Caro Meets Dance & Physical Interview

Urja Desai Thakore: Kattam Katti

By | Published on Friday 12 November 2021

I love the sound of ‘Kattam Katti’ – a groundbreaking modern dance theatre show rooted in the Indian Kathak dance tradition that’s headed to Sadler’s Wells this week – not least because it’s set at Uttarayan, the world-famous kite festival that takes place in Gujarat, North India.

The title, translated, means ‘Cutting Through’. In it, kite flying becomes a metaphor for the inequalities of privilege in societies, and in the corporate world, as tales of competition, danger, excitement and unity are brought to life in what promises to be a joyous, colourful and ultimately uplifting show.

The show is presented by the Pagrav Dance Company, and created by artistic director Urja Desai Thakore. I spoke to her to find out more.

CM: ‘Kattam Katti’ is described as ‘dance-theatre’ – in what way is it different from a dance performance? What makes it theatrical?
UDT: ‘Kattam Katti’ encompasses the different emotions we experience in our lives using kites as the symbol for this. I have tried to draw parallels of my observations and views of the Uttarayan festival featuring distinctly different characters. All the performers – dancers and musicians – are part of this storytelling, with their emotions and expression, it’s a drama using music and dance to tell the story. People can see all the ups and downs of the kite festival with a distinct beginning, middle and end in a very theatrical story.

CM: Does the show tell a story? What themes does the show explore?
UDT: It doesn’t have one particular narrative story running through it but several small episodes, just as one would see in the actual festival of kites. With the kite as the centre of the work, the story explores the friendship, the fights, the ups and the downs and the ultimate victory.

CM: What was the inspiration for the show? What made you want to create a show with these themes?
UDT: The piece was inspired by an original Gujarati – Indian – language piece by the poet Avinash Vyas. The poem drew the parallels between the qualities of kites and qualities of human beings. The festival of kites is not only about flying kites but to win, by flying the highest, at any cost. In striving ruthlessly to achieve that, people get hurt, sometimes with the kitestrings, or sometimes there are even serious injuries. I never understood this even when I was young, so when I was reading this poem again, I started evaluating these ideas and became really interested in exploring them further.

CM: How would you describe the style or genre of dance?
UDT: ‘Kattan Katti’ is rooted in Indian classical dance Kathak. That’s all I know. But I call my style neo-classical as it doesn’t use the traditional style of presentation, but neither is it just a contemporary version of classical dance.

CM: Can you tell us about the live music featured in the show?
UDT: The music is a very integral part of the show. The musicians do not just stand and play but are an integral part of the work and characters in their own right. I was interested in hearing different sounds and thus have used instruments that are not commonly used within Indian classical dance forms. The music for me is the heart of the piece: it is very soulful, earthy, melodious and punchy.

CM: Who will this show appeal to? What kind of audiences do you hope to reach?
UDT: I am sure the show will be loved by all ages, and ethnic groups. People who know the festival of Uttarayn will be able to relate to the actual event and people who don’t know about the festival will be able to see the parallels in our society. It evokes different emotions from humour to tragedy, and thus we believe that ‘Kattam Katti’ has the potential for very wide appeal indeed.

CM: Will you tell us a bit about yourself, now? Did you always want to work in this field? What did you do to begin your career?
UDT: This is a looong story but to keep it short… I always wanted to be associated with dance but I was not sure if I wanted to become a dancer. I am actually a civil engineer by training, but when I had to make a life choice, I chose dance. My mother is involved in the arts and she always knew that I would follow a similar path. I started learning from about the age of four. My mother had originally set up Pagrav Dance in 1983 and I re-established the company – in India – in 1997.

CM: Can you tell us about the Pagrav Dance Company? What are its aims?
UDT: Pagrav Dance Company seeks to enhance and change lives through the transformative power of dance. We teach, promote and present the Indian classical dance form Kathak in its purest form as a classical dance technique. Yet we also challenge its traditional artistic boundaries, through contemporary production values and cross-disciplinary collaborations.

Pagrav means ‘the sound of feet’. Through Kathak, which expresses stories through movement – especially footwork and facial gestures – we celebrate an ancient tradition and its potential to empower people.

Our work comprises three strands.

New Feet, our education programme, teaches and trains people of all ages in the art of Kathak. Through skills development and performing opportunities, we challenge the negative perceptions of creative careers within South Asian culture.

New Paths is our talent development work that supports emerging Kathak practitioners – those who have mastered the artform – to pursue and thrive in professional dance careers. We believe that mentoring and nurturing a new generation of talent will help to create pathways for success.

New Ground is for our professional projects and productions that celebrate and showcase innovative new work – such as ‘Kattam Katti’ – that both embrace Kathak’s authenticity and history and reinterpret it for twenty-first century audiences. By exploring contemporary themes, we bring the artform to a broad public, challenging the way it is represented and perceived.

CM: What have been highlights for the company since it was founded?
UDT: The company has been creating work in this country since 2005. In that time we have created five full length, evening works, all of which have been highlights for me. Pagrav has become recognised as a pioneer in bringing change and innovation within the South Asian dance sector .

I believe in resilience and a positive attitude. I believe that has got me through these tough times. We looked at repurposing our outreach work and that enabled us to reach more people across a much wider spectrum.

CM: What ambitions do you have for the future?
UDT: We would like to be a company that can give full time employment to dancers. We hope to inspire more and more people who can take up dance as a full time career. Pagrav would like to reach those people who have not had experiences of trying something new and introduce them to our style of dance. We hope to take Kathak dance into the mainstream so that it reaches the point where venues don’t have to think twice about having more than one South Asian piece in one season, like other art forms. We would love to change the idea held by many people who think dance should be treated as a hobby and not as a profession.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
UDT: There are quite a few projects in the pipeline. Next May we will be collaborating with The Britten Symphonia on a new play called ‘Savitri’ at The Barbican. We are also working on the new outdoor show which will be the result of a partnership between me and artist Hetain Patel.

‘Kattam Katti’ is on at Sadler’s Wells from 18-19 Nov. See the venue website here for more information and to book.

The show is set to tour further in 2022 – keep an eye on the company website here for dates.

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