A tête-à-tête With Kathak Virtuoso Shovana Narayan
"Vidushi Shovana Narayan is the epitome of elegance and purity in Kathak Dance, who has commanded many collaborative works nationally and internationally."
~Strings N Steps
Q.Can you put into words your own Personality and Persona?
I think that is rather difficult for me. What can I say about myself. I just see myself as a plodder, a workaholic, driven by passion for dance, Kathak, and thirst for knowledge along with its dissemination. In this endeavour, I am committed to going into the depths of whatever I take up and do while keeping intact the values that had been ingrained into me of honesty, dedication, hard work, determination and ethical behaviour. Thanks to my parents, what was ingrained was to always be original (in an ethical and modest way) and not to be swept off by mere brand culture, which has become part of my being.
Q.You are one of the leading Kathak exponents now. Did you program things this way?
One cannot programme life. In fact one’s own interest and passion, the efforts one puts into it, the determination, dedication, immense hard work, honesty of approach and ethical means/ paths adopted, depth of knowledge etc are contributing factors to what makes one or breaks one. As for me, the moment I was introduced to Kathak when I was not even three years old, I new that I had found my life and breath. In Kathak, I found that it represented life fully. Pre-scripts are there but it was what you made with yourself in life and so it was with Kathak. And the canvas of Kathak is infinite.
In fact, it was my parents’ interest (even though they were not traditionally from a family of musicians and dancers) that saw me being initiated into dance at that early age and also in an era when music and dance was not looked upon well by society at all. But it was my interest that saw them also providing the support to see it being nurtured so much so that my parents maintained two households with my mother staying behind to ensure un-interrupted training in classical dance and music and of my studies (where I too was excelling). Frequent transfers were part of my father’s distinguished civil service career. My parents were always clear that not only scholastic excellence in academics but also sound training in classical dance and music and a good grounding in Indian philosophy and literature would go a long way in building up a balanced human being. Aware that even at that time, there was pressures and pulls of ‘globalisation’, of peer pressures, but their training ensured that we kept our individuality and reasoning intact, without being blown off by any small gust of wind. For them, being a good human being was as important (if not more) as excelling in whatever one takes up as a profession.
Q.There are many changes occurring in India. Yes, indeed. Parampara, in Sanskrit, means tradition, which undergoes uninterrupted changes. In this context, what do you think - where does Indian Classical dance stand?
The term ‘parampara’ is made of two words ‘param’ (supreme) and ‘para’(final beatitude).Therefore knowledge was handed down through practices, formal and informal, both equally important. In this process, imperceptible change was always present and latent for change is the only constant as is even acknowledged in all our shastras. Traditionally, even in the guru-shishya context, our ‘shastras’ do enjoin reasoning (‘uha’), discussions (‘uha-poha’), questioning and cross-questioning (‘prasnim’ and ‘abhi – prasnim’), something that we seem to have lost sight of. Hence such a relationship between guru and shishya does indicate that even within ‘parampara’, changes of thoughts and of execution, come about. Changes also come about because of external factors namely environment related to patronage etc. Even within our own Classical Performing Arts, the entire first and second quarters of the twentieth centuries were revolutionary in re-defining various classical dance forms into what we recognise them today under ‘parampara’. For example, when ‘dasi attam’(better known by its new name Bharatanatyam) performed in the Muslim Courts of Southern India (Hyderabad and Mysore), the repertoire consisted of ‘salamatoru’. This ‘paramapara’ of ‘salamatoru’was dispensed with in the later wave of change of thought that came about in the mid of twentieth century that led to several changes and the emergence of a newly structured dance form. Similarly, today every genre of Classical Music boasts of ‘x’ number of ragas and raginis. Obviously, all of them evolved from the innovativeness of classical artistes over a period of time and which having passed the test of time, have become part of tradition and ‘parampara’ of that particular ‘gharana’.
But within this ‘parampara ‘, what remains constant is the spirit of that particular stream.
Q. How would you describe your dance? Is it different from so many dance styles that have emerged from Natyashastra or does your style bear any innovation?
To begin with, we have to understand what Natyashastra is all about. It is a treatise that enlists codification of all possible genres of movements, be it in the field of life, of dance, music, theatre, instruments, folk and classical etc. Nowhere in the Natyashastra has any classical dance form been named at all. This is something that is not understood and therefore several mis-information and dis-information seems to be the order of the day.
Since it is codification, obviously it drew upon observations and therefore the corollary follows that anything we do, can be traced to it. Even a toddler utilises gestures (mudras) to indicate , utilises ‘rasas’(expressions) to express himself or herself as does a ‘paan-seller’ who uses mudras and various incantations of his vocal chords in his normal everyday business. Alll of the movements used by the toddler or the ‘paan seller’can be traced to the Natyashastra.
And as for changes in my dance, let me put before you. The first actual inscriptional reference to the term “Kathak”used in the context of dance, comes in a 4th century BC Prakrit inscription. Herein it is depicted as a graceful devotional dance (…… savvo kathaka bhingara natenam stuti teese kayam …..). Similarly, the 3 verses in the Mahabharata epic (Adiparva, Anusasnparva and the Sabhaparva) indicating the presence of Kathaks are also indicative of ‘abhinayatmak kathavachan’. Therefore it would have utilised mudras, body movements and postures and expressions in its renderings, all of which are mirrored in the later day Natyashastra (for the Prakrit inscription is well over 200 years before the Natyashastra came into being).
No one lives in a vacuum, nor does any dance form. Everything and everyone is constantly evolving. It also has to be understood that classical dance is not and has never been fossilised and therefore such a study would highlight the dynamism of the dance forms that have been able to continuously evolve and withstand adverse circumstances for thousands of years. With growth of technology, subtle changes in presentations can be discerned and which is so natural to the spirit of evolution. Compare the ‘diya’ lights or filtered natural lights of over 2500 years ago with the array of stage lights available today and which of-course would tend to influence presentations. But in all these evolutionary aspects, the one constant is the ‘spirit’ and ‘ethos’ of Kathak and relevance of all codifications of the Natyashastra.
Q.Will you throw light on your Guru's method of teaching? Is it different from yours? If yes-How? If no-why?
The spirit and teaching methodology remains the same. What is different is the understanding of today’s youngsters that are so highly exposed to various cultures, who have their own thought processes and expectations with many who actually bring to light the spirit ofreasoning (‘uha’), discussions (‘uha-poha’), questioning and cross-questioning (‘prasnim’ and ‘abhi – prasnim’), as laid out in our ancient texts in the context of guru-shishya relationship.
I am a staunch believer in the guru-shishya parampara, but am of the view that in this tradition of teaching of essentials of dance, of spiritual relationship and mentoring, the Guru takes on the responsibility of the development and progress of the disciple in all ways so that the disciple grows into a well-balanced and contributing member of society. Besides learning all aspects of technical nuances of the dance form, the intangible thread of the guru-shishya relationship helps the disciple to learn to appreciate the essence of Kathak, much beyond the technical aspects of the dance form, to unconsciously imbibe the ethos and spirit of dance as well as soak the thought process of the guru. It is an osmosis process that allows soaking up of ‘dance’ in the veins of a person.
Q. Do you think that there are separate methods or techniques in dance for man and woman?
There are no separate methodology of teaching for a man or a woman. But what is important is for the Guru to recognise the different body structures of each student, whether male or female, and teach the movements in such a manner that it brings out the beauty of that movement suited to the body structure of the performer. Similarly, in terms of ‘abhinaya’, once again the Guru has to recognise the hallmark and characteristics of each student for each one has his or her own unique identity and flavour.
Q. Does your heart still miss a beat before concerts after so many years of experience?
Of course it does. Even after being on stage professionally for close to 50 years, yet the heart misses a beat before every performance, however small or big it may be. One never knows the will of the Almighty!
Q. How do you rate your success?
The term success is so ephemeral. What may mean success to one may not be so for another. Life means learning to overcome obstacles of all kinds that everyone has to face in several ways. Success to me means whether I was able to overcome the hurdle well, honestly, sincerely, ethically, working dedicatedly with depth, without losing my praxis.
Q. There is a popular opinion that the Younger generation isn't much interested in classical dance forms. Do you agree? How would you justify your opinion?
How can you blame the youngsters when they are not nurtured at home with knowledge or awareness about our rich classical heritage and where the emphasis (in most cases) is to measure success in commercial terms! Some of such persons later go on to heading institutions where they would be policy makers, or implementers or opinion makers!
If you see homes where there was an atmosphere of awareness of classical arts, largely the balance tilts largely in favour of emergence of balanced and reasoning individuals who have a strong base in their cultural classical heritage and yet are citizens of the world.
Involved in material pursuits, inner peace is lost. Therefore it is natural to find several talking of ‘stress’. Also we all have to leave the world one day leaving behind material possessions. In the march of development and rat race towards materialism, the introspection should be on whether we are moving away from the path of being a healthy nation that is actually devoid of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. If so, then efforts have to be directed to arrest this decline. In this character building effort towards civic virtue impacting public and social life with policy implications, the responsibility of both the government and society come to the fore. What I see in this rush towards materialism is that we are losing sight of what ‘freedom of expression’ actually meams. The intangible lesson that was learnt by e in my growing years was that freedom of expression carries with it certain rules of behaviour and self-discipline, and that dignity to others and to one self should not be lost sight of in whatever we said or did; that there was the invisible boundary that one should not cross.
In this respect too, I find that being in the world of Classical performing Arts, this innate respect for each other ie aesthetics in behaviour and in language, come automatically. This humaneness and sensitivity are lessons that classical performing arts leave one within quite a large measure. The field of classical performing arts, like all other vocations, demands dedication, sincerity, hard work and the necessity to go deep into it (and not just skim at the surface). It is then, recognition and other material gains can come any one’s way in any chosen profession. However, classical performing arts also gives the additional benefit of a sense of inner harmony while being a ‘global’ person without losing one’s anchor and praxis.
I strongly feel that as we teach geography and maths in various stages, learner’s stage in primary classes to a little more detailed in middle school, so should it be with study of appreciation of Indian classical performing arts and Indian literature as main school curriculum. We are taught history but now we have to add teaching of classical art history to a judiciously thought out, balanced curriculum. This could include the state of performing arts through various stages of history, the rise of regional styles, the influence of philosophical streams on dance, the impact of socio-political movements on dance, great artistes and their works, etc. Hence, with this schooling of mind to art appreciation, at least the key would have unlocked the first door among a series of doors of the closed mind and provide the subtle base of understanding among future citizens that ultimately would find reflection in various vocations.
Q. Can you share your most memorable onstage moment?
Oh there are so many that it is difficult to count! The trauma before my first stage appearance at the age of three and half; the lessons learnt about how to hold an audience’s attention without compromising with classicality and ‘paramapara’ of the art form in the early seventies at my first solo performance WITHOUT my guru conducting it and with an unknown tabla player; the standing ovation at Moscow in 1982 after my performance before Brezhnev and our late PM Mrs Gandhi; the standing ovations in various Festivals of India abroad, USSR, Finland, Italy etc; the ‘farmaish’ from a simple village woman at the Chitrakoot Festival among several others!
Q.What is your favourite Idea of Holidaying? Do you think it is necessary to have leisure-voids while working?
My favourite idea of leisure is when I am with my family and my books and my dance. It is a congenial home environment that can make even an ordinary work day into a most beautiful moment. Since my husband and son have always had a long distance marriage and long distance family life, for each one of us, to be together is absolutely wonderful and great.
Q.If you were given the chance to live again, how would you want it to be?
No change at all! I would like to be what I am today. I must have been a classical dancer in my past lives, I am a classical dancer in this life and will be a classical dancer in all lives to come!
Shovana Narayan is a classic example of a true Kathak in this modern era, hence, the role model for millions of girls of the younger generation of today. She is a multi-dimensional, prosperous and dynamic embodiment of dance. She personifies Kathak to its highest level as she has touched every sphere of life through this form of dance. Not only she did perform Kathak traditionally and aesthetically but she took this art form to the different corners of the globe.
Besides her astonishing achievements through a number of pioneering works in the field of dance, she is the first professional dancer who successfully pursued a parallel full-fledged career in the Indian Audit & Accounts Service, entering it through an extremely competitive civil service examination in 1976. In addition, she is highly qualified for she is yet again the first professional dancer who holds degrees of Masters in Physics, two MPhils and a D.Litt (HC). This Padmashree Awardee artist has established her school of dance ‘Asavari’ in the year 1979.