Spotlight on the Teacher: Rita Mustaphi

Katha Dance Theatre is a dance company and school run by some of the country’s finest Kathak artists. Our instructors are passionate about Kathak tradition and have worked hard to reach their level of expertise, practicing daily in order to develop their skills. But apart from regular practice, what does it take to make a dancer? In our dancers’ experience, learning from inspiring teachers plays a huge role in helping artists achieve their professional goals.

In our series Spotlight on the Teacher, we’re checking in with our talented dance teachers – learning about their origins, the development of their teaching style, their goals for their students, and more – in order to better understand their individual approaches to teaching, dancing, and practicing their art. This month, our spotlight shines on KDT founder, instructor, and artistic director Rita Mustaphi.

What is your dance background, both in terms of your training and your professional experience?

Dance came to me through a health issue that I had in my childhood. I was diagnosed with rickets – that is, a softening and weakening of the bones – and one of the treatments that the pediatrician recommended was exercise. My father noticed that I naturally move in front of mirrors, and he appointed a dance teacher to come to our home three days a week and teach me to dance. I was constantly prancing around the house, the garden, and the park, which inspired my father to enroll me in a formal dance school, the Institute of Indian Dance and Culture. Once I graduated from there, my natural progression was to move up to Rabindra Bharati University of Performing Arts in Kolkata for advanced training.

My first year there, I was introduced to four kinds of Indian classical dance styles – namely, Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kathakali and Manipuri. My natural affiliation was with Kathak, so I chose to follow that style. Eventually, I graduated with distinction in Kathak! But that did not stop my aspiration to learn more. My love of Kathak inspired me to join Padatik Dance Center in Kolkata and learn Kathak from Pandit Vijai Shankar, a disciple of Pandit Birju Maharaj, the legendary guru of Kathak dance. I had seen Maharaj-ji perform Kathak and was mesmerized, but never had the opportunity to learn from him until that time.

I later moved to the U.S., eventually establishing Katha Dance Theatre in 1987. In 1988, I had the opportunity to bring the king of Kathak himself, Padma Vibhushan Pandit Birju Maharaj, to Minnesota! Impressed by my skill as a dancer, he extended his trip and asked me to study with him at Kathak Kendra in New Delhi. I made several long trips to Delhi, India for that reason. I also feel very fortunate to be associated with Pandit Birju Maharaj, who not only taught me Kathak, but also inspired me to create dance of my own.

Now, I am a choreographer, dancer and educator who has been creating professional work, performing, touring, teaching and conducting outreach activities for 32 years.

Who and/or what have been your biggest inspirations as a teacher?  

Being around young people inspires me the most! I look at teaching as a kind of performing, but better! Students are your audience that can learn from, interact with, and observe you for an extended period of time. My reward is when I watch a student’s progression from learning in childhood to teaching at KDT’s School! Teaching is a practice of bonding with people of any age and it has been crucial to deepening my ability to bond with KDT teachers, performers, KDT school parents, audience members, fellow artists and more. What a gift it is to share what I know with others!

“The look of enlightenment on the face of a student who tries what you suggest and finds success is wonderful. To me, that is what teaching is all about.”

How would you describe your teaching style?

A melding of the different teachers has influenced me. I believe that solid teaching must start slow, beginning with a simple ritual of respecting the space, the teacher and audience members, followed by detail and thorough warm-up, and finally teaching technique while emphasizing every age-specific detail I can offer my students. As my own training was culture-specific, thorough and detail-oriented, I offer the same to all my students. I offer tools to dancers who are later able to perform, create and teach if they choose to do so. My motto is also that of KDT: “Dance. Discover. Transform.”

Since I am the founder and artistic director of Katha Dance Theatre and School, I set the standard for its school, company, tour and outreach programs. All teachers follow the same syllabus that I learned from Guru Pandit Birju Maharaj.

What do you hope your students take away from your class?

A feeling of joy and exhilaration in finding new ways to approach their movement. I also hope they take away a bit more knowledge and appreciation of Asian Indian art and culture, a passion for dance, and acknowledgement of the commitment it takes to learn.

Do you have any key phrases or expressions you often use in your classes?

“Where the hands go, the eyes should follow
Where the eyes go, the mind should follow
Where the mind goes, the emotions are generated
Where the emotions are generated, sentiment arises.

A good dancer needs to provoke audience sentiment by following the essence of this verse. I feel it not only applies to dance, but also to every action in our daily lives. It means that if our hearts are present where our heads and hands are working, the outcome is outstanding.

What do you love most about teaching? And what’s the hardest part about your job?

I love to have students who are focused and hard-working in class; absorbing the information and participating in the process. The look of enlightenment on the face of a student who tries what you suggest and finds success is wonderful. To me, this is what teaching is all about. Teaching is hardest when you have a dancer disrupting class with talkative, uncooperative and disrespectful behavior day after day. Initially, I take this as a challenge and try to improve that student’s behavior in several different ways, but if I’m unsuccessful, I inform their guardian/s to rectify the issue and possibly even choose another activity for them.

What advice do you have for other dance teachers who wish to make an impression on their students?

Try to approach your class with the knowledge that students are coming from all walks of life, and try to find the right approach for everyone. Remember that sometimes what works for one student may not work for another, even though the end goal is the same.

What’s New at KDT

We are pleased to announce that we have acquired our own dance studio! Located in St. Louis Park, the studio will be used exclusively by KDT’s company and school. The move is a long time coming for us—we have been working toward opening our own studio for several years in order to increase our accessibility and independence as an organization. We are so excited to have a home base that’s all our own!

The studio officially opens on the first day of Katha Dance School’s spring session! This means that starting on March 10, all future KDT classes will take place at our new, single studio location.

Finding the studio: We are located at 5806 W. 36th Street, St. Louis Park, MN 55416. Follow the link for detailed directions.

Parking: A free parking lot is located in back of the building. There is also limited street parking available in front and to the side, although all dancers are encouraged to enter the building through the back entrance in order to avoid wearing street shoes on the dance floor. The entrance is clearly marked with the KDT logo.

Accessibility: A handicap accessible ramp is located at the back of the building, for ease of entrance.

Look below for images of the new space!

Saraswati Puja 2019

On February 10, 2019, KDT and the Hindu Society of Minnesota hosted their annual festival, Saraswati Puja and Basant Panchami! This traditional Indian spring festival honors Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, music and art, while ushering in the first day of spring with ritual and dance. The event brought the KDT community closer in a morning full of dancing, worship, and togetherness.

Katha Dance Theatre has held an annual celebration of Saraswati Puja and Basant Panchami since 1990, welcoming KDT students, parents, patrons and the community at large to participate. The event is deeply embedded within Indian culture, where it is celebrated throughout the country by both Hindus and Sikhs. Because the festival honors the goddess of knowledge, it is also commonly celebrated within Indian educational institutions. Participants in the festival are often draped in yellow garments, as the color is symbolic of the spring season.

Taking place at the Hindu Temple of Minnesota in Maple Grove, the event’s schedule included a religious ceremony, collaborative art-making, traditional Alpana floor painting, a celebration through dance and music, an array of authentic Indian food, and more. The event attracted members of the Asian Indian community, members of the local Hindu community, and beyond. The day’s schedule was as follows:

8:30 – 9:30 am:  Preparation for the ritual (organizing the space for flower and garland making, sandalwood paste, alpana or rangoli)

9:00 am: Worship ritual (Saraswati Puja) guided by temple priests

9:30 – 11:00 am:  Community performances

11:00 – 11:50 am:  Katha Dance Theatre showcase performance

12:00 – 12:30 pm:  Aarti & Pushpanjali – the offering of flowers and accepting the blessing

12:30 – 1:30 pm Prasad & lunch

Below are some photos from the event. Thank you to all who attended!

The Hungry Stones

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Hungry Stones Program Insert

On November 16-18, 2018, Katha Dance Theatre presented a new version of its award-winning dance-drama, The Hungry Stones, at The Cowles Center in Minneapolis. The Hungry Stones is based on Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Kshudhita Pashan, which was originally published in 1895. KDT reimagined its 1994 production with all new choreography and set design. Using Kathak, a traditional dance technique native to Northern India, KDT brought the ancient stones and colonial Indian palaces of Tagore’s story to life. The Hungry Stones reflects universal themes about how stones—and the land in general—act as witnesses to history.

The Hungry Stones tells the story of a tax collector who is sent to live and work in a small town. Despite advice to the contrary, he moves into a deserted palace that is believed to be haunted. Legend has it that only one man ever escaped the grip of the palace’s “hungry” stones, and he was driven to the brink of insanity. The tax collector soon finds that dilapidated rooms and courtyards, unassuming in daylight, begin to vibrate with the unfulfilled passions and dreams of the past as evening approaches. He eventually realizes that the palace stones have preserved lifetimes of ungratified desires. As his curiosity turns to obsession, escape appears impossible.

The Hungry Stones was designed by India-based Sandhya Raman (costumes) and Mike Grogan (lights). Choreographed and directed by master Kathak artist Rita Mustaphi, the production’s cast included some of the finest Kathak dancers in the country—Anurag Sharma, Mukta Sathe, Sarika Haris, Nivedita Sahni, Monica Singh, modern dancer Derek Phillips and Rita Mustaphi herself—as well as five KDT intern dancers.

About Kathak Dance

Kathak is an Indian classical dance tradition prevalent in Northern India. Its origins can be traced back to as early as 400 BCE. Nurtured in Hindu temples, it was disseminated by Kathakas, a community of storytellers who traveled the country using Kathak to share mythological stories and Hindu scripture. With the spread of Islam in 800 CE, Kathak was later influenced by the Muslim culture, growing more entertaining and less didactic in nature. The dance form has continued to grow and change over time, with KDT at the forefront of Kathak’s evolution. 

About Katha Dance Theatre

Katha Dance Theatre creates, performs and educates through the art forms of dance, music, poetry and storytelling. Rooted in Kathak, the classical dance style of Northern India, KDT is dedicated to making dance accessible, inclusive and relevant. It enhances the local community by bridging diverse cultures and audiences to contribute to life’s infinite artistic expressions.

The Hungry Stones • 1 hour, 15 min • Nov. 16-18 • The Cowles Center • Minneapolis • Tickets: $22-28 at thecowlescenter.org