Rina Singha claims she’ll take a step back and focus on herself after Kathak Mahotsav Canada this weekend (August 18 – 20), but I have my doubts. The 74-year-old founder of the Rina Singha Kathak Dance Organization is indefatigable, still teaching – albeit less than she once did — and still dancing, despite wearing braces on both of her knees. She takes blood pressure medication and has lost an inch in height these past few years due to osteoporosis but I found the 4′ 11″ dynamo in a St. Paul’s Trinity rehearsal studio Monday afternoon, sharpening her chops before this weekend’s performances.
“I have to be careful,” she tells me. “I can’t do pivots anymore so I have to adjust the movements to make sure my weight transfer is done carefully. After this show I’m going to take my doctor’s advice and have injections in my knees but I wanted to wait until after the performance because I don’t know how I’m going to react to the medicine.”
Singha abides by the “use it or lose it” philosophy of Toronto’s famous jock doc, Michael Clarfield, and so she keeps dancing, a form of self-expression with deep spiritual significance for her.
“In the early 1970s I collapsed with a herniated disc,” she remembers, “and they told me I might never walk again; I had a 50 per cent chance. I made a bargain prayer with God saying, ‘If you make me well, I’ll dance for you.’ “
After dancing professionally with India’s national company, Singha immigrated to Canada in 1965. “At that time there was no classical Indian dance here,” she recalls. “In fact, there wasn’t much dance of any kind: there was the National Ballet and Toronto Dance Theatre was just getting started. Kathak wasn’t recognized as a dance form, it was viewed as nostalgia. Even our own community wasn’t particularly interested, they were busy trying to build new lives here and assimilate.”
Kathak is a highly narrative form that reaches back to the royal courts of ancient North India. During British colonial rule the dance was condemned as being seductive and unsavoury even though many of the stories were culled from scripture and Indian mythology. And although some of the dances have survived for centuries, Singha was taught to make each one her own, an approach she fervently passes onto her students.
“My whole idea is that artists must be allowed to do what they want to do, to express themselves. All I demand of them is that they own the space they take up and do something that’s worthwhile. That’s what my own gurus encouraged me to do.”
Special guest at this year’s Kathak Mahotsav Canada is Guru Rajendra Gangani, master of the Jaipur style at India’s national institute of Kathak in Delhi (Singha practices the Lucknow style).
“I saw him as a teenager,” recalls Singha. “His father was a very great dancer, a very sweet man but he died early so the son has taken his place.”
“The whole point of the Mahotsav (festival),” she adds, “is for the dancers and the audience to discover the depth and beauty of Kathak, to witness and feel what it can achieve.”
One of the pieces Singha will perform this weekend is about an immigrant who bemoans the loss of her homeland “and finds herself surrounded by the strangeness of a new country. Then later, she comes to discover that the strangeness is not only out there, her own family has become estranged because her children are of another culture. So you don’t need to do fusion work with modern dance to make Kathak exciting, the stories themselves should be exciting, the originality comes right out of the work.”
WHERE/WHEN: Kathak Mahotsav Canada at Fairview Library Theatre (35 Fairview Mall Drive, 416.395.5750) August 18 and 19 at 8 pm and August 20 at 7:30 pm; special Saturday matinee at 4 pm showcases Toronto’s next generation of Kathak dancers; tickets are $10 – $22, matinee $10.
Photos by Christopher Jones