On December 12, 2015, the greater Boston area community gathered for an important milestone for Shefali Jain, a young Kathak performer, teacher and now professional dancer. At the Chinmaya Mission in Andover, the sounds of the temple chants on the ground floor were effortlessly in sync with the devotional hymns to Lord Krishna in the auditorium. With flawless grace, beauty and a supreme command of tempo, Shefali performed her debut Kathak solo with world-class musicians: Jayanta Banerjee on sitar, Debashis Sarkar on vocals and harmonium and local teacher and tabla master, Amit Kavthekar. Gretchen Hayden, founder and artistic director of Chhandika and Anjali Nath, local teacher and performer, supported Shefali through recitation and narration.
The members of the Chhandika Youth Ensemble (Anushree Gupta, Esha Nijhoff Asser, Maya Nijhoff Asser and Maya Koorapaty) opened the show with an invocation of Ma Durga (Devi Stuti). The Devi Stuti was followed by Angikam Bhuvanam Yasya, a quotation in praise of Lord Shiva and Om Pūrnam Adah, a shloka describing the infinite nature of the universe.
Shefali’s performance began with a pranam, a “meditation in motion” in which the dancer attunes to the higher self, acknowledging the earth upon which she dances, the nature surrounding the dancer, and the oral tradition of knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation. Through hand gestures and movement, Shefali sanctified the stage and invokes the three deities of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Maheshwara (the destroyer of illusion).
After the invocation, Shefali went into Thāt and Bol Paran. Thāt is a highly stylized tuning of the mind and body. Shefali explored the rhythmic cycle of tintāl (16 beats) through the use of nigah (eyes), braun (eyebrows), gardan (neck), kalai (wrists) and sāns (breath). Delicate, subtle movements were juxtaposed with fast flourishes ending in crisp stances. Shefali then went into bol paran, a rendering of compositions using the language of the dance and tabla. In continuing the legacy of her gharana, Shefali performed traditional bols passed down to her by her teacher Gretchen Hayden and her grand-guru, Pandit Chitresh Das.
Inspired by the great yogis, Pandit Das developed Kathak Yoga, an innovative technique which pushes the mental, physical and spiritual boundaries of a dancer. Shefali played the harmonium, sang the melody (lehra) and dance complex rhythmic patterns with her feet – all without losing her breath – which requires tremendous concentration and stamina.
Next Shefali performed a Tarana, which is a dynamic composition characterized by fast footwork and stunning pirouettes. It contrasts speed and power with grace and lyricism. Shefali’s tarana was in Rāg Jogkauns and was a stunning combination of technique, grace, beauty and power.
The next part of the solo was ghat bhao, where Shefali used gestures and abhinaya (expression) to tell a story. In the solo tradition, the dancer depicts all the characters in the story, drawing upon the ancient Indian concept of ardhanariswara, which requires the dancer to embody both masculine and feminine energies. Shefali performed Govirdhan Giri, the story of Lord Krishna lifting the mountain to save the people of Vrindavan from the wrath of Lord Indra. Shefali stipulated that although the stories may be mythological, its message of uplifting others is still very relevant in today’s world.
Shefali closed out the show with Shyam Sundar, a bhajan in praise of Lord Krishna. With Debashis Sarkar’s melodious voice and Shefali’s beautiful dancing, the bhajan was a touching and uplifting finale to the show. It was no surprise when the audience of her students, friends, family and well-wishers stood to their feet to applaud Shefali and the musicians for an impeccable show. Throughout the performance, one could not help but sense the spirit of Pandit Chitresh Das. Kathak maestro Pandit Das passed away nearly a year ago, but his legacy continues through dancers such as Shefali Jain and his disciples across the globe.