World-renowned Kathak dancer Shovana Narayan has won countless awards and honours, including the Padma Shri, and has over the years gained recognition as a global brand ambassador of Kathak. She speaks to Rishita Roy Chowdhury about how she discovered this classical dance form and why she chose to stay committed to it.
Q. You are one of the most celebrated Kathak gurus in India with decades’ worth of experience in this field. Do you remember when you started dancing?
A. I started when I was barely three years old. The reason was that every child has a lot of energy and I would keep asking my parents about what was I to do next. One day my mom literally said “just dance”. She was very interested in classical music, dance and literature. We lived in Calcutta. She took me to a famous dancer and actress of that time, Sadhana Bose. After our dance classes would end, other kids would run away. But I would stand there wanting to learn more. Unconsciously, I had found my niche. I was like a fish taken to the water. I had found my life, my breath. That was how I was initiated into dance. I have a vague recollection of those days. Then, when my father was transferred to Bombay, I went to Guru Kundan Lal Sisodia. After he was transferred to Delhi, I got to learn under the tutelage of Guru Birju Maharaj from 1964 to 1976. Then I joined the civil services and had to go for my training.
Q. How challenging was it for you to balance work with your passion for dance?
A. It wasn’t difficult as I always loved to study. I grew up like that. I used to excel in class. As far as I can remember, I have always been balancing the two all through my life. I was performing all over as a child artiste. When I got into college, I did my BSc, MSc and PhD, all the while performing Kathak on the side. I always had an inclination towards studies, but my heart and soul was dance. These two have always been parallel things for me. I have always had that dual life. So balancing my art and job was not a problem.
Q. Do you think classical dance forms, such as Kathak, are losing their relevance in our time?
A. I feel they are very relevant in any age. When we look at classical dancers, it is not about earning instant fame, money or recognition for them. Classical artistes have a certain sense of contentment within them. It’s a different life. There’s an inner sense of peace. It does something to the soul. We do it for inner balance and harmony. Even amid the turbulent surroundings of the world we live in, a classical artiste is at peace. In other popular art forms, you get things instantly. So it brings certain disturbance and one is not at peace with oneself. Therefore, classical forms are very important and relevant.
This is why they are important for youngsters as well. I feel there are many young people taking up the classical arts. Parents can push them for 2-4 days, maybe 10 days… But not years. Yet there are kids who keep at it. They say that they like it and feel relaxed. They are often unable to explain the feeling they get out of dancing. But they find an inner happiness and joy in it. They go on to become artistes. There are of course youngsters who are swayed by the “instant” part of becoming an artist, but they also go off the scene instantly.
Q. You are credited for garnering mass appeal for Kathak in India and internationally. How does it feel to be viewed as a brand ambassador of Kathak?
A. It’s been a wonderful experience. Whenever you are performing for different kinds of audiences, within the country and outside, it’s beautiful. Especially at international platforms, people who are not familiar with our culture get to know about India through Kathak performances. They get to know our symbolisms, legends and myths. For them it’s something very different and new. They come because they are interested. They have a thirst for knowledge. Even in India, people find the depth and meaning of our stories through dance. They are able to enjoyrasa. I think a great part of our population has not yet been exposed to classical art. But when I am performing, the audiences are absolutely glued to the dance.
For me, it has been wonderful journey, to be able to share my art with audiences at home or abroad.
Q. You have collaborated with many Western classical dancers. Have you noticed any similarities between their dance forms and traditional Indian dances?
A. There are lots of similarities. In these kinds of collaborations, from both sides, we become open-minded and we learn so much about the different art forms. Then we suddenly discover there are so many similarities. Points of differences are of course there and one is aware of them before collaborating. For example, Western classical ballet is very anti-gravity. On the other hand, we are bound to the ground in Kathak. Movements are same at times, but the treatment and ethos differ. And surely the associated music varies greatly, which brings differences. But I would say there are subtle similarities, yet different flavours.
Q. Tell us about your upcoming performance, based on the works of women poets from the Bhakti movement, to be held at the Eternal Quest event in Delhi later this month.
A. It’s been great fun. I am going to perform Kathak. Then, Ranjana Gauhar and Rashmi Vaidialingam will perform Odissi and Kuchipudi dances respectively. When the idea came up, we all wanted to do it. Alka Raghuvanshi, thesutradhar who will link our pieces, is a great friend. We all agreed we had to do it on women’s issues. So I will be performing on two poets—Lal Ded from Kashmir and Gangasati from Gujarat. I had to revisit their lives, journeys and experiences. Finally I found that they were talking about similar things. It’s about overcoming the trials in life by removing the ego within. You finally achieve happiness through a merger with the divine. It is very symbolic to what women go through everywhere. I love to perform dances that depict women’s issues. People try to crush your spirit, but keep moving forward.
Narayan is performing at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, on 27 January