Rita Mustaphi, artistic director of Katha Dance Theatre, moves with unfailing grace. Her smile is sweet, her demeanor welcoming.
But this woman also has a steely determination, one that drives her to push gently yet persistently at the boundaries of an ancient Indian dance form called Kathak. For Mustaphi, tradition and innovation are compatible partners. From India's dance festivals to the Midwest, she has convinced others of the same.
Examples of her innovative spirit will be on stage this weekend for Katha's "In Retrospect" 25th anniversary concert at the O'Shaughnessy.
Born and raised in Kolkata, India, Mustaphi, 62, began dancing as a young girl after a doctor recommended exercise to remedy rickets, a bone disease. She had talent, so her father, an accountant, supported a childhood of rigorous study. "My father had huge ambition," said Mustaphi during an interview at her Crystal home. "He said, 'You have to learn dancing, you have to learn music, you have to learn sitar.' But it takes a lifetime to learn any of them."
Still, all this early exposure to a variety of art forms helped pave her path to graduation from two universities, where she earned degrees in physiology and dance, with a specialty in Kathak, one of the several classical Indian dance practices.
Mustaphi's conservative family allowed her to perform only in specific settings. After an arranged marriage (she and husband Kalyan remain together after 42 years) and a move to the United States, Mustaphi received a stunning letter from her father, saying that as a married woman she could not dance in public. "I cried like crazy," she said. Her mother-in-law stepped in. "She called my father and said, 'Why did you let her learn dance if you want to stop her?'" He relented, and Mustaphi was free to pursue her passion.
After arriving in the Twin Cities in 1971, Mustaphi performed for local Indian festivals. Pandit Birju Maharaj, a Kathak legend, became her guru (she is organizing his upcoming U.S. tour). She raised two daughters (Raka Mitra is an assistant professor of biology at Carleton College, and Semonti Stephens is deputy communications director for First Lady Michelle Obama). In 1987, Mustaphi launched Nritya Jyoti Dance Theatre (renamed Katha). Ranee Ramaswamy, an artistic director of Ragamala Dance, was a co-founder.
Today Mustaphi not only leads her own troupe but also a school with more than 100 students taking classes in Maple Grove, Minneapolis and Shakopee. She does it all with a modest $150,000 budget. "I don't compromise anything for my art," she said. "It takes a big heart, big dreams and a lot of support."
Sharing Kathak dance
Kathak dance derives from a centuries-old storytelling practice spanning villages, temples and royal courts throughout northern India. Mustaphi was drawn to its expressiveness and its use of improvisation.
"In our culture we don't just talk, talk, talk," she said. "It's the whole body that talks. The hand gestures that we use in Indian classical dance comes from the people, their everyday life, so it's easy to understand the stories."
While at first glance it may seem somewhat soft and light, Kathak bursts with challenges. "It's hard to tell if you have the curve just right," said dancer Asha Sharma. "You want to be crisp but not sharp, fluid but not weak." The attorney-by-day has worked with Mustaphi for 18 years. "The more we dance, the more humble we are, the more we realize how difficult it is."
Kathak is also known for percussive footwork. During a recent rehearsal in Mustaphi's home studio, she led the dancers, all wearing bells on ankle straps, through improvisations set to "dance syllables," tongue-twisting vocalized sounds used to communicate with musicians. The faster Mustaphi chanted and clapped out the tricky beat patterns, the faster the dancers whirled in tight circles. "You have six kinds of spices; let's see if you can come up with one curry," she teased.
But alongside strong technique, Mustaphi also values individuality. She learns from colleagues in other artistic disciplines. "I like to see what their specialty is, how that can enrich my dance," she said. "Why should I impose my style on them?"
Such openness has generated unexpected partnerships. "She's curious and generous, which explains all the collaborations she's done," said Derek Phillips, a modern dancer has worked with Mustaphi for more than 20 years. "Things you wouldn't think would fit together can fit together."
Next weekend's concert includes works with Susana di Palma of Zorongo Flamenco, Donald La Course of Ethnic Dance Theatre and gospel singer Robert Robinson.
"We don't come from the same religious or ethnic backgrounds, but she thinks broadly enough to bring artists together," Robinson said.
He said he appreciates the emphasis on accents in gospel and Kathak rhythms and sees parallels in the struggles of African-American and Indian people. "What brings me the most joy is what I can do musically. Sometimes in collaborations you have to hold back, and Rita has never said that."
Through it all, Mustaphi seeks connections for Kathak with 21st-century concerns, including themes exploring issues that affect women and children, as well as an increasingly global outlook. "I moved to this country and it opened my eyes," she said. "My art form is dance, and I can tell stories. Why not tell stories that are relevant to this world?"