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Kumudini Lakhia: The lovable diva of choreography

Art can make you a better person. And Kumudini Lakhia is proof of it.

One of the most gifted and influential Indian choreographers, she brought about a radical shift in Kathak’s vocabulary and repertoire, but never lost her humility and sense of humour in the process.

On May 17, she turned 90. Amidst answering calls from her disciples, admirers, friends and family, she spoke as passionately as she always does, about her nearly eight-decade bonding with the art that continues to define her life. “You know when I began teaching in my husband’s garage, we would keep moving the tyres around to make space. It didn’t annoy me; instead, I felt it was a challenge to dance there,” she laughs.

From a mundane automobile workshop to prosceniums across the globe, Kumudini learnt how to maximise the impact of every move and moment.

As a dancer, she went beyond the self and made performances a collaborative effort involving artistes (she has shared the stage with Ram Gopal and Pt. Birju Maharaj), audience, space, costume, lights and music.

As a choreographer, she transformed into a fearless experimenter, redesigning Kathak’s landscape by challenging the conventional notions of storytelling. She reinterpreted the traditional technique, created for solos, through her ground-breaking ensemble works. From sensual swirls and fluid leaps to expansive lines and sharp formations, her movement language is both thought-provoking and visually thrilling.

Thus, the veteran has shown subsequent generations how to push boundaries aesthetically.

“Intimacy and connect are the essence of art, not distancing, which has become a must in a world with COVID-19. Yet there is no need to panic or be distressed. Patience, the core of classical arts’ training, is the need of the hour. The digital medium may be great for business, but the beauty of art is in live performances. We need to deal with the pandemic in a peaceful manner. Don’t be in a hurry to establish a ‘new normal’,” says Kumudini.

Without losing hold on what she imbibed from her gurus, Kumudini set out on a choreographic journey, giving shape to her curiosity, anxiety and imagination through the body. Her unfussy style belies the richness that marks her works. “I didn’t plan my path. I just wanted to break away from a restrictive order. Labels such as ‘innovator’ or ‘trailblazer’ didn’t mean much to me. In fact, I initially faced a lot of ridicule. Many felt I was crazy and up to something that was unacceptable in the classical realm. I remember my production featuring dancers in pure white costume being termed a funeral procession.”

Kumudini Lakhia during her performance days

But her critics strengthened Kumudini’s resolve to explore and improvise. She was keen to come up with narratives that were not about Radha-Krishna, Shiva-Parvati and the goddesses. “Your desire to attempt something new has to be backed by a strong foundation, purpose and perseverance. I know these are clichéd classroom lessons but they are timeless too.”

Known to be a liberal guru, she encourages students at her Ahmedabad-based dance institute, Kadamb, to be as free-spirited as the art. “Training in art cannot be templated. You have to allow young enthusiasts to grow as a dancer and person. An inhibited mind and body cannot bring out the expressive abandon of dance. Besides finding your feet, you also should find a voice and vision,” says Kumudini, who premiered her piece, ‘Yugaantar’ this February. Featuring 160 of her students, it shows how a child grows, and grows better with art.

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