Queen of 'abhinaya'

Steps to perfection

Queen of  'abhinaya'

Mastering expressions sedately, movements nurtured to match reality, exude immense composure in a kathak dancer. Such mastery comes easy to kathak exponent and Sangeet Natak Akademi recipient Saswati Sen. As Pandit Birju Maharaj’s disciple for over four decades, Saswati aka the queen of abhinaya in kathak, does not have to work hard on mastering control. “After all these years, I just contemplate on the subject, and seep it in before the performance,” she says.

Saswati’s performance brings Krishna sprinting to the stage, running amok, stealing buttermilk. Call it maya, call it abhinaya, Saswati, the sole performer on stage, dialogues and emulates Krishna from a day in his childhood and the audience find themselves living the moment in its entirety.

Close to the divine

“Krishna is the reigning deity of us classical dancers. Every aspect of Krishna makes me feel that I am working on a natural character, so I portray him by making him more human,” explains Saswati, adding, “Moreover, I have seen my own mother and Birju Maharaj-ji treat Lord Krishna like a child, especially Bal Gopal. In fact, Maharaj-ji’s mother would prepare little quilts and puff them up saying, ‘Why, the Bhagwan is a child, our baby’. When I teach little ones outside India, I explain the concept of the deity Krishna as the playful one who steals buttermilk. These are not divine qualities of God, so one gains a natural connection with Krishna across cultures and geographical boundaries.”
plains Saswati, who trains her students independently on expression.

Exuding emotions by internalising the subject via dance to impact people, kathak finds its origins as katha vachan, a storytelling tradition. “Kathak finds its origins in the temples of North India and was originally performed by men, contrary to bharatnatyam, which was emulated by women, and Kuchipudi, in which male dancers performed female roles in the beginning. Initially, with kathak, the men were loud and used overt actions to tell a story. In later years, when kathak travelled to the Muslim courts, the dance form grew more subtle. With rubais, tumris and ghazals, the performances became softer, the way the Mughals preferred it,” explains Saswati.

It’s long past those years, when Saswati learnt where to draw the line with expression. “Today, I immediately get into a sedate mode. Even if you asked me to do something loud, I probably wouldn’t be able to emulate it,” she laughs.

An exponent who has mastered the abhinaya in kathak must be a fine actor. Saswati grew up on a diet of drama, watching her mother and grandfather take the stage as easily as they did their own professions. “My grandfather Pankaj Gupta was a judge and he did some stage performances with stalwarts in the field,” says Saswati, adding, “My mom too, did theatre as a hobby and won prizes for her performances. So my sister and I grew up watching my mother essay lead roles in Tagore plays.” 

Her mother led her to Reba Vidyarthi, Saswati’s first kathak teacher. “I was six when I started learning kathak. My mother learnt about this kathak school down the road from our house and enrolled me. My attachment to kathak grew under her tutelage. In later years, when I was studying medicine, I realised that I was too emotional for the subject, and would cry when I was required to dissect an animal for experiment,” she reminisces.

When Saswati chose kathak over medicine, her father, a doctor, was not too pleased. “I am the eldest daughter in the family and my father wanted me to pursue the profession that he and his ancestors had been into. When I became confident about my dance world, I explained to my parents that perhaps, I could turn out to be another kind of doctor instead of being a bad medical physician among millions. With my dancing, I told them, I could give people peace and warmth, and in turn, find personal solace.”

From medicine to dance

After giving up medicine, Saswati went on to teach English in a school, and at 25, took up kathak as a full time profession.

Thanks to Saswati’s choice, the world of kathak has been gifted with an exponent, who upholds the tradition of this dance form with a keen knowledge of its origin and its pertinence as a medium of expression of that which meets the eye. In fact, in an era of contemporising traditional dance forms, Saswati upholds the traditional core of kathak. “I have been studying kathak with Maharaj-ji for 46 years. For Maharaj-ji and me, contemporary renditions are not about deviating from the main repertoire.

At the same time, kathak can be understood in the light of contemporary subjects, meaningful social issues brought to light, even while dealing with strict tradition. Among Maharaj-ji’s many compositions, the Teer Tarang — love triangle between the waves, sea and the shore — has been well-received. Maharaj-ji composed it when we were in Vishakapatnam and saw 20 of us jumping into the water, enjoying ourselves. As he sat aside watching us, the idea for Teer Tarang was born to represent how the sea is possessive about its waves. While this subject is contemporary, when we present it in kathak form, we must remain storytellers of the present and imaginary futures,” explains Saswati.

Delving into universal stories, kathak enthusiasts have swollen in numbers over the last 20 years. “But qualitatively, people have started treating the art as a commodity, more keen on getting into films and television, going abroad and winning awards they are perhaps not worthy of,” says Saswati, adding, “With so much politics over awards, I often tell Shekhar Sen, who, as the chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, continues to remain fair in this era of fixing awards, to consider framing restrictions on performers deforming the tradition of art forms.”

Keeping the traditional component of kathak intact, Saswati follows in her Guru Birju Maharaj’s footsteps, as she performs to Tagore’s works and idealises Swami Vivekananda’s principles of life, as she brings Romeo and Juliet to raag and taal.

“I took two years to work on Romeo and Juliet with ballet, tap dancers and kathak artistes as part of the troupe of over 100 performers. We have performed across India. Birjuji and I plan to take it to America, hopefully next year,” says Saswati.

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