If there is one thing that dancer Khalil Al Ashar finds particularly challenging, its being ‘exoticised’. But as the world’s only professional Arab performer of the ancient classical
form called Kathak, it seems inevitable that the confluence of cultures that he represents sometimes takes precedence over his expertise, understanding and passion for Kathak.
“I guess I represent many things for many people,” he smiles, “For Indians, my obvious involvement with Kathak is a matter of pride in the universality of their culture; for Bahrainis, its puzzling that when I have a choice of so many modern, Western dance forms and even Bollywood style from India, I chose to specialize in a dance form that traces its roots to 400 BCE. In fact, most non-Indians are unaware of dance forms outside the popular Bollywood space, sadly. Often, I will get a few non-Indian students who join my Kathak classes and after a couple of sessions, they will ask me, “When will you teach us to dance like Madhuri Dixit (an Indian film star)?” When they hear that I do not teach these filmi-style dances, I usually don’t see them again.”
Khalil himself discovered Kathak’s beauty in a very globalized way. As a boy growing up in Bahrain, he was familiar with Bollywood dancing, which was popular at family gatherings and weddings. When he landed in California for his university education, he saw a poster for a Kathak performance by Prachi Dixit. Homesick for Bahrain and expecting a Bollywood dance performance, he attended the performance. Although unfamiliar with the grammar and language of the dance, he was captivated and approached Ms. Dixit, a renowned dancer, performer and choreographer in Los Angeles, to teach him.
“It took a lot of persuasion because she is a serious Kathak exponent and clearly felt I may not stay the course. However, it is my good luck that she took me on as a student and gave me the foundation to build upon – in my late teens, I came late to Kathak, since most students in the Indian community begin at seven or eight and it was a completely new cultural experience for me.”
Kathak is known for its intricate footwork, pirouettes and grew originally from the routines of ancient travelling bards or storytellers (Kathaakar). It was refined in the Mughal courts, where it took on a more formal structure. The stories performed draw from Hindu mythology and religious texts as well as Urdu ghazals of Muslim culture through stylized gestures and facial expressions. Although recognized today as one of the eight major classical dances of India, Kathak was nearly wiped out by the British who saw it as a lascivious dance. It was only after Indian independence that Kathak found revival as part of the rediscovery of Indian arts.
“Even today, Kathak is not appreciated in its classical format as much as it is recognized as the dance of the movie heroines. In Bahrain, as a male Kathak dancer, I actually face equal degrees of admiration and ostracism,” Khalil says, “You see, in Arab culture, the moving of the body as a dance for pleasure is frowned upon for women as well as men. We have no heritage of classical dances, only folk dances for specific occasions such the Ardha dance in which men wield swords and greet leaders or the dances of pearl-divers or wedding dances. So, when I came back to Bahrain and said I wanted to dedicate my life to mastering an Indian classical dance, I met with lot of resistance and lack of understanding. For instance, even today, my father has not seen me dance even once. Only my mother and sisters have seen me on stage. So I focus on performances abroad and on teaching.”
Paradoxically, the large Indian community in Bahrain have embraced Khalil’s Kathak with pride and he is seen as an uncrowned cultural ambassador for Indo-Bahraini relations. When the Embassy was formally inaugurated by the Bahraini and Indian foreign ministers four years ago, Khalil was invited to give a solo performance. He has performed before capacity crowds of an all-Indian audience and says many people are surprised that he understands the nuances of the dance so well.
“Yes, I guess I start off being a novelty for many but then they are won over by the dance,” he says wryly, “For that I must thank my teachers Prachi Dixit and the duo, Maulik Shah and Ishira Parikh, who have given me such a pitch-perfect understanding of the art form.”
Bahrain being such a small performance space of something this specialized, Khalil draws sustenance from teaching Kathak – mainly to Indian children – and has nearly 60 to 70 students in his Tatkaar School of Kathak.
“Dance is a spatial art form and although we have technology to replicate the dance space online during the pandemic, it is not the same. We dancers need the energy that we get from the shared experience between performer, musicians and audience, the stage space.. all that is missing and it has indeed been a dark time for the performing arts. The pandemic has forced us to dig deep into ourselves to sustain our creativity but it is challenging. The fact is, Kathak is a foreign dance form and despite being part of the Asian cultural mindscape, not as easily accepted, especially if the performer is a male dancer. “
For now, Khalil is busy completing his Masters in Kathak from the prestigious Bharatiya Vidyapeeth University in Pune, India.
“I dream of learning enough to intertwine the Bahraini and Arabic music and poetry with Kathak choreography so that, like Urdu ghazals and Kathak, a new and Arabic window opens up in the dance,” he said.