Anjani Ambegaokar came to the United States in 1967 from her native India and has since become the most well known dancer, choreographer, and educator of Kathak in the nation. Kathak, a popular but very complex form of North Indian dance with a 4,000-year history, tells stories of ancient mythology incorporating fast tempo barefoot rhythms with ankle bells and distinctive, graceful hand gestures and facial expressions. Anjani began her training in Kathak dance over fifty years ago, studying with the great master teacher Guru Pandit Sundarlaljee Gangani in India. She also holds an M.A. degree in Kathak dance from the M.S. University of Baroda, India.
Her school, the Sundar Kala Kandra Dance School, has trained hundreds of dancers, while her company, Anjani's Kathak Dance of India, has performed around the world. Anjani trained her daughter, Amrapali, now the principal dancer of her company who recently performed as the lead dancer in the Cirque du Soleil's touring production Dralion. Anjani has also taught at universities, offering seminars such as the "Landscape of Mathematics," demonstrating how Kathak rhythms can be applied to understanding mathematical theories. She says, "I want to continue to develop myself as a complete artist, with open mind and deep rooted tradition, to support my dreams of taking Kathak dance to new heights and making it accessible to all audiences in the United States and worldwide."
NEA: Congratulations on receiving the award. Could tell me a little bit about your reaction?
MS. AMBEGAOKAR: My reaction? Oh, my goodness. You know, when Barry Bergey called, I thought he was calling about an application my foundation has in for my next project. So when he said, "I have news for you. You have just received a National Heritage Award." I said. "You're kidding." And I kept saying that as he proceeded to tell me more about it. Once it sunk in I realized what an honor it is, what a humbling experience. "You know," Barry said. "You got it because you deserve it" and I just kept saying, "My God, I can't believe it, what an honor, what an honor." It's been almost two months now and I still wonder, Is this really happening? Barry and I figured out this is the first Heritage award given to an Indian dancer in this country.
You know, there are so many other artists who are doing really amazing work and really deserving. It's just so wonderful, after so many years of work.
After Barry called -- it was around 2:00 in the afternoon -- I called my daughter, who was in India at the time. I had to call her right away since she's been so much a part of what we do here. It was 3:00 in the morning there. I woke her up and told her the news and she said, " Oh my God, it's high time, Mom. You should have gotten it five years ago!" I told Barry about this later and he said, "Tell her that it was less money then you're getting double the amount now!" And then, of course, I called my husband.
The greatest thing was calling my guru, my master teacher [Guru Pandit Sundarlaljee Gangani], who's been teaching me this dance since I was seven. He turned 75 the week after I heard the news and I decided to wait until his birthday to tell him. What more could I ask for, as an artist, than to still have him around and be able to tell him this news. So I called him and he said,"You have worked hard for many, many years, and everything you have done with your art you have done very truthfully. You deserve this. You needed to get this." What else could I ask for? I thought to myself. If he thinks this way, then I'm fully satisfied.
NEA: Why were you initially attracted to the tradition? Was it something your family did?
MS. AMBEGAOKAR: I don't come from a dance family. I come from a community that places high emphasis on education, on academics. My father was a famous physician in India. But I think from the moment I was born it was his dream that I learn to dance. So I started learning Bharata Natyam, the South Indian dance form, when I was three years old. The only teacher in Baroda was a Bharata Natyam teacher. I still remember vividly a couple of my pieces that I learned at that time -- you know, your first teacher makes a very strong impression on you.
Then my guru came from Bombay to teach at the university. It was very rare at the time for a guru to be invited to teach at a university -- there were very few dance programs at the time, in the late 40s, 50s. He's from a family of Kathaks, as we call it, a family of storytellers. His family can trace their Kathak connection back for generations, more than 1,000 years. Generations of musicians, dancers. They sing. They dance. My father heard about him and then told me I was going to have a new teacher. I was seven years old. And I remember very clearly when he first came up the stairs -- he was wearing a traditional Indian style white caftan. He just came bounding up, three, four steps at a time. He was a young man, only 22, 23 years old and there was just something about him As a young girl, I just felt like, wow, this is something so nice.
He was so nice. He'd carry me around and make me dance, you know. He would say in a very affectionate voice, "Come on, come on, dance. I will make you dance. I will make you dance. Come on let's do this, let's do this." And I got attached not only to him but to the dance. Something about Kathak that suits my personality -- the energy, the communication, the informality of the form. It's stylized but it has a lot of openness about it and I'm that kind of a person, you know.
NEA: You do a lot of choreography as well. Could you explain the process of creating a new piece?
MS. AMBEGAOKAR: I go very strongly with my intuition. Whatever feels really, really right in my heart is what I decide to do. I believe that only if you are really passionate about the piece you are creating is it going to work.
I do traditional productions as well as productions where I go beyond the tradition, pushing the boundaries of the tradition while looking deeper into the tradition to reach new concepts. Like when we did the collaboration Soul to Sole with the Jazz Tap Ensemble. For me it's just a matter of how can you give it a little bit of a twist, a little bit of a different direction, and still maintain the purity of the form.
I'm very comfortable doing something very traditional but I'm equally comfortable doing something that is totally not traditional. I mean, maybe you don't want to quote this but I should tell you this. My next idea--you will laugh when I say this-- my next idea is to do the art of basketball in classic Kathak style.
NEA: Tell me more!
MS. AMBEGAOKAR: I've gotten got hooked on watching Lakers. I watch Kobe Bryant and I think, "What an artist!" Every move is an artistic move. You know, it's not just getting the ball and playing it. And I say to myself, "You know what? You can actually make a piece out of this."
I'd like to call it the "Art of Basketball." But I'm not going to do a basketball game. I'm not talking about the game part. I'm talking about the art of basketball and I want to do it in Kathak style. I'm very clear about what I want to do with this. I'm not working on it yet, but it's been going on in my head for the last six months. You know how it is with anything new -- it takes time to make it into a reality. Some of my students are on high school basketball teams, one is on a college basketball team, and I've asked them to help me understand how they play and how I could put it into a dance. The foot movements are so intricate and Kathak has some amazing foot movements that can relate to that.
NEA: What have been the challenges or difficulties or joys of sustaining a career in Kathak dance through the years?
MS. AMBEGAOKAR: I've worked with the idea that I will get ninety-five percent no and five percent yes about what I want to do. Once you accept that, I think you're okay. I also keep my mind away from the political aspects of what it is to be an artist. I firmly believe that if you are very true to your art it will be recognized. If not today or tomorrow, then the day after. It's not an easy career. A career in art is never easy. There are ups and downs. There are bad years when nothing much happens and good years when so much is happening that you ask yourself, "My god, how do I handle this?"
There's never enough money, especially if you stay with concert dancing and not do the mainstream. Money is very tight. It has always been, artists have always struggled. When I came to this country I had a degree in economics and I almost finished my MBA, and when I came to Chicago I did work in accounting and danced part-time. After awhile I realized that I was miserable. I said to my husband, "I'm miserable. Why am I doing office work?" Maybe I'm a late bloomer but it took me time to realize that all I wanted to do was Kathak. And that I do would whatever it took to do Kathak. I could teach, and so on. And I think once you come to terms with that then you accept the plusses and minuses of being an artist.
But there are so many benefits. This award, for example. Or the little kids who started with me at the age of five or six that are now grown women, married with kids of their own. They are all my extended family. They are part of what I've done and what I am. Even if they don't dance right now, they're always in touch. They want their kids to start dancing. Kathak is always part of everything that they have done so far and continue to do.
NEA: As a teacher, what do you look for in a good Kathak dancer?
MS. AMBEGAOKAR: Understanding rhythm is the top priority. And, then, awareness of your body, what your body is and how you need to be able to portray that through the form of Kathak.
There are two main aspects in Kathak dancing. The technique and the expressive part. The expressive part is the storytelling, the facial expressions, the ability to portray any person or any mood. That's the beauty of Indian dance. And then the rhythms, the rhythms and the footwork that we do with the ankle bells. For someone to be able to be equally good in both is always a challenge.
I try to teach both on equal level starting from the beginning so when they become full-fledged dancers they can do both equally well.
NEA: What advice do you have for young Kathak dancers?
MS. AMBEGAOKAR: Find a very knowledgeable teacher to start with who is very true to her art. People tend to take a lot of short cuts. There are no short cuts in the classical tradition, in the kind of traditional work that we do. You have to be very passionate about it; if you find the passion in Kathak then stick with it and don't give up because it's one of a kind artform that just--it's just absolutely one of a kind.
NEA: One last question. What has compelled you to continue dancing and teaching and learning through the years?
MS. AMBEGAOKAR: How do you separate Anjani and Kathak? You just don't. Everything in this house revolves around Kathak. All my prayers are through my dance, you know. I mean, it's just beautiful to have that because as we believe in our tradition, the dance. All the Indian dance forms, including Kathak, came from the Gods. And then the Shiva and Krishna and all of them danced and it's been passed on to us. So there's a very devotional ritual aspect that we have in what we do because, as I said, it started from the temples. It's just total passion. It gives me so much peace within myself and there is amazing excitement in the peace, too, you know. Being peaceful can be very exciting, too.