"When I dance, I feel like I'm not in this world, that I have created my own platform between the sky and the earth," says Tanushree Sarkar. Her specialty is kathak dance, whose "brisk foot movements" are what first attracted her. Sarkar's mother--herself a dancer, but not of kathak--began her daughter's training very young. "I started so small, I don't remember what age I was." But Sarkar definitely knows to whom she owes her technique: her "guru," Pandit Durgallal. He died last February in India after a four-hour dance recital before a stadium audience of 25,000. With the applause still hanging in the air and the musicians waiting onstage, everyone wondered why he wasn't returning for another bow. He was found dead in his dressing room.
Trying to explain what she does in Western terms, Sarkar says, "Kathak comes the closest to tap dance; it's precise in terms of rhythmic patterns. But you dance barefoot, flat and with the heel, not the toe. Only rarely the toe. There's some spinning, but the hand gestures are more important. There is much more footwork involved in kathak than in the other forms of classical Indian dance, which is why I chose it over the others.
"Kathakali, from the extreme southern part of India, has lots of yoga as its basis, it tones your body. Bharata-natyam and manipuri, also from south India, can be classified as one, really. Odissi dance is from Orissa--Calcutta. Kuchipudi is also from south India. Kathak is from north India, Jaipur, and now New Delhi.
"It looks like I'm excited and all that, but I'm very serene when I dance. Music has no language; it's so serene. It detaches you from the material world. Dance is not an outside thing, it's internal. All I need is silence and a good stage. When I perform, I don't see a single person in the chairs. I don't notice anything. I'm in my own world."
Kathak can be a strain on the more mundane physical level: the ankle bracelets that are part of the traditional costume are extremely heavy, loaded down with 250 brass bells each. Sarkar has something positive to say even about this: heavy weights on the ankles are medically sound, according to the orthopedic authorities she's consulted, and in fact are prescribed when folks have knee problems.
Sarkar has lived in the United States for 14 years, but she used to travel back and forth often, sometimes living and touring in India for five or six months at a time. Especially since her teacher died, she finds herself searching for perfection: "I call myself a student--because I want to keep learning until I die. When you are too self-satisfied with the way things are going, then you have stopped growing, and your art will suffer. I want to carry on his tradition, but his mission has become my mission."
What's unique about Sarkar's performance, despite its traditional trappings, is that she sings as well as dances. "I love classical singing and classical dancing, and I know how to do both. To me it's like two sides of the same coin. You produce sounds with your feet when you are dancing, like the syllables when you sing. You must concentrate on those sounds; it becomes my only focal point when I perform, producing those sounds, their tonal quality." Her accompanist is tabla performer Abdul Sattar Tari, and she says, "I create with my dance in the same way Ustad Tari creates musical compositions with his tabla. He is becoming my new guru because we are working so closely together." (Ustad, like pandit, is an Indian term of respect.)
A few months ago Sarkar's husband died of a heart attack at age 40. The loss, in less than a year, of the two most important people in her life was of course a severe blow. "It taught me that the body has no meaning, all that remains is the soul. Only art is everlasting," she says. Her husband died on the evening of September 25, and kindly friends persuaded her to cancel a performance she was supposed to give on the 30th. They were shocked that she didn't cry at all during the funeral, and that that day she locked herself in her basement studio and danced all day, to chase away the demons: "I was dancing to find myself." She has learned to pass through the pain, and this newfound peace enables her to dance for eight and ten hours at a stretch. "Sometimes I feel the emptiness, but art--all big things--has to be created through that emptiness, and it gives me abundance."
Sarkar will perform with Tari and sitar player Shubho Shankar (yes, he's Ravi's son) Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 909 W. Armitage, at 7 and 10 PM. Tickets are $9-$13; call 525-7793.