About 30 minutes before her performance, Zhang Xiaoqing is busy giving a sound byte to the good folks at DD in the green room of Kamani Auditorium, one of Delhi’s oldest theatre halls. The reporter asks Xiaoqing if she has a message for the Indian audience. Xiaoqing in her soft and measured tone says she hopes to learn more about the great culture of India.
The 32-year-old Kathak dancer from Beijing is part of the troupe performing at the international dance and music festival organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Naturally, there’s quite a bit of cultural diplomacy going on.
Earlier in the evening, when Xiaoqing was rehearsing the finale fusion piece with two Russian Bharatanatyam dancers, a Mexican flautist, and tabla and sitar vadaks from France, she admitted that performing in India was a bit difficult with all the last-minute changes. “In China, everything is fixed. Here, things are quite flexible. It’s quite different for me,” says Xiaoqing as she talks to one of the organisers — “I need to spend two hours with the tabla player in Bhopal tomorrow to prepare for the performance.”
Xiaoqing’s first introduction to classical Indian dance was in her childhood. It was on a TV show that Xiaoqing saw a Bharatanatyam recital. Much later she watched Rama Vaidyanathan at a concert in Beijing. “I was so touched by her performance, I couldn’t help crying. She is so immersed in the dance.” There was also Bollywood with its song-and-dance routine. “I used to imagine all Indian people as very good dancers,” says Xiaoqing with a laugh.
After dabbling with various Chinese folk dances, Xiaoqing decided to take her childhood fascination with “Indian dance” a step forward and enrolled in a Kathak class at the Indian Embassy in Beijing. It’s been five years since and Xiaoqing is slowly picking up the nuances of abhinaya (expressions) in Kathak. She speaks reverently of her guru Ashok Chakrovarty, a disciple of Birju Maharaj. The toughest part, she admits, is remembering the different types of rhythms and understanding the music and the background.
“In Chinese dances, especially folk forms, there’s little variation in expressions. It’s either happy or sad. In Kathak, we switch from devotion to fear to hope to love, expressing all of these emotions very swiftly. That took a bit of learning,” she says.
And does she understand the guru-shishya parampara? China, Xiaoqing says, has a tradition of respecting a teacher not just as an instructor but also as someone who teaches you a way of life.
Xiaoqing will be starting her performance with vandana and bhajan and go on to thumri and tarana. She says she likes tarana, which is pure dance, and finds thumri a bit challenging. “It is difficult to portray romance the Indian way. The expression and movement are quite different.”
Of course, she now understands the difference between Bollywood dancing and classical dance.
“Bollywood borrows elements of Kathak and Bharatanatayam but is completely different. A lot of people in China, however, feel that Bollywood is all there is to Indian dance,” she says. The Chinese though are very receptive to Kathak when Xiaoqing performs. “They find it very beautiful and young people are very interested.” Next, she would like to learn Odissi. And, of course, come to India again to learn more about its great culture.
After dabbling with various Chinese folk dances, Xiaoqing decided to take her childhood fascination with “Indian dance” a step forward and enrolled in a Kathak class... five years ago