Shovana Narayan is one of the best Kathak danseuses not just in India but in the world. Awarded with Padma Shri, she has mesmerised audiences all over the world by her art and grace. Apart from being a talented dancer, she has also served in the Indian Audits and Accounts Services. Manisha Singh of Zee Media Corp caught up with the multi-faceted personality to get a glimpse of her amazing and interesting journey. Following are the excerpts from the conversation.
You have been performing as a Kathak dancer for more than four decades. What has your journey as a successful and famous artiste been like?
I have been professionally on stage since 1970 i.e. for 45 years. As in all vocations, life throws up a lot of challenges. It depends on how we take it i.e. whether we adopt an easy short cut path or a long torturous but ethical path. I chose the latter. This also meant a lot of perspiration, dedication, sincerity towards what one is doing, going into the depths of things, dealing with all kinds of remarks and reactions – from the unkindest to the fulsome praise, et al.
A bit about your style. Am I right in saying that it represents a crystallization of Lucknow gharana and Jaipur School of dance?
I suppose one could say that because after my initiation into Kathak by the legendary Sadhona Bose at Calcutta when I was not-yet three, I learnt from Kundan Lalji (of Jaipur Gharana) at Bombay for four years. Then later at Delhi, I was training under Birju Maharj ji (of Lucknow gharana) for over 10-12 years. So even if there are more of Lucknow sensibilities within me, yet there is the awareness and knowledge of Jaipur Gharana bols and approach.
As for Kathak, all aspects of ‘karanas’, ‘bhangis’, ‘charis’ and ‘bhramaris’ (pirouettes) are utilised in this dance form. Kathak communicates my feelings and my thoughts. This beautiful dance form is akin to life itself. Where else would you find a dance form where one has the palette of widest of choices. All aspects of ‘karanas’, ‘bhangis’, ‘charis’ and ‘bhramaris’(pirouettes) are utilised in Kathak. Similarly in terms of tempo, Kathak is the only dance form that affords the opportunity of performing from the slowest of tempos (‘ati-vilambit laya’) to the fastest (‘ati-drut laya’) – something which is unique to this dance form alone. Again, it is this dance form alone that even celebrates the full potential of life, mirroring its nuances even in abstraction of ‘teyyari ang’of Kathak while of course its ‘abhinaya ang’ forms its core (as the name suggests – ‘katha’ ie story) where the emphasis is on depth and gravity. Where else would one find the opportunity of emoting one line or one phrase in all its hues of interpretations ranging from the direct, to the metaphorical, to the suggestive and to the philosophical but in Kathak alone!
You are also a choreographer and some of your eminent choreographies are the dance ballet 'Kadambari: The Poet’s Muse' and the enactments of lives of contemporary thinkers and sages like Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi, Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi and Ramkrishna Paramhansa). What excites you about choreography?
The spirit of social sensitivity ingrained into me since childhood led to the staging of various social themes either through new panoramic vistas of interpretations of Kathak’s traditional repertoire or through new choreographies. Women’s and social issues were evident through thought provoking creations such as ‘Avadhi ka Antim Din’, ‘Anuttar’, ‘Mamta’ - emotional hell that a mother and a girl child has to go through was portrayed in “Mujhe bhi to Jeene Do” - traumatic burning issue of incest at a traditional Kathak dance festival was displayed through ‘Toota yeh Vishwas Kyon’ - while my abiding concern for environment saw its translation in a dance ballet “Dishantar” way back in 1982 when the idea had not even germinated fully in the consciousness of the world and later in the eighties as “Dushasana Bas Karo” taking the symbolism of Draupadi cheer haran.
I worked on philosophical themes and on the lives of contemporary sages such as Vivekanand, Ramana Maharshi, Ramkrishna Paramhansa and Mahatma Gandhi, with philosopher, Prof. Ramchandra Gandhi (grandson of Mahatma Gandhi). Imagine doing a philosophical piece such as Ali Sardar Jafri’s ‘Mera Safar’ in early nineties and then on the subject of incest triggered by a real life incident (‘Toota Yeh Vishwas Kyon’) that focused entirely on the psychology of the victim and the mother in mid-nineties. Similarly, the detailed work on Kadambari was a subject that had never been attempted before on stage.
How has working in collaborations with nationally and internationally known Indian and western dancers and musicians been like?
Despite being a traditionalist, I do not believe that tradition ties down our feet. I have worked in close interaction with nationally and internationally known western dancers and musicians. These have resulted in what critics term as ‘path breaking works’ such as “Moonlight Impressionism” to music of Ravel, Beethoven, Mozart and Debussy and “The Dawn After” (with Christian Rovny, a Western classical ballet dancer and Dario Arboleda, a Spanish flamenco dancer), duets with an American tap dancer (Janet Goldberg) and with classical ballerine (Andrea Campianu), Schubert’s magnum “Winter Reise” to cello accompaniment by Yvonne Timoianu and piano artiste Alexander Preda in traditional Salzkammergut Festwochen and even within the national framework, works like the ‘Tridhara’, ‘Jago Maheswara’, ‘Khajuraho’ (with noted dancers of various Indian classical dance styles). All these have been successful in bringing out the flavour of all the various dance forms and blending them into one harmonious language.
You have trained under legendary Kathak maestros including Pandit Birju Maharaj. How much was their contribution in shaping who you are?
I was first initiated into Kathak by the legendary Sadhona Bose at Calcutta. Later I received training from Guru Kundanlal at Bombay. When my father was posted to Delhi, I received rigorous training from Guru Birju Maharaj. My years with Birju Maharaj taught me subtly the nuances and the associated aesthetics of each movement. He taught me the relationship between nodal points of the body and movements of dance. Even minute details of where the glance should be if performing on stages of various heights were issues that he carefully nurtured within each one of his students. Another factor that came out very subtly was the recognition that each one of us is born with different physiology as well as different nature and thus it was fascinating to see how each movement should be adjusted to suit the person’s physical characteristics so that the movement ‘sat naturally’ on the dancer.
My parents, while they were alive, and I cannot express in words our deep gratitude, for so beholden are we to him for all the pains that he took in seeing that I emerge as a 'dancer to reckon with' (in his words) without charging us a single penny.
An interesting aspect of your work has been your discovery of three Kathak villages near Gaya. How did that happen?
Even though I had spent a major part of my life in Kathak, I had not heard about the existence of Kathak villages till about a decade ago. It was a chance remark of a journalist after my performance at Gaya as to whether I had been to the Kathak village that set me off on the discovery trail. Looking for a needle in a haystack, I found not one but three Kathak villages, Kathak Bigha, Kathak Gram and Kathak Jagir, two of which I visited personally and met the locals, and recorded the last surviving Kathak living in the area.
I have often wondered as to why these villages, which exist in government records, have not been highlighted by either the traditional Kathak families or even by the erstwhile art scholars. The first is easy to comprehend for each gharana essays the beginning of the dance form to their gharana alone. However, the references to Kathak as a dance form (‘Dharak Kathak’ i.e. Brahmin priests who sermonised through enactment against the ‘Pathak Kathaks’ i.e. Brahmin priests who sermonised verbally only) finds continuous mention from 4th century BC Prakrit inscription onwards including in several sections of the haloed Mahabharata.
(This is first part of Zee Media Corp's interview with Kathak dancer Shovana Narayan.)