Kathak exponent Janaki Patrik, Kiran Ahluwalia to showcase ”We Sinful Women’ in New York

We the Sinful
The team of dancers from Kathak Ensemble & Friends who perform “We the Sinful” (Photo credit: Darial Sneed

A Kathak virtuoso, a Grammy-winning composer and feminist poetry promise to mix in a soul stirring dance production.

In 1963, when she saw legendary Kathak virtuoso Pandit Birju Maharaj perform in Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, an accomplished 18-year old in the audience, brought up on a diet of Western music and dance, gaspd in wonder and immediately knew her future calling — Kathak.

“My husband calls (that moment)an ‘epiphany,'” Janaki Patrik, born Marilyn Hughes, told Desi Talk, referring to her musician- husband, Gary Patrik, who is of Slovak-Swedish heritage.

The young Patrik applied forthwith to India’s Kathak Kendra, enrolled for Kathak classes in Manhattan, and readied for the audition. In 1967, she was admitted and  trained not just in Kathak but also Hindustani vocal and tabla. Her teachers included Pandit Birju Maharaj, vocalist Vidushi Siddheswari Devi, and percussionist  Purusottam Das.

Globalized Music

Kiran Ahluwalia (photo credit Swathi Reddy)
Singer, composer Kiran Ahluwalia (Photo credit: Swathi Reddy)

Combining classical and modern genres from far and wide have become a norm among artists in the greater New York City area and beyond. Schooled in Indian music, these artists combine not just Eastern and Western music, but also the traditional and modern music from different countries including in Africa and Latin America.

In fact they follow in the hallowed footsteps of the likes of Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin, The Beatles, continuing today with Jazz musicians like Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, or the Brooklyn Raga Massive, or the band Red Baraat, to mention a few.

New forms and new music are not created gratuitously, these artists contend, but many may feel driven by the times they live in and by the world events which surround them.

“We must respond to these new times and new sounds and new sights and new methods of communication and new mixtures of languages,” says Patrik who knows several languages including Latin and Sanskrit, not to mention Russian and Hindustani. In 1974, when working as the stage manager for Birju Maharaj’s U.S. visit, Patrik changed her first name to Janaki.

“Many of us are deeply rooted in the great classical Indian music and dance traditions,” Patrik notes. “We get our discipline and our technique and our sense of fine-honing our craft  from the thousands of hours of rigorous study of a classical technique.”

Messy Reality

Yet, “The glorious polish of the classical arts cannot express the messy ooze of reality which now surrounds us,” Patrick contends, some of which is mired in mud and some reaching for the stars.

This March 2-4, her dance troupe, Kathak Ensemble & Friends, presents “We Sinful Women” at Danspace Project, St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The production which embodies precisely that need to express today’s “messy reality” through that vibrant mixture of genres, is based on eight Urdu poems from the book “We Sinful Women,” written by Pakistani poets Ishrat Aafreen, Kishwar Naheed, Zehra Nigah and Fahmida Riaz. It will feature six female dancers and original music composed by two-time Canadian Grammy winner and composer Kiran Ahluwalia. Both spoke to Desi Talk about the making of “We Sinful Women.”

First published in Pakistan in 1990, We Sinful Women voices the “suffocating repression” that Patrik tries to portray as a “fierce assertion of their selfhood,” through her latest production

Born in a musical household, though her parents were scientists, Patrik began learning the piano at 6 and the flute at 7, and Russian in high school. Kathak was not even on her horizon.

But Birju Maharaj turned her to dance, which combined with her already highly developed musical sense, made her one of the premier exponents of the classical genre in the U.S. and though her productions have embodied several musical traditions over the decades, she teaches only classical Kathak.

“But some things cannot be said in pure classical language,” Patrik said. “Like these poems.” There is not any one technique for storytelling, so you use everything that has ever gone into you, into that production” she said.

For instance, she uses two different nagmas (melodies) in two different ragas playing simultaneously. “And then they go out of sync. It’s like a woman who has made so many compromises that she doesn’t know who she is any longer,” Patrik explained.

It was a challenge to put in the concrete song context to the poems, Ahluwalia told Desi Talk. The text did not lend itself to song. “Each line has different rhythmic cycles, and no rhyming scheme,” she noted. “Janaki wanted a rhythmic cycle of 7, 12, 4 or 8. It had to be a concrete song with a chorus and melody that could be hummed even after the performance was over,” Ahluwalia said.

Some of the poems are very provocative – like “Hum Gunaigar Auratein” (We Sinful Women)- which is feminist political activism,” Ahluwalia said.

Deep Engagement

Patrik’s deep engagement with the texts made it easier for Ahluwalia who draws her musical inspiration from not just from South Asia and Canada, but also from Africa.

For instance, for “We Sinful Women” her inner ear was hearing a parade or a march. “So I clung to that idea of a marching band – like India’s Independence Day parade with soldiers, and I tried to put it in a melody form as the “March of women”,” Ahluwalia said describing their thought process.

For another poem, Samjhauta, or “Agreement”  Patrik and Ahluwalia envisioned women working on a farm picking corn or wheat the entire day, singing songs to beat the tedium. “I composed it as a “call and response” rhythm,” Ahluwalia said.

In “Counterclockwise” Ahluwalia saw a society not moving forward like a clock but in reverse – going back, and used the more classical Indian format of 12 beats.

The poem “First Prayer of My Elders,” she saw a very peaceful rhythm in an early morning sunrise and the birth of a child; Yet when it is revealed that it’s a girl-child, “the music turns quite ugly” into a call to pray for her unfortunate future.

“So Janaki went deep into what the poems are saying — and we evoked those feelings,” Ahluwalia said.