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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Kathak Come Together at the Legendary Southern Theater in Minneapolis

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Kathak Come Together at the Legendary Southern Theater in Minneapolis

  • Katha Dance Theatre founder and artistic director Rita Mustaphi let the poems speak through the classical Indian dance form.

Occasionally I chance upon an illuminating performance that stays with you long after the show is over, and curtains are closed. It happens when you have a confluence of talent and history come together on one stage – an acclaimed writer/poet, a legendary kathak dance exponent and a theater with a rich and long history of promoting off-beath performances.

This past weekend, June 3-5, Katha Dance Theater (KDT) presented a Kathak dance performance based on the award-winning poetry of acclaimed author and poet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Titled “Black Candle,” the show combined the elements of the Kathak dance form with text, music and commentary to evoke female joy, love, pain and resilience. It was based on Divakaruni’s collection of poems by the same name. The poems draw on the sexism, misogyny, and repressive cultural norms in the South Asian countries of Nepal, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

But first a bit about the Southern Theater with its stunning stone arch that caught my fancy. Tucked away in a corner just outside of downtown Minneapolis, the Southern Theater is a celebrated historic venue and the Twin Cities home for non-traditional and engaging live art. It first opened its door in early March 1910 and was designed by the noted Minneapolis architect Charles S. Sedgwick (he also designed the stunning Westminster Presbyterian Church).

Rita Mustaphi, Katha Dance Theater’s founder, choreographer and exponent.

The original theater was essentially one large room with a seating capacity of approximately 650. The proscenium arch, still a major feature of the Southern’s architecture, framed the stage, which had an orchestra pit in front of it. Underneath the stage were the dressing rooms, which still exist, but are covered by a concrete slab. The original facade was built to mimic the design of the proscenium arch.

Regrettably, the facade was demolished during the 1940s and replaced with the art-deco-like facade that the building now has. This area of Minneapolis where the Southern Theater now stands was once a prominent Scandinavian community between 1880 and 1916. In the 1900s, this area was known for its abundance of saloons, theaters, and ethnic meeting halls.

The Southern was built as the area’s only legitimate theater, presenting plays in Swedish by the contemporary playwrights of the time such as August Strindberg. The acting company maintained close ties with Stockholm’s Sodra Teatern (Southern Theater); an exchange program that allowed actors from one Southern to perform with the other when visiting the other city.

Back to “Black Candle” — Katha Dance Theatre (KDT) founder and artistic director Rita Mustaphi let the poems of Divakaruni speak through kathak, keeping the stage bare, with no opulent gimmickry but instead utilizing the lovely stone arch and the brick walls of the theater as the backdrop for some gorgeous lighting and visuals beamed on the brick walls by Mike Grogan. KDT commissioned the music of “Black Candle” from Rajeeb Chakraborty, a sarod artist, and a composer who lives in Kolkata, India. Chakraborty utilized his knowledge of world music with added flavors of the Caribbean music and set to the taal of Indian classical music. Every story or section had a unique musical niche that poignantly helped narrate the various travails of women of South Asia.

“Black Candle collection of poems by Divakaruni was first introduced to me in 1991 by my daughter Raka, as part of a poetry project in her high school,” Mustaphi recalls. It took a few more years to create the project and in 1997 it was first staged at the Ann Simley Theater at Hamlin University. Since then, both Mustaphi and Divakaruni have met and become fast friends. The show in fact has utilized Devakurni’s own voice to narrate her poetry. In 1997, the show was also presented by the Bengali Association in Philadelphia for their Annual Bengali Conference that was seen by more than 2,000 audiences and received a standing ovation.

“When I read these poems, I felt moved and wanted to bring these tales back to life for the Twin Cities community,” Mustaphi says. The poems examine a variety of intense topics. “Nargis” poignantly illustrates a young Muslim woman adorned for her bridegroom but then shrouded in a black burkha, “quenching her light.”

“The Living Goddess Speaks” and my favorite of them all, portrays a pre-pubescent Nepalese girl enshrined as a goddess and beautifully played by Ishani Nandan but soon cast aside when she reaches womanhood. The very young Kathak dancer Ayushmita Mondal is a talent to watch out for — her face mirrors every emotion that the young girl chose to replace the older goddess shows and her dance par excellence. 

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That she happens to be the sister of one of the lovely dancers Aaratrika Mondal explains the talent gene pool. Shilpi Chatterjee was stunning as a woman scorned in “Sudha” and her feet and facial expressions were just gorgeous. I’ve seen her in other KDT performances and she delights me every time. 

“Garba” as its name suggests features some skilled footwork set to a Gujarati beat — a new something for me. Who knew you could dance to Garba music and do kathak? It worked too. The last of the stories “Sondra” was set to Western music and again, the juxtaposition of Indian dance form set to Western music worked.

A special shoutout to the lead dancer of this show Nivedita Sahni who couldn’t perform due to Covid. I have followed her dance evolve with KDT over the years and she would have done complete justice to this show. Shoutout also to the stage manager Mark LaCourse for the stunning stage setup.

Kuhu Singh lives in Eden Prairie, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities. Bidding adieu to journalism a decade ago, she nonetheless loves to write and express her very strong opinions on social media and blogs and sometimes in a few Indian publications. She is a Senior Digital Marketing Manager for a broadcast retail company. Race relations, diversity, and social issues fascinate and roil her into action. She volunteers her time with certain political organizations and community organizations.

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