The morning air was still a little crisp from the previous night’s drizzle. Yet beads of sweat lined Sun Chi’s forehead as she rehearsed her thaat, a stylized pose that sets the rhythm before she performed the Kathak, a classic Indian dance, inside a little room in Guwahati.

A dancer originally from China, who settled in Hong Kong, she has been actively pursuing her “true calling” for the last four years.

Sun Chi said she had realized how dance, like most art, transcends borders and initiates dialogue across cultures. At a time when Sino-India relations are strained over border disputes, and people have started to boycott Chinese goods, Chi, and many others like her, have crossed political and cultural barriers separating the two nations. She is now a professional dancer and regularly shuffles between India and her home city.

“I was awestruck with everything about Indian culture,” said Chi. Born into a Buddhist family, her connection with India goes back a long way. She first visited the country a little more than a decade ago to master Sahaja Yoga, a meditation method introduced by Nirmala Srivastava, known widely as Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi. Enamored with India, she found herself traveling across its length and breadth to understand the rich spiritual roots and exquisite dance forms.

“Sahaja Yoga meditation tries to ignite the subtle spiritual energy within us. I wanted to feel the energy centers in my body and have found myself deeply healed over the years. My family has been very supportive in all my ventures,” she said.

Sun Chi with her meditation group on the banks of river Ganga during one of her regular meditation outings
Sun Chi with her meditation group on the banks of River Ganga. Photo: Provided

It was during one of her exploratory journeys that Chi stumbled across Kathak and was immediately drawn towards its rhythmic hand and foot movements, harmonized to the sounds of the ghungroo (an anklet with metallic bells worn by dancers).

“It was tough to find a teacher in Hong Kong, as people relate more to western dance forms. There is a little curiosity about Kuchipudi [an Indian classical dance form] there, but that’s about it,” Chi said.

Online hunt led her to Assam

She decided to watch Kathak videos online and came across the mesmerizing mother-daughter duo from Assam – Marami Medhi and her daughter Meghranjani Medhi. Megharanjani is also a popular actress in the tea state and an international Kathak performer.

“I was awestruck by their flawless footwork and graceful hand movements. I knew I had to learn it,” Chi said.

She got in touch with the Medhis in 2014 and was set to put her best foot forward. “The postures, timing and elegance of Kathak are enthralling. I also realized early on that all Indian classical dance forms are a reverence to the divinity. One who practices them attains bliss by immersing themselves into its practice. Kathak is like meditation where your body is tuned to the dance’s rhythm. You lose yourself in its movements and tend to know yourself better,” she said.

Sun Chi with her Kathak guru Marami Medhi
Sun Chi with her Kathak guru Marami Medhi. Photo: Supplied.

“Dancers must be the smartest and most intelligent people in the world. It involves using all your senses in congruence. The brain tracks music beats while our muscles effortlessly produce a series of memorized steps and our senses convey the subtle intentions and feelings of the dance form,” Marami said.

Chi’s journey is a testimony to her sheer love for Kathak, its grace and the mysticism that it beholds. “Kathak today has a lot of learners globally. More and more women, irrespective of their age, are coming forward to learn it,” the dancer said. Chi, today, also plays the harmonium.

Dedicated to learning Indian forms

Chi’s curiosity has also taken her to various holy places across India. She fondly remembers the pujas and haldi [Turmeric] celebrations at Ganapatipule beach in Maharashtra. “I have visited temples in Nashik [north of Mumbai] and was very touched when I heard the Ganesh vandana [an invocation to the Hindu god Ganesh]. There is hardly anything that I dislike about this country. But I wish Indians took more care of their rivers, especially the revered Ganga. I have many friends in India now and want to keep coming here. My dream is to master Kathak and spread its beauty across China and Hong Kong,” Chi said. She also shared her love for Bollywood dancing style and said she wishes to learn “its vibrant and charming movements.”

Megharanjini, who conducted Kathak workshops in China last year when the Doklam standoff had soured ties between the two nations, said: “I never felt like an outsider there. Everyone made sure that I was completely at home.”

She was part of the WBF-Jingya International Dance Festival in China’s Ningbo city as a guest trainer conducting Kathak lessons. “The festival is organized by a Chinese woman named Jingya Sun, who is one of the country’s biggest organizers. She also manages China’s annual belly dance festival. Jingya also has an Indian name – Meenakshi.”

Megharanjini added: “As a dance form, Kathak needs a lot of precision and patience. But all my efforts to teach Chinese nationals seem worthwhile when I see their dedication and passion. Indian dance costumes and the salwar kameez [traditional dresses] are very popular among them. They are also fascinated by our bindis [the colored spot on the forehead].”

Wang, one of Megharanjini’s students at the China workshop, said: “I love Kathak and have never seen a more graceful dance form. I would want to practice it for the rest of my life.”

The internationally-acclaimed mother-daughter duo are on a mission to popularize Kathak and build cultural ties with nations such as China. As Megharanjini explained: “Most Chinese dancers learn Kathak with all their energy. Coaching people like Sun Chi has been a marvellous experience for both my mother and me. She seems to have realized the true essence of dancing and the fact that art transcends borders.”