Discovering Kantha Kathak-K With Amina Khayyam At Birmingham Hippodrome 20/09/2022

Writer Jasmine Khan / Photographer Simon Richardson

Before her dance company’s performance of Kantha Kathak-K at the Hippodrome on the evening of 20 September, Amina Khayyam took the time to answer a few questions about her personal relationship with kathak and the journey that led to her dance company’s performances here in Birmingham.

For those who don’t know, which included me before seeing the dance company’s moving and deeply elegant performance of Kantha Kathak-K, kantha is a type of embroidery craft originally made from recycled materials and founded in Bangladesh and eastern regions of India. Its namesake pertains to the aesthetic style of stitching used to make everything from saris to quilts.

Kathak is a story-telling style of dance and one of the eight major forms of Indian classical dance.

“We are telling a story, not just dancing, and do so in character, so character development within the story we tell and their exploration of the theme matters,” explains Amina, “each performer has their own methodology of how they prepare for a show – and they go through that before the show.”

Amina begins, “I first encountered Kathak as a teenager, watching dancers like Nahi Siddiqui and fell in love with it, so I started learning intensely.”

Amina first started dancing with Alpana Sengupta in Croydon. She then progressed to a professional level with Sushmita Ghosh at The Bhavan (London) under whom Amina also made her professional debut at the Purcell Room, Southbank. She is estimated to have performed over 1000 times wearing kathak costumes.

And it’s not Amina’s first performance in Birmingham.

“We’ve been to Birmingham several times performing our previous shows at the mac,” she explains, “this is the first time at the Hippodrome – we are always in Birmingham for workshops with a number of women’s groups.”

Indeed, one of these workshops is a significant inspiration for Amina’s recent performances – the Kathna made by local groups of South Asian women which will be hung as part of the performances.

In Birmingham, the kantha were created in association with Ashiana Community Project and Birmingham Settlement. But the project was initially developed with over 638 women in Luton, Woking, Slough, Brighton, Birmingham, Leeds, and London, who told their stories and engaged with their experiences of Covid-19 lockdowns during October 2020 to March 2021.

Amina says: “It was as expected that they (the women) readily jumped into Kantha – it was an activity that they found intensely pleasurable and yet cathartic to the environments of covid lockdowns.”

She continues: “Despite the lockdown being a standstill period  it was busy for us – managing and engaging in activity in about six WhatsApp groups up and down the country. The WhatsApp groups were amazing – in the way they created engagement with each other – how participants reviewed each other’s work and shared and discussed their stories.

“This is not entirely a mental health issue project,” Amina explains, “but one of the stories originates from that. Just before this project we had completed The Hum in My Heart which explored mental health in communities that do not acknowledge it, so the topic was fresh in our awareness.

“All the kantha from Birmingham are part of the display at the Hippodrome around which we have created dance from a select six stories that have a common theme of loneliness, anxiety, fear, death, and hope.”

As I enter the Patrick Studio at the Hippodrome (after grabbing a tasty combination of vanilla and salted caramel ice cream) it’s dressed with the aforementioned kantha. I don’t get much of a chance to decipher the various messages and daintily stitched artwork, but they fill the space from the ceiling to the floor, creating small rooms adjacent to the seating.

Aunties continue to file in late, as is to be expected, but Amina gets underway introducing herself, her company, and the embroidery. All the dancers have bells on their feet and are wearing modest dresses with flowing skirts also donning lockdown inspired kantha created by the aunties whose chatter hushes as the music begins.

The score is Borodin’s ‘Nocturne’, specially adapted by Jonathan Mayer to Indian instrumentation and immediately I’m pulled into the unique atmosphere created by traditional Indian scales and time signatures. The tabla rhythm is particularly prominent emphasised by the dances nimble stomping.

Amina is accompanied by three performers who, in the first movement of the dance, all float about the room, winding their arms with poised fingers plucking flowers, seemingly, open and closing books. The use of synchronicity implies a sense of community and togetherness charmingly expressed through the company’s effeminate movements.

All the while, the dancers softly stop and spin on their heels adding to the rhythm of the music.

Slowly the atmosphere changes and a singer’s voice joins the instrumentalist, releasing a dynamic, graceful, chilling note. A lone dancer slams a chair on the floor, over and over again in different positions around the makeshift kantha rooms.

This is the lockdown I remember.

Part of the artistry of the Amina Dance Company is the way their faces as well as their movements tell the story. I can feel the frustration, the isolation and desperation with each erratic movement made by the dancer as she physicalises the experiences of women in lockdown hanging around her.

The anxiety and fear are clear on her face as she pushes against the makeshift walls and I’m moved to remember my own and the way it felt like Covid might never end, like we might never be able to talk to people face to face and hold our family again.

Amina’s repetitive spinning solo, which exemplifies classic footwork at an impeccable standard, seems to express something deeper. Her facial expression isn’t easily visible due to the dim lighting and constant movement, but it is one of terror enhanced by the shadows cast about by her chopping arm movements.

Death and domestic violence are mentioned as one of the key lockdown experiences that came out of the WhatsApp groups made up of the women who inspired Kantha Kathak-K.

6.9% of all women aged 16 to 74 were a victim of domestic abuse once or more in the last year. It also found that 3.4% of women aged 16 to 74 who were born in any of the selected South Asian countries were a victim of domestic abuse.

Considering this, Amina’s kathak is haunting and precise, as well as distinguished and effortlessly beautiful. 

For more from The Amina Dance Company see and look out for Bibi Rukiya’s Reckless Daughter which will be coming to Birmingham in spring.