Delhi Talks: Artistes can't be forced to propagate one idea, suppression of free voices must end, says Kathak dancer Uma Sharma

Delhi-based Kathak dancer Uma Sharma says she is filled with regret to see the path India is treading, and how the political landscape has altered in the last five years

Kumkum Chadha May 09, 2019 17:29:30 IST
Delhi Talks: Artistes can't be forced to propagate one idea, suppression of free voices must end, says Kathak dancer Uma Sharma
  • Noted Kathak dancer Uma Sharma says her vision of India is the one of Rabindranath Tagore, 'where the mind is without fear and the head is held high'

  • Ruing over the altered political landscape in India, she says, it's time for India to stop and ponder where the country is headed

  • 'All political parties must keep national interest above everything else, and as Atal Behari Vajpayee once said, humanity should trump political power

Editor's Note:  This is the seventh in a 10-part series of interviews with well-known residents of Delhi on issues that they believe define the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Read other articles of the series here


Even though dancer Raja Reddy never shares the stage with anyone except his wife, Radha, he does make an exception for his longtime associate and colleague Uma Sharma. The two often dance together bringing alive two different dance forms Kuchipudi and Kathak, respectively. Of course, these are informal soirees because if both took to stage as a duo, it would easily be a rare performance. Both bring rhythm to life in their own unique ways so when friends get together informally, they expect Raja and Uma to dance and they often do that to Bollywood music.

On her part, Uma has done commendable work in reviving the poetry of Ghalib in addition to dedicating many of her performances to women, Stree being one such. Symbolising women, Stree grabbed the attention because of its powerful content, sufficiently enhanced by Uma's performance.

Delhi Talks Artistes cant be forced to propagate one idea suppression of free voices must end says Kathak dancer Uma Sharma

File image of Uma Sharma. Firstpost

Uma is a person of legacy: she believes in going back to her roots rather than moving on and getting lost in a world which is pursuing much of what she does not easily comprehend. Therefore, when she annually dedicates an evening to the festival of Holi, she does it with flowers — reviving its long fogotten aspect of phoolon ki Holi or floral Holi — the way it is played for one day in Bridavan during the week long festival.

Uma has also taken forward the school, Bharatiya Sangeet Sadan, which her father had founded way back in 1946 even as she revived the old classical dance form of Natwari Nritya or the raslila of Brindavan.

An exponent of Kathak, a dance form that propagates devotional poetry dedicated to Lord Krishna as also the court poetry of the 18th and 19th centuries celebrating love, Uma has attempted to connect dance to Ghalib. It was a chance visit to Ghalib’s crumbling haveli in the walled city of Delhi in the seventies that broke Uma’s heart. She then decided to start a movement to revive the legacy of the great Urdu poet and set up the Ghaib Memorial movement. Her efforts bore fruit and helped bring the haveli, initially a dilapidated and crumbling structure, to the centerstage. “Ghalib provokes me and I am among the few who has brought his poetry into Kathak and danced to his verse way back in the seventies,”she says.

However, Uma invokes poet laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore while attempting to recapture her vision of India. “The kind of India I want to live is the one described by Rabindranath Tagore, 'Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high'," she says.

But she rues the altered political landscape in the past few years. "Since Independence, I have lived in Tagore’s India, but sadly in the last five years it has altered. It has taken away our freedom and as an artiste. We don’t feel that free to express our views. There clearly is an attempt to suppress free voices and interfere with the freedom of intellectuals,”she says.

“Artistes cannot be pressurised into propagating one kind of ideas or a particular viewpoint. They cannot be told what to eat, which religion to follow or whom to marry. These are personal choices and do not call for any interference, particularly from the state. We must learn to differentiate between patriotism and nationalism," she says adding that nationalistic ideas are narrow whereas patriotic ideas are broad and macro and inbuilt in India’s Constitution.

“Looking at the bigger picture, I regret to see the path we as a country are treading. We are headed in a direction where minorities do not have a role either in building the nation or in their personal lives. They live under a constant fear of vigilantism. This is contrary to Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of India. It is, therefore, time to stop and ponder: where are we headed? What needs to change and where have we erred?” she asks

Stressing on the diversity of the country, the Kathak dancer says, "I want my India to be diverse but not one where there are disparities. I would not like to make the rich poor, but I would like to make the poor rich. The government should give incentives to the rich to contribute for the welfare of the underprivileged, design schemes to help the poor and do their bit in contributing to the society. In turn, the governments should encourage and honour philanthropists”.

Hunger, education and women safety are Uma’s prime concerns. “Hunger is another issue we need to address. We are developing fast, but we are developing on an empty stomach. The farmers are distressed and suicides have become very common. Lal Bahadur Shastri’s kisan is a non-entity and has lost his place of pride. The farmers need facilities and it is the duty of every government to provide them. The farmers need loans and they should be made available on easy terms and conditions; the screws on the middlemen should be tightened and governments should ensure that the minimum support price that the farmers get should go directly to his bank account.

“The standard of education should be comparable to the West. Our doctors, engineers and scientists who excel in their profession should be given incentives to stay back and help in nation building. The standard of education should be such that instead of our students going abroad for higher studies, students of other countries should come to India. At present, even in our schools, the standard of education is extremely poor. The teachers are not qualified enough to give even elementary school training. Some schools do not have teachers of good quality and even those who are there are absent most of the time. Good quality teachers are hard to come by. Their pay scales are abysmally poor and as a result  good teachers don't want to join the profession. Unless we respect our academicians and pay them adequately, our education system will not improve. A complete overhaul of the education policy is much needed and research facilities in universities need to be upgraded. I often hear students complaining of inadequate facilities in India.

“Being a woman, I feel safety of women should be top priority of every government. As of now there is only lip-service. Rapists and child molesters should be punished and I would go as far as supporting a death sentence too.

“A step in the direction of women welfare is too make reservation for women in the Parliament a reality. This would see a spurt in laws for women. And why the Parliament alone? Women should be given reservation in other sectors too. They have excelled wherever they are in the forefront," adds Uma.

She sees the government as not responsive to the needs of the artistes. “Support is also required for artistes and governments should take it upon themselves to keep our culture and traditions alive. Art and culture are bedrock of any civilisation, particularly for our country which has its cultural roots going back to 5,000 years, and it is incumbent both on the people and governments to push this forward rather than treat it as a step child. Eminent artistes should be given facilities like subsidies travel grant, medical facilities and old age pension schemes. The institutions which are imparting music and dance training should be given salary grant and production grant so that the institutions run smoothly and efficiently. This to my mind is very important," she says.

Uma also wants political parties maintain dignity during their discourses. “My greatest regret is to see the level political parties have stooped to. Instead of working harmoniously and setting examples of good behaviour, they are busy tarnishing others — being abusive and indulging in mud-slinging. Worse still, they are communalising the society and its people. Time has come to put an end to vote bank politics or garnering votes in the name of religion. The mandir-masjid cacophony must end and stakeholders must come to the table now. On their part, all political parties must keep national interest above everything else. To quote Atal Behari Vajpayee, it should be 'Insaniyat jamoriyat se upar. (Humanity above political power),” she says.

In present scenario, she sees the BJP come a cropper. "The BJP has tried to fulfil its promises, but has failed to come up to people’s expectation in some aspects. The most glaring blunder seems to be demonetisation. It did not achieve the desired result. Similarly, a good decision was taken regarding GST, but it was mired in controversy due to faulty implementation. These are two main aspects where the government failed to meet the aspiration of people.

“The ruling BJP is a populist party and its agenda is to woo the middle class, and also encourage lumpen elements from the Hindutva acolytes. They are allergic to artistes, intellectuals and scientists who stand on the side of the freedom be it in thought or expression.

“But there are positives and one cannot undermine the government’s efforts in bringing electricity in villages, construction of highways and toilets, the Mudra Yojna for the needy people, health insurance scheme for the poor, crop insurance and financial aid to farmers. But its greatest failure is that it has not been able to instil confidence among the minorities.

But this does not mean that the Opposition has done its bit, she says, adding, "The role of the Opposition has been abysmally poor. Instead of offering constructive suggestions they have constantly opposed the government and its policies for the sake of opposing and their one point programme seems to be to malign the prime minister and oust him at any cost. This is negative and does irreparable harm to the country as a whole and pushes back the efforts of any government."

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