Kathak dancer Rujuta Soman on artistic legacies, her guru Rohini Bhate, and the doha dedicated to her
The Kathak dancer, who has been running the Rujuta Soman Cultural Academy for the last 18 years, says matter-of-factly that opting to pursue a career as a classical artiste was never on her radar, yet, it is hard to pinpoint a time when Kathak was not a part of her life.
Rujuta Soman, Pune-based Kathak virtuoso, was conferred the prestigious Dr Vijaya Bhalerao Smriti Puraskar this year by the Ganavardhan Foundation.
She is a disciple of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award winning-Kathak artiste, late Rohini Bhate.
The Kathak dancer has been running the Rujuta Soman Cultural Academy for the last 18 years in Pune, and says her initial plans did not feature pursuing classical dance professionally.
Rujuta Soman, Pune-based Kathak virtuoso, feels assured of being on the right track in her career on receiving the prestigious Dr Vijaya Bhalerao Smriti Puraskar this year. Currently in its 41st year, Pune's Ganavardhan Foundation's award celebrated the artiste, who is one of the most noteworthy figures in the city’s prolific community of performers.
Taking to the stage on the eve of the award ceremony, she presented, along with other interpretive performances, the taal neel (seven-and-a-half beats), replete with melodious compositions – heirlooms handed down from her guru, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award-winning Kathak stalwart, late Rohini Bhate.
Tritaal (16 beats) is perhaps among the most enjoyable taal for performers and audiences alike, but for Soman, neel is as special as the tritaal, especially because the 'seven-and-a-half' was the first taal she was taught to present as a performer.
With its tuneful nagma (notes on the harmonium), and the dhrupad and tarana woven into it, the numerous tukde, tode, taal neel, as composed by her guru, is a samaghraha or a complete set of compositions unto itself.
Through her work, Soman says she is merely trying to perpetuate this legacy left behind by the great danseuse, and further the training she received from prominent figures, such as Suresh Talwalkar and Rajendra Gangani.
In a recent collaboration with the Hindustani musician Ustad Rashid Khan, she recalls the artiste telling her that a performance should always be crisp, leaving the audience "wanting for more". Her guru, Rohini tai or 'Bibi tai', as she was fondly known among her senior disciples, always encouraged them to hone their individualities and thought-processes. These lessons learnt from such extraordinary artists, and their unbound enthusiasm, are doses of inspiration that continue to motivate her, she says. Their teachings will be with her for a lifetime.
Mid-morning, the artiste is engaged in teaching two of her students a composition comprising two speeds — barabar (single) - dugun (double). The three of them dance facing a full-size mirror, of nearly wall-to-wall width. She monitors their movements and her own in the reflection. The graceful sway of her hands, accompanied by complex footwork, are representative of Kathak's Jaipur-Lucknow legacy. Her effortless shift in speed, from single to double, is a testament to the fluency of a seasoned artiste, as she sails across the hall in a tihai to end the bol.
“I have always enjoyed performing and being on stage,” Soman says. Yet, there were moments of trepidation in the early days of her career. One such occasion was her solo recital at the Kathak Kendra in Delhi.
She recalls that her seniors at Nrityabharati (Rohini Bhate’s Kathak school) had already performed at the centre in the capital, and the baton had finally fallen in her hand. "It was a big responsibility," Soman notes. The opportunity to perform on a national platform all those years ago was rather intimidating. Up until then, she had only danced at the monthly gatherings of her dance school, or as a participant in the prestigious VD Paluskar competition. But unlike Pune, her home turf, performing in the capital, that too under the scrutiny of such great artists, was a daunting prospect. However, the most important thing for Soman was to always perform what she had practised, with honesty and conviction, she points out.
The Kathak kalakaar, who has been running the Rujuta Soman Cultural Academy for the last 18 years, says that pursuing a career in the classical arts was never on her radar, rather matter-of-factly. And yet, it is hard to pinpoint a time when Kathak was not a part of her life.
Hailing from a conservative background, Rujuta Soman’s mother was a trained vocalist who was not allowed to pursue dance or theatre professionally. However, she wished otherwise for her daughter, who began training when she was around five years old, and joined Nrityabharati while still in middle school. But she did not immediately start learning under her guru. The young student was first taught, as per tradition, by senior teachers in the dance class, and until her fourth year was under the tutelage of artists extraordinaire, Sharadini Gole and Roshan Datye, of the Jaipur-Lucknow gharana.
Following her madhyama poorna (fourth year), she continued to attend dance lessons under Bhate – spending more time at Nrityabharati than in college for lectures. Soon after, with her graduation day fast approaching, her guru encouraged her to enroll at Savitribai Phule Pune University's Lalit Kala Kendra to pursue her masters in Kathak.
"Kathak is a very expansive dance form," Soman notes, adding that it is possible to express every idea and thought that comes to one's mind through it. Elaborating on this she adds, "We have been observing for years how much it has grown: keeping with its structure our gurus have continued to add something of themselves to the form."
In 2018, along with various collaborations with artists like Purbayan Chatterjee and Mame Khan, the performer also worked with the American Saxophone virtuoso, George Brooks, to stage the show Melody and Rhythm in Pune, fusing jazz with the classical form. The subtlety of Kathak’s abhinaya, its rhythm pattern or dance style is lok dharmi (adaptive to people’s emotions), and can be merged with any genre, she explains.
Soman observes the increasing opportunities in the performing arts today, which provide a much needed impetus to budding artists. Several universities are setting up departments for performing arts, she says, giving rise to a demand for faculty trained in the arts, thereby ensuring employment generation in the field. There is also an increased awareness about the benefits of dance which was absent before. And as part of the 'in-between' generation, Rujuta and her contemporaries are engaged in taking their legacy forward. "There were few people around to guide us back then," she says, but today if a girl wants to pursue a career in performing arts, Soman asks her to "opt for allied branches like arts or humanities and learn philosophy or psychology, subjects which are conducive to the study of dance."
On Rohini Bhate
Soman attributes her growth as a performer and an artiste to her guru. Bhate was such a magnetic personality that simply being around her was enough to infuse enthusiasm, she says. One of Rutuja's fondest memories of her guru is when "Bibi tai composed a doha personally for me...I am possessive about it to this day," she says, smiling.
She sits on a relaxing swing that has been moistened by intermittent showers; her posture is upright and alert —much like how she is on stage. Soman launches into the description of the doha: 'Surya chipe adari vadari'. The verses talk about the beautiful eyes of the nayika in the composition: the moon hides on a new moon night, and the sun hides behind dark clouds, while in phagun (winter), fish lie in the depths of the water, and even a thief runs for cover as daylight nears. But the beauty of her eyes cannot be hidden away. She might cover them with layers of veil, but their mischievous twinkle cannot be contained.
"I learnt a lot about abhinaya from her at the time," Soman says, reminiscing about the days in the last trimester of her pregnancy, when she would be training alone. It is then that she learnt the art of padhant (reciting bol) and much about the baitha bhaav.
She recalls how, as a part of a 2014 tour commissioned by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), she performed compositions that were all a part of her Rohini tai’s' repertoire, with her students.
A member of the 'Established' category in the reference panel of artists of the ICCR, Rutuja Soman concedes that as she moves on to bigger national and international platforms, she not only holds the responsibility of carrying her guru's contributions forward, but is also expected to elevate their art, ideas, and thought processes.
For Soman, Bibi tai’s lessons are now a part of her. "She would insist that I shouldn’t commit my early morning to anyone as that was the time for riyaaz...And I have never disregarded that lesson. If I have a meeting or a class in the morning, I start an hour or two early but my riyaaz time, is my own."
But does the danseuse ever get bored, tired or simply lazy? "No, that can never happen!" she exclaims.
On some days, Soman may have to miss out on morning practice sessions because of a pulled muscle, or to let a tired body heal after the previous night’s performance, but the thought of skipping riyaaz is perhaps tantamount to blasphemy to her.
"We would dance from morning till noon in Rohini tai’s class, and riyaaz is now a part of our body. Just as we eat or get hungry, we dance," Soman concludes, before going about her day, one dainty step at a time.