October 4, 2009

 

Muna is a dear friend, whom I met two years ago at a mutual friend’s concert. I am amazed at her repertoire of talents – not only does she have a degree in dance, she proficiently plays the piano, paints, and is a certified Chartered Accountant! I don’t know how she manages to work gruelling hours for Corporate America (PwC to be precise) and organize wonderful fundraising events for Adhunika, a Bangladeshi women’s organization that she is part of. She is a role model for many of us and a celebration of Bangladeshi womanhood. I am very honored to have Muna share her journey with us today. I hope you will be inspired as much as I have been!   Labiba  / creativeBangladesh

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‘NAACHER BHUBONE’ : In the world of Dance – Muna Shams

Although I hail from Bangladesh by ethnicity, I was born, bred and fed in the United Arab Emirates. As I try to bring back memories for this feature, the most distinct facet of my growing years was – we led a content, comfortable, and care-free life. Well, quite different from the four cell phones I juggle with these days! 

Ma worked hard to discipline us. Dad was a physician with the Ministry of Health (and of course, bailed us out from Ma’s censure)! They shared a vision to not only educate us, but also engage my younger sister and me in varied extracurricular activities. We were encouraged to paint, write poetry, take up chess and the recorder in school, sing, dance, participate in elocution contests, play the piano and much more. And the quintessential bit was – they were equally enthusiastic and committed in the process. Ma, having studied music, would come running from the kitchen if I incorrectly played a Rabindra Sangeet on the piano. Dad, with his editorial streak, would spend nights drafting elaborate Bengali essays on various topics for me to study; Ma and I would, of course, later rewrite them in simpler, less grueling prose, much to his disappointment and my delight! (Bangla was a second language in school, our study of which, they pursued with a passion!)  

 First solo performance – Classical dance.

Tagore dance.

Track: Anandadhara Bohichhe Bhubone, set to Raag Malkauns
Artists: Srikant Acharya & Rajib Chakraborty
Lyrics: Rabindranath Tagore
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As both parents were considerably involved in the Bangladeshi cultural scene, I grew to develop a strong affection towards music. Commenced learning Bharatnatyam, Tagore and Bengali Folk dances at an early age, giving my first solo performance at the age of six. One evening, Ma and I attended a show at the Indian Ladies Association in Sharjah. It was there that I decided on the genre of classical dance I was to concentrate on. Six to eight elegant dancers, in magenta silk lehengas performed the most graceful piece I had ever witnessed! The ‘bol’ or the diction of the singers was crisp yet melodious. A dance form – so expressive, yet rhythmic and feisty at the same time! We reached out to the teacher, Dr. Kshama Munshi (interestingly, I recall now, I had been taking Hindi lessons from her at that point in time) and I immediately enrolled to be trained in Kathak. I was blessed with a solid base in this north Indian classical dance form, from a disciple of the renowned Pandit Birju Maharaj, for the next five years.

Kathak – Classical dance.

Track: Danse du Bonheur
Album: The Best of Shakti, with Zakir Hussain and others
Composer: John McLaughlin and Lakshminarayana Shankar 
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Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha meaning story, and katthaka in Sanskrit means ‘he who tells a story’. A Kathak performance follows a progression in tempo from slow to fast, ending with a dramatic climax. A short dance composition is known as a tukra, a longer one as a toda. A popular tukra type is the chakradhar, showcasing signature spins or visually exciting swift pirouettes, which are my personal favorites! Other compositions include the Vandana – opening/an invocation to the gods; Thaat – first composition ending in a statuesque standing pose; Aamad – from the Persian word meaning ‘entry’, the first introduction of spoken rhythmic pattern or bol to the performance; Salaami – a salutation to the audience in the Muslim style; Kavitta toda – a poem set on a time-cycle; Gat – from the word for ‘gait, walk’ showing abstract visually beautiful gaits or scenes from daily life and Tatkar, amongst others – a footwork composition consisting of a long set of bols, ending dramatically on tihai (beats repeated thrice and ending on the first beat of the time-cycle). Aside from the above, the traditional expressive or abhinaya pieces are the bhajan, ghazal or thumri.

A few years down the line, I beheld another performance which presented me with an opportunity to refine and enhance the Kathak dance form that I was currently studying and also to educate myself with Tagore’s works. I thus, came under the guidance of Smt. Ketaki Hazra, or Hazra Aunty, as I lovingly address her. My first role was as Arjun, the male lead in Tagore’s dance drama, Chitrangada. Expressive dancing had not been my forte and I had never performed with live singers/musicians until then. Humbled with the honour of being cast, took the role to heart, chopped off my locks and curled them to a bob! When the tandav nritya or strenuous, vigorous dancing, symbolizing the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction would tire me out, the elders ensured that generous portions of milk and almonds re-energized us! The troupe rehearsed day and night with ample ardor. Dubai has yet to witness a dance drama as memorable as the one Hazra Aunty held in 1994! 

As Arjun in Tagore’s rendition of ‘Chitrangada’.

Track: Shokhi Bhabona Kahare Bole
Artist: V Balsara
Genre: Rabindra-Sangeet 
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Over the years, we performed extensively on Rabindra Nritya Natyas, or dance dramas narrated via prose, song and dance. What intrigued me as I matured into my teens and adult hood, was observing the striking portrayal of women and/or their bold emancipation in Tagore’s works. In Chitrangada – being the only child of the King of Manipur and heir to the throne, Chitringada dresses like a man and is the protector of the land. When she meets Arjun, she falls for him but believes he will never love her the way she is. She requests for a blessing from Madan, the sage (or ‘Love God’ as I like referring to him!) and transforms herself into a beautiful ladylike woman, whom Arjun falls in love with. Later Arjun is impressed by the story of a woman warrior who seems to be his equal when it comes to fighting and longs to meet her. Chitrangada eventually reveals her true self to Arjun. No longer in love with her just for her beauty, Arjun marries Chitrangada. In Shyama – a court dancer by the same name falls in love with a foreign merchant who is falsely imprisoned and faces execution, unless Shyama accepts an admirer’s offer to take the merchant’s place. She ultimately does and in due course loses the foreign merchant’s love and respect. In Chandalika – a girl is ostracized by the society and does not understand the consequences of her birth into a family which is regarded as ‘untouchable‘. Even her shadow is considered inauspicious. A Buddhist monk meets her and asks to pour him some water to drink. She refuses claiming that as a low-caste person she is not supposed to do so. But he insists and takes water from her hands. The event has a lasting impact on her.

The late Bela Arnab, Dean of the Kathak Department at the Rabindrabharati University, Kolkata, India and Keshab Mukerjee, Professor, Percussion at the same University began to visit Dubai to grace our annual live performances. Some unforgettable performances we worked on together were renditions of Wajid Ali Shah and his Court of Dancers, the Ramayana and Tagore’s Bhanushinger Padabali.

As Ravan in an extract from ‘Ramayana’ composed in Kathak.

An opportunity to perform alongside Hariharan, the Indian playback singer, more popularly, one of the Colonial Cousins pioneering Indian fusion music, generated lots of excitement at home! He was releasing his latest album, Kaash, in Dubai and his ghazals, or Urdu poetry, was to be composed to Kathak dance. That was the first time I met Adnan Sami, Pakistani singer, musician, composer, who was also performing at the same show. Recall being absolutely smitten back stage by the talented, down to earth singers!

My last performance in Dubai, prior to moving to New York, was part of the UN World Dance Day celebrations held for the first time in the Emirates in May 2005. Tripti Bhupen, Dubai based Indian classical danseuse and a group of international dancers came together with a program called ‘The Dance of Life’ and ‘Divine Ecstasy’. The program included five styles of Indian dance namely Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathak and Mohini Attam with a glimpse of Manipuri, featuring seven dancers. I did what I felt I could do best – I represented Kathak.

MUNA SHAMS, 2009

Rajasthani folk dance. 

Muna Shams is a professional Chartered Accountant from United Kingdom and a Business Graduate from the University of Wollongong, Australia. She has trained in Piano from the Royal School of Music, London and earned her Bachelor of Music degree in ‘Kathak’ from the Surbharati Sangeet Parishad, All India Board of Art & Music, Kolkata, India in 2001. Muna has been residing in New York since October 2005. 

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CREDITS:
image: all photographs are from MUNA SHAMS’ family album. 
graphic design & layout: Labiba Ali for creativeBangladesh.

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