Mangala, Dancer Par Excellence!

Kathak exponent Mangala Bhatt has not only carved out a niche for herself in the City of Pearls, but also across the country and globe. Hailing from the city of Kolhapur in Maharashtra, known for the famous Maha Lakshmi Temple, Mangala travelled to Delhi, to learn Kathak on the inspiration and advice of her older brother Kiran Kulkarni. Speaking to Natyahasini, the Hyderabad-based dancer, Mangala Bhatt, shares that after completing her graduation in Commerce Honours, she proceeded to Delhi to pursue Kathak. “My older brother Kiran Kulkarni, a theatre lover, moved to Delhi to pursue Acting at the National School of Drama, and on coming across the Kathak Kendra, Delhi, close by asked me to learn Kathak instead of pursuing post-graduation. Though my father was against both of us pursuing art forms, we went to Delhi to study them,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye.

The dancer in her younger days.

Born to Lakshmi and Gopal Rao Kulkarni, Mangala initially learnt dance under Guru Bhalchandra Kulkarni of Prakash Nritya Mandir in Kolhapur. It was only after entering Kathak Kendra New Delhi, Mangala first began learning Kathak under late Shri Kundanlal Gangani of Jaipur Gharana. She later took advance training under Kathak Maestro late Pandit Durga Lal ji to learn Kathak in its pure and traditional format. Recalling her learning days at Kathak, Mangala says: “From morning to night, everything revolved around Kathak. We were drenched in Kathak. As part of the syllabus, we had to learn an instrument. I took up Tabla, but also learnt Pakhawaj, along with music and yoga, which were part of many other subjects,” she says.

Favourite Student: Recalling an incident, Mangala – which means auspicious, says: “My Guru Durga Lal ji always stated that he should hear the beats of the Ghungroo, while parking his car at the porch, so that when he entered the class, lessons could be taken to the next level.”  With moist eyes, Mangala says that Guru ji without pointing out or naming anything imbibed many values in students to last them a lifetime. “He was a genius, he created a sama (atmosphere) of meditation by lighting a dozen dhoop battis (incense sticks),” she says, quickly adding that she was the favourite to bring him water in the tambe ka lota (copper glass). “Whenever I go to Delhi, I still pick up the Sivaranjani Agarbatti from Bengali Market,” says the Kathak practitioner. Mangala is a recipient of the National Scholarship from the Government of India and Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, she successfully completed post diploma course of the Kathak Kendra and Visharada with distinction from Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, New Delhi.

On her marriage with Raghav Raj Bhatt, Mangala says that they were friends as they studied in the same institute and performed together in group recitals choreographed by Guru Pt. Durga Lal and Pt. Birju Maharaj. “It was our Guru jis, who brought up this topic as they felt that if both of us married, we would promote the art form. My Guru ji Pandit Durga Lal ji performed my Kanyadaan,” she says. Mangala also adds that as she was very keen to be a Kathak practitioner, she did not want to settle in a marriage, where she had to give up her passion. “I married Raghav ji in 1989 as we had similar interests and passion for Kathak,” she says.

Mangala with her Guru ji during the wedding

Living in Delhi for a couple years after marriage and working with Kathak Kendra, Delhi and Sangeet Bharathi Music & Dance School, Delhi, on the blessings of their Gurus, the Bhatts moved to Hyderabad and established the Aakruti Kathak Kendra in 1990 to teach the Kathak art form in its true parampara as learnt from their gurus. Moving from a small city in Maharashtra to the Capital of the country and then again to a small metro, what was life like, Mangala without mincing says: “It was very, very tough. I had to adjust to the new cuisine, language and dress code, but by the grace of GOD, I adapted myself quickly,” says the Kathak practitioner. When the challenge to start the Kathak wing at the Indian Cultural Centre, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, under the auspices of Indian Council for Cultural Relations, New Delhi Government of India, came up, without batting an eye lid, Mangala took up the challenge, though it meant learning a new language, culture and with a toddler to look after. Mangala worked there from 1996 to 1999 and encouraged the youngsters to learn the Indian art form. “Four students learning there later got ICCR scholarship to learn Kathak in India and they came to Kathak Kendra, Delhi for their education,” says Mangala with pride. 

Performed at iconic place: While at Tashkent, the dancer had an opportunity to perform in cities in Uzbekistan every month. At one such iconic place, Fergana Valley, a big family of 100 people, probably eight generations, seated under a vineyard, enjoyed and appreciated the art form. “The residents enjoyed the art form and were very appreciative, we were overwhelmed performing there,” she recalls. There is no doubt that as a performer, the finesse, restraint, and energy of Mangala’s Kathak have lit the stage of every important festival in India and abroad. 

An empanelled artist of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and Doordarshan, Mangala believes in constant innovation and her productions like Paroksh, a combination of visual and performing art, simultaneously with unity as the theme; Pratyav Bhasa, a choreographic amalgamation of three dance forms, Kathak, Contemporary Western, and Kalaripayatu; Reverence, a choreography on Sufi Poetry on the occasion of Suffiyana Shyam and others Confluence, Conversing in Twilight, Chakush Path, Aventuire, Downbeat and Wanderer to name a few have been a runway success. 

Mangala with writer & director Gulzar. Behind her is late Prof. Qumar Rais

Mangala, who has drafted a syllabus for the students of Kathak at Aakruti Kathak Kendra, states that learning is a never-ending process. She compares that by studying for any professional course, one is evaluated by class tests and semester exams, “Kathak is creative and your experience and going under the skin and understanding its depth, you can adapt it to your performance and choreography.” The Kathak teacher says that Aakruti Kathak Kendra has been conducting Antarang, a festival dedicated to Kathak Maestro Pt. Durga Lal Ji every year since 1998. We also conduct Tarang, an annual presentation where every student is given the platform to express their learning. The school is committed to preserving, promoting and facilitating Kathak in India and across the World. She says that milestones like Arangetram and Rangapravesham don’t exist in Kathak, but some people are adapting it as Rangmanch Pravesh, but it takes eight years of dedicated learning and practice to reach a level in Kathak. “The mission of Aakruti Kathak Kendra is to holistically develop a student’s potential through creative expression,” she says.

Her advice to youngsters is that they must learn the art form sincerely with passion. “Every child should have access to learning. Every school should have music and dance classes with academics, so that children and parents are exposed to it and on gauging a student’s interest, parents can put their child for regular training of classical art forms, which is India’s heritage. This will also give employment to many young practitioners, who pass out with professional degrees in performing arts to apply creativity along with academics,” says Mangala, before signing off. 

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