Kathak is not only an art, but also a philosophy of life




Nathalie Masson is a Kathak dancer born in Geneva (Switzerland), the city of Calvinus. At a young age she started training in classical dance and modern jazz. After several years trying different dance styles, she realized that her beloved style was Bollywood dance that she practiced for some years.
Then, during a Kathak dance workshop in Geneva, she met the dancer who was soon to become her guru, Smt. Sushmita Banerjee, a celebrated Kathak exponent (belonging to the Lucknow Gharana) based in Kolkata, and the sparks flew. Since then she is totally focused on Kathak and she had the incredible opportunity to follow with her guru the traditional way of teaching: guru-shishya paramparā. She currently travels several times a year to Kolkata in order to attend Smt. Sushmita Banerjee’s teaching and to participate in Kathak performances across the country.


She has launched her own association in 2017 (Vidhya - Cultural Association) to promote Indian arts, and she also performs Kathak in Geneva and surroundings in the local scenes with the aim of letting a larger audience discover and appreciate this ancient art.

How familiar were you with Kathak before you started 
learning it?

Being raised in Europe, I was exposed to classical dance such as ballet and modern dance. I had no exposure to Kathak at all. I discovered it when I did my first workshop in Geneva in 2007.

What / who inspired you to take up Kathak?

My guru-ji Sushmita Banerjee inspired me when she taught me my first Kathak items in the first Geneva workshop. She noticed that I was staying back and asked me to come forward upon noticing my expressions in the thumri item. In this workshop I fell in love with this dance and its richness.

What’s the core spirit of Kathak as you feel it?

I feel the spirit of Kathak is dual between the technical (nritta) and expression (nritya) parts, and between tandav (Shiv, masculine) and lasya (Parvati, feminine). The entire art of Kathak is striking a balance between these two energies (as it is believed it happens with the world itself in oriental beliefs such as Taoism).

Learning Kathak is a lot of hard work and requires perseverance. How challenging were your initial days?

In my case the real challenge came when we did our first workshop in the summer of Kolkata. Coming from Geneva in Switzerland the very first hurdle was the weather with extreme temperatures. Of course adaptation to the Bengali culture (language, food, customs) was required (I am happy to report that after almost ten years coming regularly to Kolkata, I have become almost half-Bengali).

Definitely from the perspective of a western artist one of the main challenges is the need for repeated and persistent practice before results start to show: there is really little instant gratification, which is a challenge I guess particularly for the new generations (even in India, I am sure). As the saying goes, the pleasure comes first in drops and then you swim into the ocean.

Any memorable dance performances?

Of course my very first performance in India (Shilparamam in Hyderabad) will always remain special. Not only was it the first performance, but it also turned out to be a solo performance in a quite big amphitheater, which made the challenge all the more daunting and rewarding.
Another performance that will always stay in my memory was one concert we did with my guru-ji in the jail of Calicut. It was extremely humbling to perform before the entire population of the jail (or at least what looked like it!), feeling that through our performance the inmates were getting a glimpse of the light and freedom they were missing.

Finally, my most recent performance in ICCR in May 2017 will also be always memorable, because it allowed me to present my first choreographic work, ‘The 7th sense’. Coming from a performance in Geneva the week before, we had very little time to finish the last details of the choreography with guru-ji, which once more added to the thrills and the satisfaction brought by the performance, particularly taking into account the very good response it elicited from the audience.

What do you think on experiments in Kathak?

I am ok with experiments, as long as they come from experts in the classic Kathak field wishing to push the limits of the expression that the classical form can provide.

However, I feel there is currently a trend for people that are far from proficient in dance to experiment for the sake of the experimenting, with no real goal of enriching the art, but more to create an impression and provide a sort of ‘pop kathak’ (also with commercial goals in mind, probably).

Many wannabe Kathak dancers are influenced by the Kathak performance they see in films, especially Hindi movies. Do you feel that the originality of classical dance forms is getting lost because of the influence of Bollywood and alteration of the conventional patterns?

Unfortunately, a lot of what is shown in movies nowadays is a whittled down version of kathak: actors who are not really proficient with the dance art basically don a glitzy dress and ‘go through the motions’ mimicking the real dance.

I think it used to be better in the past where the real dance items were shown in the movies. We recently watched Jalsaghar from Satyajit Ray including state of the art music and dance numbers that make it worth watching for their sake only. Other examples may be Umrao Jaan (the original), Pakeezaa, Mughal-e-Azam, Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, and many others.

On the other hand, attracting the new generation of young people which will become the new dancers is also important. If Bollywood movies allow for some of this young people to get in touch with the dance form (be it a diminished version of it) and get interested in it, I am all for it.

Has Kathak in any manner enriched your life, your personality, your daily living?

Of course it has, in many ways. As any oriental art form, Kathak is not only an art, but also a philosophy of life, which breeds character, self-confidence and a certain way of apprehending the world. After continued practice of kathak for more than ten years now, I can confirm that I have been infused by the philosophy. I personally believe I have become a better person, much more realized, thanks to Kathak.

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