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A Daughter of Kathak Spreads the Word

Amrapali Ambegaokar, 19, is enthusiastically promoting the ancient Indian dance form under the tutelage of her guru--and mother.

September 07, 1997|Kristin Hohenadel | Kristin Hohenadel is an occasional contributor to Calendar

When she dances the role of the powerful Hindu goddess Durga, Amrapali Ambegaokar spins in fast circles, setting the 108 tiny bells on each of her ankles to tinkling, whirling her silk costume into a shimmering blur. She stamps her feet, making an alarming sound that indicates pain but doesn't hurt. And with flowing limbs, precise hand motions and the mischievous flickering of her dark-as-night eyes, she draws her weapons to slay demons to the tones of a vocalist and the beat of tabla drums.

Today, sitting in her pink-and-white living room on Peaceful Hills Road in Diamond Bar, she is a mere modern 19-year-old, wearing jeans and a tight-fitting rose-colored top, her feet clad in silent Birkenstocks. Upstairs, her bedroom floor is littered with fashion magazines; in her closet, brilliantly colored Indian saris hang next to high-heeled silver metallic sandals.

It's a pointed contrast but one that Ambegaokar has had a lifetime to get used to. As the daughter of performer and teacher Anjani Ambegaokar, Amrapali was born into the art form of Kathak Indian dance. Her father, a mechanical engineer from Baroda, India, who moved with his wife to the U.S. in 1967, named her for a famous court dancer from 500 BC (Amrapali means "the graceful vine of a mango tree"), and she was onstage, in bit parts, by age 5.

Now Amrapali is the lead dancer of her mother's 12-year-old troupe, Anjani's Kathak Dance of India. On Saturday, she will be among the featured artists in "Bharat-Sanskriti," an evening-long program at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts celebrating the 50th anniversary of Indian independence.

By then, Amrapali's junior year in college will also have begun. She's a dance honor student at UCLA in the world arts and cultures department. In her spare time, she writes poetry and takes flamenco lessons. On the wall of her bedroom, in the house she grew up in, hangs a certificate from her high school days as a marching band drum major.

"That was a huge part of my life, something that I had done for myself," she says proudly. She speaks sweetly and smiles often, twisting her long black hair into a chignon, taking it out again. "For me that was really significant because it was something I didn't fall into."

Still, she readily notes, the part of her life that she did fall into has been even more significant. Kathak dance is what defines her, at least for now.

"Dance has become my personal choice," she says. "I have come to terms with the fact that I was brought into this family on this Earth because I have a purpose to serve . . . to hopefully continue the tradition I've been given. I'm not always going to like it, but I know I have to do it. I can't separate myself from it."

Kathak, one of India's half-dozen or more classical dance forms, is characterized by rapid spins, intricate footwork, graceful hand movements, theatrical facial expressions and narratives based on Hindu poetry and mythology. It began 4,000 years ago, with the Kathakas, storytellers who used mime to embellish their tales, and developed into a full-fledged dance form in the 16th century, when it received patronage from both the Mogul rulers and the courts of the maharajahs. Today, it is one of India's most treasured arts, passed on in lifelong apprenticeships from guru to student.

Mother-and-daughter Kathak acts like the Ambegaokars are rare in India. Gurus are usually men, who have no problem teaching other people's daughters but reserve the familial passing of tradition for their sons. In the U.S., Anjani--who had her own guru from childhood, began her touring career at 16 and received a master's in Kathak dance from the University of Baroda--has bent the rules on both counts: She's a female guru to dozens of young female dancers, not just to her only child and American-born daughter.

"This is a three-way relationship," explains Anjani, 52, sitting in an armchair near Amrapali and wearing a bright pink sari, her forehead marked with a traditional bindi. "I'm a guru, a mother and a friend."

"There isn't a lot about me that my mom doesn't know," Amrapali says. "We can't follow a normal mother-daughter relationship, because it's not--it's very different."

Anjani began teaching Amrapali at 3, precisely the age she had begun dancing years before in India. "It was my father's dream for his daughter to become a dancer," Anjani says. "I was never asked."

Did she ask her own daughter?

"No, she didn't," Amrapali answers, shaking her head and smiling. "She thinks she did, but she didn't."

Instead, says Amrapali, who began touring at 10, dancing was part of her everyday life, her mother's studio on the same floor as her bedroom. "There was never a question in my mind as to whether or not I would learn," she says.

Mastering the purely physical is a Kathak dancer's first step; the complicated footwork and fast spins take years to perfect. Even now, to keep in shape, Amrapali sometimes warms up by spinning in place 500 times.

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