Anjana Vaswani tracked a Bollywood choreographer, chatted with a classical dancer who concocts her own brand of Kathak, and spun at a two-day workshop conducted by a 62 year-old Jewish lady who's been teaching Sufi spinning for a quarter of a century... all in a bid to figure out what makes whirling dervishes twirl
Going in circles for 12 hours
At Sheikha Khadija Radin's whirling workshop, held at the National Center for Performing Arts, Nariman Point on November 22 and 23
"There is a dance in stillness, and a stillness in dance," Khadija whispered almost on day one of the workshop. Gliding on her heels in one spot, then at a faster pace around a circle, as she gestured gracefully with her arms and hands, Khadija seemed entranced and yet so obviously in control. With five years of Kathak training to back me up, I felt confident this would be a walk in the park. Then it was time to practice!
Toe-ing the line
"Heel around toe," Khadija exclaimed, "not toe around heel!" I didn't have a clue what she really meant, and it seemed pretty clear that the real problem was simply that some of the participants didn't know how to dance. When Khadija finally moved over to where I was, I spun with the poise of a music-box-doll... or so I thought.
"Heel around toe," she said patiently. I gave it another whirl. "Don't move those toes," she said pointing to my left foot. "Imagine, they are pegged to the ground."
Did I manage the basic turn after all? I did, but minutes after I got the hang of it, my thigh muscles protested. I was both, dizzy and out of breath.
Can you breathe the wrong way?
Possibly moved by my gasp, a gentleman beside me whispered, "You are not breathing right." Incredulous. I could be out of practice where dance was concerned, but I could pull off inhaling and exhaling as well as the next person in the room. "Why don't you ask her to show you?" he nudged.
Asking me to place my hands on her back, Khadija demonstrated a unique breathing technique. "Breathe into your back," she advised, as I felt her back inflate under my palms. Breathing plays an integral role in locating your centre, and once you find your centre, and focus on it while you spin, you can carry on for as long as you like.
She was harder on dancers
Once she was somewhat satisfied with our "turns", she decided to show us a few hand and arm movements. Sceptical of whether she'd stick to the foot movements, I watched her feet. Spinning as she did, incredibly, the toes on the foot she was spinning around, never left their designated position, even as her hands swayed, her head tilted, eyes glazed almost as though they had nothing to do with her spinning body.
When it was our turn, I found two other women stumbling, and somewhere amid mutual embarrassment, the three of us discovered that we shared a Kathak background. In Kathak, you switch hands while spinning, you also switch directions. Khadija was aware of the difference. "Kathak involves stopping of a movement, and starting another. Whirling is like the motion of waves, and waves don't stop."
Exercise in worries
During breaks, she'd recite Sufi poet Mevlana Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Rumi's poetry, or indulge in exercises, like the one involving "worries". Urging us to close our eyes, Khadija asked us to quietly and sincerely consider one thing that truly worried us. Then, the source of worry and to note how, "Worry reaches into the past, and projects into the future." She asked us to concentrate on something we are truly grateful for, and then view our worry in light of the gratitude. You have to try this to see how much clarity a 2-minute mind exercise
By the end of day two, I'd developed aching muscles and a modicum of technique. Of all the Rumi teachings she shared with us, one lesson stuck with me. "There is no salvation, but there is refuge!" But besides what she taught us, I also picked up a lesson in humility, and the merits of concentration. I can't honestly say I know how to whirl yet. I also know I could have been among the better ones had I actually focused on getting it right, instead of wasting all that time clinging to the misplaced assumption that it would come naturally to me.
Who is Sheikha Khadija Radin?
Born to Jewish parents in New York, a teacher and choreographer of modern dance, a member of New York's Lucas Hoving Dance Company and administrative professional at the San Francisco Art Commission, Khadija Radin was given permission to teach Mevlevi turning in 1982. She is a Sheikha of the Sufi Ruhaniat International, and has studied Siddha Yoga under world-renowned gurus Swami Rudrananda and Swami Muktananda. She's also trained with Zen Master Joshu Sasaki Roshi. Entranced by a whirling performance she watched in San Francisco over thirty years ago, Khadija not only sought a deeper understanding of the Sufi dance form, but dedicated her life to it.
Why the dervish whirl
Whirling is a meditative-dance form practiced by those who follow the Mevlevi path founded in the 13th century by the followers of Persian poet Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Rumi, in Konya, Turkey. Through the spinning, the dervishes or Semazens aspire to focus on their inner-centre, the purpose being to devotedly and solely fill their hearts with the remembrance of God. They wear a whirling skirt and sikke (tall felt hat). The Sema ceremony is believed to be rooted in Rumi's practice of occasionally whirling in ecstatic joy on the streets of Konya, but the ceremony is meant to signify the journey of man's spiritual ascent.
Her own brand of Kathak swirls
Kathak, a classical North-Indian dance is characterised by fast footwork, chakars (spinning) and the use of abhinaya or expressions. The name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word "katha" or "story". Kathak's own story is so ancient that the dance form we know today is a product of various influences. Hence, modifying it is only natural, believes Delhi-based Kathak exponent Manjari Chaturvedi. Manjari has attempted to merge Sufism with the dance to create what she calls Sufi-Kathak.
Admitting that the idea may have been influenced by her interest in Sufism, Manjari says it's taken her 12 years of intense research in Sufi music and classical Indian dance to create a mix, that she first introduced in Lucknow.
Kathak VS Sufi-Kathak
Asserting that Sufi-Kathak has its own visual identity, separate from other Indian classical dance forms, she insists, "The poetry is separate, the use of language, movements, music used, costume and jewellery, and aesthetics are all specific for a Sufi-Kathak dancer." While the Qawali was her base for Sufi-Kathak music, over time, she's incorporated Sufi music from Punjab, Kashmir, Rajasthan and Iran into her routine.
Explaining her reasons for incorporating Sufi whirling into her routines, she says, "Whirling is moving mediation. The whole cosmic world adopts this motion the Universe revolves, so, how can we be one with cosmic energy if we remain stationary?"
Manjari teaches Sufi Kathak through workshops across India. Sufi Kathak Foundation is a registered society that works towards imparting this knowledge to students. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how to go about learning the dance form
The guy who made Hrithik whirl
The most recent depiction of Sufi-whirling on the Indian screen was in Ashutosh Gowarikar's Jodhaa Akbar, when actor Hrithik Roshan whirls at the end of the song Khwaja Mere Khwaja. Choreographed by age Bollywood dancer Saroj Khan's son Raju Khan, the song depicts Sufi singers and dervishes lost in the meditative dance.
"The director and a research team provided me with visual references for the song," says raju, insisting that all credit lies with the directorial team. They put together photographs of Rumi singers and dancers, the way they dress, even the gestures that you see Hrithik use â raised arms that are meant to allow universal energy to flow through Sufi dervishes.
In attendance: What they took away from the workshop
Samanta Duggal, 33, Massage therapist
Why? I had my first whirling experience at the Osho commune in Pune. I'm looking for an integrated experience, something that combines spirituality with dance.
Verdict: I felt centred. I just wish there was some place I could practice the techniques and
Brinda Mehta, 28, City-planner from San Francisco
Why? I've trained in Kathak. I want to see how whirling can be meditative.
The verdict: Phew! This was different from Kathak, where you focus on a fixed central point ahead of you. Here, I had to find my centre within me.
Sheetal Sanghvi, 29, Proprietor of The Urban Ashram
Why? I saw a poster advertising the workshop. I've been fascinated with Sufi philosophy.
The verdict: More than the dance, I enjoyed the notion that we can all be instruments of love.
Pierre Friquet, 22, Student at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune
Why? I'm shooting a film connected with whirling dervishes and the Sufi faith. I wanted to experience the clarity that Sufi-whirling is associated with, first-hand.
The verdict: I learnt a lot about the philosophy.
Sonia Mackwani, 26, Clinical Psychologist and Hypnotherapist
Why? I run a healing centre and I wanted to experience the therapeutic power of Sufi-whirling.
The verdict: It boosted my capacity to love. I think I can give more to people I am around. It's taken me a step closer to achieving my purpose.