By George Ruckert
On Saturday night, December 12, 400 people rose as one and applauded and cheered loudly for the conclusion to a performance of Kathak dance at the Chinmaya Mission in Andover, MA. They were honoring the solo dance performance of Shefali Jain, a local artist whose career as a dancer is just taking off, yea, even soaring.
It would perhaps not have been exceptional if such a demonstration of appreciation had been for a pop artist or a Bollywood dance ensemble, but this was a classical dancer presenting the art in its truest artistic format,
and such performances are often accepted with a reserve and distance. But Miss Jain won their hearts all evening, as she went through the segments of dance in a dazzling show of virtuosity and humble dedication that left everyone breathless with wonder and heartfelt emotion. There were many tears in the audience, for the power and technical prowess of such a dancer is not often seen.
Ms. Jain, now in her twenties, began her studies in Kathak at the age of twelve with Gretchen Hayden of the Chhandika School of Kathak, who has been teaching in the Boston area for more than twenty years. From youthful beginnings, Ms. Jain stood out for her excitement about learning and her earnest dedication to practice. Ms. Hayden eventually led her to her own guru, the late Pandit Chitresh Das, and many were the summers and workshops which both attended in California, where Ms. Jain refined and deepened her understanding of the difficult and exacting physical and emotive aspects of Kathak. She later attended Yale University, and continued her dance practice while getting her academic degree—not an easy course of action. Now she finds herself out in the workforce, which requires extensive traveling, and yet she has kept active in the Chhandika Dance School where she has become a prime teacher, and this past performance reveals that she has kept up a rigorous practice as well.
The program began with four young dancers from Chhandika (Anushree Gupta, Maya Koorapaty, Esha Nijhoffasser, Maya Nijhoffasser) who set the mood beautifully by singing and dancing a vandana, or invocational dance. Then the electricity began in earnest with Ms. Jain’s consecration of the stage with a traditional rang manch. The appropriate dance music was ably supplied by sitarist Jayanta Banerjee and vocalist Debasish Sarkar, who came from Kolkata to perform with Chhandam in California and Ms. Jain here in Massachusetts. The tabla accompaniment, so critical to the dance, was played by the local Amit Kavthekar, who is making quite a name for himself in the Boston area as a teacher and artist. We in the audience knew we were in for a special evening when Ms. Jain concluded this segment with a classic pose of Shiva Nataraj, held for a few moments in static majesty—“wow, that is sooo hard,” audibly admired the dance student sitting next to me.
The dance progressed through the thats, which are lightning-like poses frozen in the dramatic approach to the tala’s downbeats. Then came a series of bols, which are traditional compositions in various choreographies, often featuring the classic spins of Kathak, which Ms. Jain whirled about with precision and excitement, drawing applause from the audience. She demonstrated the same bol as taught in contrasting dances by both her teachers—a nice touch, and quite interesting in their different approaches.
Ms. Jain then demonstrated Kathak yoga, an innovation of Chitresh Das, wherein the dancer sings, recites, dances, and plays harmonium all at the same time—a demonstration of mastery which left the audience further in admiration. This was followed by a traditional story, Giri Govadhana, in which Lord Krishna comes to the aid of the villagers who are beleaguered by floods to their lands. Terrified children, anguished mothers, and fathers in boats were all depicted by Ms. Jain, who held the audience rapt, until her depiction of Lord Krishna raising the mountain with his little finger brought relief to all.
The final item was a soulful Mira Bhajan in rag Bhairavi which Mr. Sarkar sang, and Ms. Jain beautifully mimed the wording of the song. It effectively brought the evening to a soft and warm conclusion, which went directly into the heart of the audience, lifting them to their feet in thunderous applause, and, as mentioned, tearful devotion.