Dancing to a different beat: Shovana Narayan on Kathak, and preserving heritage

By Deepa Gupta

A disciple of Pt Birju Maharaj, Shovana Narayan, has taken the classical dance form of Kathak to unprecedented heights across the world. Her international collaborative performances, the research and documentation of Kathak history, books on the dance form, and several choreographies and classical dance fests, have all added to the vast repertoire of her already glittering career in dance. A Padma Shri with several other prestigious awards to her credit, her performances are mesmerizing and magical. And on stage, lost in the mystique of abhinaya and nritya, Shovana becomes an epitome of ageless beauty and elegance.

Of late, the renowned danseuse has been busy with another project — that of highlighting the "Kathak Villages" in India. The documentation and research involved in this takes up much of her time.

Dancing to a different beat: Shovana Narayan on Kathak, and preserving heritage

Shovana Narayan. Image courtesy Facebook

She took some time off from her busy schedule to talk about this exciting project, the Kathak that is her life and passion, and her work with the Climate Reality Project India.

Soliloquy, opera, films — you've used each of these in Kathak. One medium you have not experimented with yet but would like to in future?

It all depends on the kind of opportunities that come my way and appeal to my heart and senses. Nothing is consciously planned. Kathak is my life and very much a part of me. I let it flow with whatever touches my soul. And so when opportunities presented themselves and they appealed to my heart, I opted for opera in early 1970s with Aziz Qureshi. Similarly, when I was asked by the famous Thumri singer Naina Devi to perform on Sufi philosophy enunciated in Omar Khayyam on a script by my first Guru Sadhana Bose in 1973 as a memorial function to her, I did it. This was followed by Rumi’s verses in a first ever parallel of Sufism and Vaishnavism in 1979. When I heard the beautiful western classical music pieces of Otto Faerber and of Debussy, Ravel etc, I performed them on stage as far back as 1980. With Prof Ramachandra Gandhi, the genre of dance enactments in English started as did the soliloquy when Arun Kuckreja approached me in 1995. It was similar with films too.

Do you think Kathak has been used judiciously in Hindi films? 

Unfortunately due to inadequate knowledge about who the actual Kathak performers were, the representation of Kathak has been quite off the mark. One has only to delve into documentations of foreign travellers and one would know that the original Kathak performers were Brahmin priests who performed in and around temples and to whom some of the singing girls came to learn dance movements and embellish their art.

You've made dance a veritable medium to relate with women, children, environment and other such issues. What other social issues would you like to address through dance?

I can only say that I have always been instinctive and spontaneous. I love the entire vast canvas that Kathak affords, namely that of rhythmic abstraction at its height as also the infinite vastness of the abhinaya canvas. Simultaneously, I also believe that none of us lives in a vacuum. We are affected by our surrounding environment as much as we ourselves also affect our own surrounding environment. Therefore, any issue that I feel strongly about shall find expression through dance.

What exactly are the "Kathak Villages" in Gaya, Bihar, all about? In what way are you associated with these? 

Even though I have 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. Then while working on the Census of India, I found five more Kathak Villages. All this was exciting and I set off on another discovery trail digging into old archives and government records from colonial period onwards besides speaking with villagers for recording oral history regarding all evidences of five more Kathak Villages in eastern UP and Western Bihar.

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’ ie Brahmin priests who sermonised through enactment against the ‘Pathak Kathaks’ ie Brahmin priests who sermonised verbally only) find continuous mention from 4th century BC Prakrit inscription onwards including in several sections of the haloed Mahabharata.

So for me it has been and is the documentation and archiving of an important aspect of Kathak history and heritage, which is fast disappearing from human memory too.

You are also part of Al Gore's The Climate Reality Project India. What sort of work here takes up your time?

With the kind of upbringing I have had, social sensitivity was part of what we grew up with. Hence, the issue of environment in all its hues and dimensions has been close to my heart and has been reflected in my work too. Thus, it was quite natural for me to get associated with Al Gore’s India chapter of Climate Reality Project and contribute my bit to increasing awareness about such an important issue that concerns life itself.

What are your other interests apart from dance?

As a dancer, there is a natural interest in music (especially classical music), visual arts, literature and philosophy, Indian art and architecture and spiritualism. I love nature and enjoy going on long treks.

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Updated Date: Mar 13, 2016 09:38:59 IST

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