As part of this year’s Offbeat Festival on 15th July at the Old Fire Station on Oxford’s George Street we were treated to an evening of Kathak dance and music presented as “Going Global”.  The instrumentalists included the amazing tabla player, Master Sanju Sahai, along with violinist Alice Barron, and sitar player and vocalist Debipriya Sircar.  Jaymini Sahai leads the company and is its solo Kathak dancer.  The troupe was sponsored and presented by Aradhana Arts.

The evening began with an introduction by Jaymini Sahai in which she explained that among the eight major Indian dance styles – or forms – Kathak represented best those from the North of the country along with the Panjabi Bhangra.  The famous Bharatanatyam from Tamil Nadu represented those from southern India along with the dramatic Kathakali dance drama form.   Sahai further explained that all Indian dances are a form of storytelling.  And that, under the Mogul’s rule in Northern India, Kathak dance became a dance for the courts of the emperors and was in this way refined in its gestures.

Sahai then introduced each of the instrumentalists who, seated on the floor to one side of the stage, were all dressed in rich red textiles.  These three would provide the evening’s exotic and varied musical offerings as well as the accompaniment to her dancing.  So after the introduction we were treated to a tuning up exercise by Master Sanju Sahai whose use of his fingers, palm, wrist and fist was acrobatic, intricate and powerful, providing alternative beats, sounds, resonances and speeds on two drums set before him as he sat on the floor, his small child by his side.   Sanju explained that a 16 beat time cycle was the most common beat in Indian music which is shared by the tabla; however, he insisted that “the Tabla has its own language and every note its own name.”

As the sounds of the tabla continue, one becomes aware that although there is a series of repetitions as violin and sitar accompaniment is added, the tabla sets a varied pace by speeding up the beats and adding more and more intricate beat sounds.  Sanju’s finger-work began to incorporate slaps and the occasional pound of a fist as well as vocal counting/naming of syllables.  Sometimes he moved his hands from engagement with the top of the drums to their sides.  Complexity provided variety and intensity to the music of drum, violin and sitar.  It was led by the sounds of the tabla, but enriched by violin, sitar and vocalise. 

Eventually Jaymini Sahai reappeared and began her dance.  She is dressed in the fabulous colours redolent of India’s dazzling textiles, embroideries and shining decorations:  sequins, and small glitter flakes.  Her arms float and flow like a bird’s wings, her turns waft lightly over the ground, her movements are sinuous and sharp at once.  There are the traditional stamping feet but always offset by movements of head and hands upwards as if in supplication or wonder.  I have seen numerous Kathak performers.  As with those others, so with this commanding performance;  the dance endows beauty and power, fragility and strength, coyness and purity in seeming contrary gestures until a strange harmony in opposition has been achieved by the dancer.  The audience is somewhat mesmerized by the speed and grace of movement, its continual flow yet sense of stillness and certainty.  The eyes are reading “delight”, the mouth communicates a silent message which the hands seem to be sending out.  “Who is she dancing her message for?”  “What is she saying?”  “What are her changing speeds responding to?”  As an ignorant Western onlooker, I understand that these are some of my questions as I watch the dancer.  Movements of the body are at once strong and subtle with delicate “punctuation” provided by mouth, eyes, or flip of finger-tips. But the last word of the dance seems always to be a determined and strong stamp of both feet into the ground as if in some kind of achieved triumph. 

Following the first dance, Alice Barron presented a single discordant sigh on her violin followed by the sitar joining to give weight and variety to the strings.  Then the tabla joined adding substance with rhythmic beats.  The music turned into a Celtic reel until one felt like joining in with an eightsome as at a ceilidh.  After this, Sanju calls out: “Now we’ll take you to the Middle East” and the sitar musician lead, with Alice Barron’s violin becoming a “Jewish” fiddle sounding a melancholic note to the quick Turkish Halay folk dance music.   Debiprya Sircar adds her honey-toned voice to this exotic music and we have been moved very swiftly from Scottish Ceilidh to The Arabian Nights.

As the red-clad instrumentalists allowed the hands of the tabla player to dominate again, I could almost hear his beats like horses’ hooves moving along the sand at speed with the wind behind them.  This playing was very exciting as the sheer force of the three instruments and the vocalise came together before giving way once more to Jaymini Sahai in her next dance solo, to end the program.  This last dance was more overtly now a dialogue between dancer and tabla player with hands flying in one another’s direction and then upward by the dancer like butterflies soaring up into the sky. 

The entertainment was exhilarating and informative.  It was incredibly professional and polished; and I felt it deserved an audience in numbers way beyond the four or five rows of The Old Fire Station.  I shall look for where else Going Global might be performing in the future. And so should any of you reading this meagre review of a tremendously exhilarating dance and music performance.

Susannah Harris-Wilson

18th July 2022