A devoted dancer always goes an extra mile to do things for their dance and its popularity, Neha Banerjee is one such dedicated and sincere artist who loves Kathak and how. Her love for her art form is so deep that she brought the world of Kathak together, to pay tribute to her late guru Padma Vibhushan Pandit Birju Maharaj and to educate and influence the young minds in regards to the importance of the purity of the art. I spoke with the committed Neha Banerjee about her newly opened dance academy and her recently concluded Smriti Festival. Excerpts from the interview:
Tell me more about your dance academy Kathak Darpan and why you started it?
Kathak Darpan Trust was started in year 2020 with the sole objective to promote pure Kathak in South India especially Tamil Nadu. When I relocated to Chennai from Mumbai, I realised that there was absolutely no Kathak teacher in the city which was dominated by Bharatanatyam. Some dancers were running Kathak classes with some Bollywood mix and even more funny Kathak mixed with Bharatanatyam and named it as Dakshin Gharana. This disturbed me a lot, so I took it all upon myself, introducing pure Kathak in Chennai became my purpose and that is why I started my academy. It has been three years now, we have more than 100 students here, despite the language barrier and the tough Covid era. I am the only Akhil Bhartiya Gandharva Mahavidyalaya registered teacher in the city, my students have already given two exams, which was absolutely new concept for Chennaikars. In a city where there are at least two Bharatanatyam classes in every lane Kathak Darpan is the only institute which teach Kathak in its purest form.
Pt Birju Maharaj’s son Deepak Maharaj
What made you think of this unique workshop?
I have learnt directly under late Padma Vibushan Pandit Birju Maharaj ji, in 2018, I got him down to Chennai and had organised a workshop in Kalakshetra for him, which was a huge success, since then I always wanted to do it again but unfortunately Maharaj ji fell sick and we lost him in 2021. This workshop had a few objectives, to show pure and good Kathak to students in Chennai, give them better understanding of the form they are learning and most importantly to give tribute to my guru, therefore this whole festival was named Smriti Festival. Vidhushi Saswati Sen ji taught the students and Maharaj ji’s other family members and senior disciples performed at the festival.
Vidushi Saswati Sen at the workshop
How did you go about making this workshop possible?
Honestly, organising this workshop was a real task for me, I wanted to bring best Kathak exponents to come together to pay tribute to Maharaj ji and teach my students at the same time, so I not only planned dance sessions with Saswati ji but I also kept lecture demonstrations of Senior Gurus and laureate like Padma Vibhushan Dr Puru Dadheech ji, Dr Vibha Dadheech ji, comparative study by very senior Bharatanatyam dancer Sangeet Natak Academy Awardee Kanaka Shrinivasan ji to bring some local connect to the festival. This festival showcased a huge variety of excellent Kathak and Bharatanatyam dancers together on stage celebrating Pandit Birju Maharaj. The two-day event in Music Academy Chennai became one of its kind event in Chennai. Deepak Maharaj ji performed for the very first time in Chennai, audience was excited and mesmerised to witness Maharaj ji’s son on stage. That was not all, we also had book launch of Sangeet Darpana Ancestoral a manuscript of Maharaj ji’s family for the first time ever in Chennai and there was more we had performances by Mamta Maharaj, Kathak Darpan team, Kathak by Sunil Sunkara, Kalashram team, Bharatanatyam by Bragha Bessel and many more. I was even more happy when the entire show was telecasted on Doordarshan Podigai.
The launch of Sangeet Darpana Ancestoral a manuscript of Pt Birju Maharaj’s family
What are your plans for the academy?
I have already introduced a systematic education system for the students, but to take it forward I will be needing support from central organisation. I have already given platforms to my students in various big shows like in Smriti Festival and Dancing Waters with drums by Padma Shri Shivamani ji. I want my students to be connected with the other parts of India, I am trying to expose my students to best Kathak exponents for which I plan to make Smriti Festival, an yearly event, where dancers from rest of India can come and showcase their style of dancing. Apart from this I am taking most innovative manner to attract young generation. like use of technology, my musical web series Megh Akhiyaika is a beautiful blend art & technology. I am happy to share that Kathak Darpan Trust organisation is already imparting free education to economically weaker sessions. I often remember the words of Maharaj ji Keep at it and everything will fall in place.
Vidushi Saswati Sen
What next on your plate?
My two shows which had taken a back seat due to Covid and Smriti Festival are now in the fore front. Sairandhri – The Musical’ which is an amazing concept on women empowerment, this Musical dance drama brings various dance styles together and is beautifully crafted to represent the condition of women then and now. I also have my show Dancing Waters being showcased in Delhi this year. I believe both these energetic extravaganzas should be witnessed by more and more people in India and the world.
Sandip Soparrkar holds a doctorate in world mythology folklore from Pacific University USA, an honorary doctorate in performing arts from the National American University, He is a World Book Record holder, a well-known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honored with three National Excellence awards, one National Achievement Award and Dada Saheb Phalke award by the Government of India. He can be contacted on [email protected]