Madhuri Devi was born in the winter of 1950. Her exact date of birth is not known. She was born in Muzaffarpur, Bihar and came to Kolkata at the age of 7 or 8. Her father played the tabla as an accompanist to Baijis in Bowbazar, the place where several courtesans lived and performed from 1966-2004.
Madhuri Devi received her training in vocal music from Habib Khan Sahab, and kathak taleem from Pandit Ram Narayan Misra. The quality of training she received from these masters put her in a different league among the Baijis. In the early years of her career, Madhuri Devi was guided by her older sister, who was already a renowned Baiji in Bowbazar. She began performing by the age of 16. Her performing career spanned from 1966-2004 – an astounding four decades of singing and dancing from evening till morning every day! A repertoire rich with thumris, chaitees, horis, kajris, ghazals, bhajans, pure dance, kathak compositions, and improvisation. She is among the last few kathak artists who both sing and dance, without an accompanying vocalist. This rare style is unique to baijis and is accomplished after years of intense practice and command over the art.
In 2004 Madhuri Devi stopped performing and began teaching young girls in Bowbazar. She left Kolkata in 2010 to live with family in Benaras. She lived a life of anonymity until 2017, when she returned as a guest teacher at Chhandam Nritya Bharati Mumbai. She continues to teach select students, and her mind and body continue to be a storehouse of knowledge and a repository of art.
After a long engagement with dance and music, through your profession, what is it like to look back on your very first experience of kathak dance? Can you share some meaningful or memorable experiences from your early life in Bowbazar, and your experience studying with Pt. Ram Narayan Misra?
I grew up in an environment where I was surrounded by dance and music since birth. I have had a passion for dance since an early age. When my family moved from Benares to Kolkata, my sister introduced me to my Guruji, Pandit Ram Narayan Misra, because she saw my interest in dance. I must have been 8 or 9 years old at that time. He used to come to our house early in the morning, 6 days a week to train me, and I would dance for 1.5 to 2 hours in front of him.
For the first 5-6 months he made me only do tatkar in vilambit laya. Once I was grounded in the footwork, he taught small compositions, shloks, and later complex compositions. But he hardly ever demonstrated to us the exact way to dance. Since we were kids, he would initially show us the hand movements and gestures that go with specific bols. Once we knew those well, he wouldn’t show them [again] for every new composition he taught. We were expected to know how to use our feet, and the footwork technique to use for various compositions based on the bols; and then use the arm movements and gestures that we already knew. If there was a new bol or phrase in the composition, he would tell us the movement that went with the bol, while he sat in a chair.
He used to teach all day long. He would start with training me at my house in the early morning, and then go to his [own] house where his other students would be waiting for him. Tabla players used to come with him – who only kept theka, very steadily. They would not recite for us.
My Guruji would make us first recite the compositions and then dance them. Reciting while dancing is something that Chitresh developed. Our Guruji emphasized hard work, and made us work very hard on footwork and technique. In those days, we were not allowed to perform unless we had trained for at least five years, and sometimes more.
My Guruji taught me and all his students with a lot of love and dedication. He taught each one of us differently to suit our personalities and needs. He wanted me to be a kathak artist, not a tawaif, and encouraged me to take kathak exams at Chitresh’s parents’ dance and music school, Nritya Bharati. I studied with him for around 8 years until he died unexpectedly. Whatever I know of dance today is due to my Guruji’s training.
What kind of training did you have in music and other related aspects of classical arts? What has been your experience collaborating with musicians as a dancer trained in music?
I studied classical music for only about 3 years with Ustad Habib Khan from Bhopal. But since I had grown up with music around me, I imbibed much of it organically, especially folk forms of music such as chaiti, kajri, hori, jhulani, which are from Uttar Pradesh, the region that my family is from. I also learnt some of these songs from my older sister, both singing and bhao on them.
When I performed ghazals with accompanying musicians, the ustads would compose and set the music, since that was their expertise. But for thumri and dadra, which are mainly from Benaras and which we were well-versed in, we used to set the melody and tell the musicians what and how we want them to play. Kajri and chaiti were somewhat difficult pieces for them to pick up. So, they had to practice it and over the years it would become easier for them.
You are especially known for your expertise in gat bhao/baithke bhao. Is this a skill that comes naturally to you, or something you had to work on?
Gat bhao in kathak is a very important aspect. Previously very few people used to perform gat bhao on a song. But our Guruji’s lineage, from the Lucknow Gharana, specialized in gat bhao. The great gurus of the past, Lachhan Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj, were known for their gat bhao. But later most people focused on the bol-paran and nritya aspect of kathak. In my times, gat bhao was mostly performed by the baijis. I have seen very few other dancers do gat bhao. In India some of the senior artists such as Sunaina Hazarilal and Birju Maharaj do very good gat bhao. In the United States, Chitresh developed gat bhao. But in my profession, gat bhao was very important and necessary. Our guruji’s training was mostly focused on footwork, technique and compositions, but he taught me two or three songs for gat bhao because he knew I was going to be initiated into the tawaif profession. But I also absorbed a lot from being around my older sister and by being in Bowbazar. Our gat bhao would mostly be on thumri, dadri, hori, kajri. We sang musical variations of a single line and demonstrated several interpretations through bhao, while sitting on the floor. These days people dance to light classical songs and film songs.
What was your relationship like with your guru-brother, Pandit Chitresh Das, and what was he like in those days? Do you remember some incidents/episodes from your time together?
I have known Chitresh since we were kids. He used to come to our house with our Guruji and watch my training. Similarly, when I sometimes went to our Guruji’s house, I used to watch how Guruji trained Chitresh and other guru brothers and sisters. But we did not talk much to each other. We never dared to talk a lot in front of our Guruji. He used to sit and listen to ghazal concerts with our Guruji, and listen to other musicians who would accompany me in my dance. But because Chitresh spent so much time with our Guruji in Bowbazar, saw the setting, the music that used to be played, he had a good understanding of the environment created.
After a few years, I was initiated into the tawaif profession, and Chitresh left for the United States, and we lost touch with each other. Later when he reopened his parents’ school Nrityabharati in Kolkata, he invited me to teach. That is how we reconnected with each other. Later, in 2006, he brought me to the United States to perform in the festival Kathak at the Crossroads. At that time, I moved back to Benares from Kolkata and my connection with dance and music was cut off.
In 2006, you travelled to the United States to perform at Kathak at the Crossroads. Can you tell us about that experience? (How did the audiences receive you? How is kathak training different in the US compared to India?)
The experience during Kathak at Crossroads in 2006 was amazing and inspiring. I was able to watch so many good artists. For many years, being busy with my own professional obligations, I didn’t have time and opportunity to go watch performances by other kathak artists. For the first time in my life, I saw such a beautiful program put together. I even had the opportunity to give a short performance. Performing in the United States was incredible. While I had done stage performances in India, when I was training with our Guruji and later, most of my dance experience was in the context of the tawaif profession in Kolkata’s Bowbazar. I had never imagined that I would have the opportunity to perform on stage in front of stalwarts and other renowned kathak artists.
My experience of dance and music in Bowbazar was very different from performing on stage. My Guruji used to be there whenever I performed on stage; he was never there when I performed at home. I used to like performing on stage very much. The format would include vandana, thaat, aamad, bol-paran, gat bhao on theka – narrate the story (kaliya daman, radha-krishna stories).
You have performed, taught, and worked as a kathak dancer for so many years and have so much experience in the field. What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from your experiences as a kathak artist and educator that the younger generation of leaders could learn from?
These days there are very few people who want to both teach and learn these folk forms of music and bhao. The kathak I see these days is very different from how we were trained. But I am very happy to see that Chitresh’s students are committed to the training in Kathak. Only when you are committed to your riyaz, can you light the fire in you. One has to keep trying all the time and never stop.
Over the course of your life, the field of kathak and all Indian classical arts has changed so much. Can you speak about some of the changes you have seen, and how things are different for kathak dancers today? What do you wish for the future of kathak dance?
Since we studied with our Guruji as young kids, our foundation was very strong. We were focused on only dance and music. These days kids and adult students are pursuing many things at one time – academics, sports, dance, music, full time jobs – so their attention is distributed.
Pandit Chitresh Das was a visionary and devoted his life to sharing kathak with the world. What did you find most inspiring about his work?
I have not seen the tayaari that he had in any other dancer. And the intense passion with which I have seen him dance, I have not seen that in anyone else. That is why he was able to dance with tap dancer Jason Sameuls Smith who was less than half his age. No one else would have been able to do that. He unfortunately was not given the credit he deserved, which makes me very sad. But he emerged much stronger every time someone criticized him.
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