Gili danda” (cricket) by poet Aman Grover – based on a Bollywood movie, Lagaan (tax) where farmers have their taxes repealed by winning against the British in a game of cricket.   Here begins a downward spiral of circumstance.  The mood changes and with arm gestures – one up straight and the other moving as from 11 on a clock to midnight we are at 9/11/2001, where the dancing and the spoken poetry of Avi Tillu and music by Sujata Banerjee & Bernhard Schimpelsberger suggest a world changed forever where play and childhood innocence is gone.

“Twelve” begins with an emphasis on Sufism.  In a period of crisis, the wisdom of Allah must be sought.  And here the story-telling which is so integral to the Kathak tradition takes on more prominence.  Serena Nagha recited her own poetic reflections on Sufism, and the two dancers change their vibrant colours for pure floating white silk to dance with the movements of imagined winged angels.  Instead of playful and powerful foot work, the emphasis is on arabesque arms and gliding in silent meditation across the stage.  The figures are melancholic, lost, and travelling inward. Commenting on this, Vibhati Bhatia sang one of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s songs. And then the two dancers, Sonia and Jaina, as if with gathered strength, performed a new Kathak rendition of a “Rock Qawwali”.  Through an inner connection and flow, energy grows slowly and builds to the Kathak stamping footwork again. This time the movements and sound take on a distinctly “rock” insistence as devised by the British Asian band, Side Partition. Originating in North India during the Mughal period, a Qawwali is usually sung by a group of Sufi worshippers to an insistent beat where Allah is first praised and then Mohammed. Unlike the dervish’s silent swirling and circling, the Qawwali’s intensity builds from louder communal exaltations to the drum beats of tabla and dholak.

So the dancers arrive at “Thirteen”.  Entering the stage with hoodie jackets, fists jammed into side pockets and grey-black leggings, they are still dancing within a tight Kathak tradition.  Observing the strict rhythms and gestures developed in the defined classical tradition, the movements are adapted to the trappings and music of contemporary teenagers.  The three sections of thir-TEEN are named Hear Me Roar, Social Media and finally thir-TEEN.  Here the Kathak dance punches out the determination of two troublesome teens challenging the norm of conformity.  I found this section thrilling in its inventiveness and juxtaposition of styles: Mogul meets Michael Jackson, more or less.

The Kathak form of dance is mesmerizing.  Having lived in the sub-continent for many years and seen the youthful Nahid Siddiqui as she developed into a professional of international note, I had some framework by which to measure these two young, exquisitely beautiful women.  From their first entrance, I found them enchanting, exciting and powerful.  I kept hoping the dancing would just go on and never stop. The dancers’ timing, their perfectly synchronized movements of limbs and facial expressions –specially the eyes—all were spell-binding.  And, in summary, they brought freshness, beauty and India to life for their audience. I trust that they will find admiration and delight wherever they perform.

On a less fulsome note: the spoken intersections varied in appeal and standard of presentation. The high bar set by the two dancers could not, I suspect, be sustained by the interjected voices accompanying poetic and prose narratives.  This may simply be my personal observation and not in accord with others’ opinions. And I do think that the material in these soliloquies and recitations were appropriate as informative accompaniment to Indian music and thought.

It would be wonderful if this group of performers could return to Oxford for a longer run at some time in the future.

Susannah Harris-Wilson

25th June 2019