Ketaki Hazra in a file picture surrounded by her students Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Rich tributes have been paid to one of Dubai’s most-loved Indian dance teachers who taught the classical dance form Kathak to hundreds of students for 40 years, despite being confined to a wheelchair for many years.

Ketaki Hazra, a household name in the old neighbourhoods of Karama and Bur Dubai, passed away at Rashid Hospital in Dubai on Wednesday. She was 76 and is survived by two sons and their families.

Having been honoured with the title of ‘NrityaShri’ as a youngster proficient in many dance forms, Hazra started imparting dance lessons in 1983-84 as a non-commercial venture. Hailing from eastern Indian state of West Bengal, she came to Dubai as a young bride with her husband and utilised her training in the Jaipur Gharana of Kathak, as a disciple of Guru Jai Kumari Devi and Guru Bela Arnab.

However, an accident in 1996 in which she fell and injured her spinal cord took away her ability to dance. An osteoarthritic patient, Hazra had suffered a second fall in 2014. Despite her physical challenges reducing her mobility, which increasingly had affected her in the last decade, her love for dance and her desire to ensure that the new generation stays connected culturally never waned.

Using hand gestures and foot taps, she taught the nuances of Kathak dance steps to students - from young girls to professionals and homemakers in their 40s and 50s and some male students as well.

Archive image of Ketaki Hazra Image Credit: Supplied

Hazra’s students recollected their guru taking personal interest in each of her students, guiding them through hiccups of expat lives, often getting to know them as little children, who then continued to return to her to relearn dance and polish ideas even as they went to university and became professionals.

Her students today are spread across the world, from Berlin to New York, and India. Over the decades, even battling illness which restricted her movements, Hazra never stopped teaching or showcasing Kathak, works of Rabindranath Tagore and various social issues at multiple venues including the Zayed University and the Indian Consulate in Dubai.

Her concerts were non-commercial, with a passion to showcase classical performing art forms, and gems of Indian music, while referencing newer influences.

Students recounted that Hazra would always be backstage, commanding the show flow, planned in meticulous detail, down to checking if the auditorium had a ramp for access by the production team.

From her chair, she presided over rehearsals that would continue all days of the week. She would direct the makeup artists, plan costumes, approving each aspect. Some referred to her home as a “little microcosm of dance, an entire world in itself”.

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More than movement

Samriddhi Bhatia, 19, a university student, said: “Our guru’s dance class has been my second home. I started learning Kathak from her at the age of eight. I learnt much more than just movement in the class. We looked forward to every class as she had an incomparable wealth of knowledge and there would always be something new to learn and understand.”

Namrata Kotwani, a visual merchandiser, who started learning dance at three years of age in 1998, fondly remembers Hazra as her teacher, confidante, friend, philosopher, and guide.

“She has shaped the lives of many young girls such as myself, not just by teaching Kathak, but also by teaching key life lessons. Once in a lifetime do people get to meet an amazing teacher like Mrs Hazra, who will continue to be part of our lives as we will always cherish not just the memories but also the bond we shared with her along the journey,” she said.

Farah Shams, a chemical engineer and MBA, dancing since 1994, when she was three, said the dance that she learned from Hazra had “added extra stability in my life—to be able to effectively manage work, family, home along with doing something I love the most. I will miss her so much”.

Keeping legacy, imparting values

Neena Kataky, a former educator based in Dubai, who has had a decades-long association with Hazra said: “Even when she couldn’t move her body, her hands, her eyes, her facial expressions emanated the pure joy and beauty of dance, music and poetry. She kept alive the rich legacy of Tagore and Nazrul Islam and of Kathak and this passion was passed on to all around her.”

Akshita Maiti, 19, studying Product Design at Parsons School of Design in New York, said: “Words cannot explain what Ma’am meant to me but in short, Ma’am was my Guruma. I have been her student since the age of four and in this time, she not only taught me Kathak but taught me so much more than that. Her morals and the values that she has imparted are something that will remain with me, and all her students, for a lifetime. I will fondly remember her liveliness, passion, and drive that she had toward dance, and will continue to embrace that spirit toward Kathak. I feel extremely fortunate to be a part of her legacy.”

Shalini Seth, 51, a former journalist and founder of White Paper Media Consulting, a Dubai-based knowledge company, said she learnt Kathak from Hazra for five to six years starting 2013 and then continued to volunteer at shows.

“I was drawn to her because she carried a whole world of Indian culture within her. She was my Guru and a dear friend and guide, whom we turned to in happy times and in sad. She was always there. She would guide us in matters of life, with really fresh, updated points of view on everything from marriage to adoption and starting a business,” she added.

“She not only taught Kathak, but we also learnt how to deal with adversity by her example. She never let any pain diminish who she was.

“She continued to teach online during COVID and even when she was ill. Her ear was so sharp that if you took a step wrong in the other room, she would know from the sound of the ghungroo.”

Pillar of community group

For Priyanka Dutta, 42, who works as a procurement specialist in Berlin, Hazra was more than just her aunt and teacher. She recollected Hazra being the pillar of a tight-knit group of Bengali families with whom she spent her childhood in the 80s in Dubai.

“When aunty started her dance class in 1983, I was among the first to join. She had so much patience with us and with all the generations of dancers who followed. She had an incredible passion for the arts and an enormous vocabulary of dance, drawing inspiration from the length and breadth of India and abroad. She was an endless well of creativity, producing innovative and memorable works. She will remain alive in all of our hearts.”

Megha Bimal Gandhi, 40, whose daughter Jiya started learning dance from Hazra when she was 6, said: “She was a guru for us all... even for students’ parents, she was like a mother. The way she taught was like in the guru-shishya tradition. Jiya may continue to learn Kathak but she will certainly miss her Guru and the lessons that she imparted with so much love and care. We spoke when ma’am was in the hospital just two days ago. Even from the ICU, she was talking about doing a show, looking forward to getting better. We were discussing how the exams will go through as Jiya is working on her fourth-year exams.”