Exploring the unknown through dance

Exploring the unknown through dance

Eat a banana. Or, try this lemonade. You will feel better." A tad unwell, I had stepped into the Museum of Goa (MoG) to keep an appointment with danseuse Renuka Kumar. To talk of dance in a formal Q&A. However, it was compassion that I first met. Dressed in mauve, her long hair curled at the ends, her eyes lined with kohl, Kumar was affectionately fretting over my well-being. Doting as a true friend does. Kumar and I had just met. We were still strangers. She, the dancer; I, the one with questions. When she pulled out a tiny lemonade bottle from her pebbled tote, her goodness waylaid my questions. Kindness unified two strangers.

Sitting across a round wooden table, her back towards a large brown canvas, Kumar hopped over to Lucknow where many, many summers ago, a girl, barely four, decided to become a dancer. Yes, at four, Kumar knew her calling. Perhaps it was in the genes. In the neighbourhood. In the house that she grew up in. The walls of her house in Kaiserbagh, Lucknow, abutted that of Bhatkhande Music Institute.

"The clinking of the ghungroos in Bhatkhande piped in our walls. My parents always organised baithaks (musical soirees) at home. Ustad Sultan Khan often strummed the sarangi in our courtyard, and dancer Sonal Mansingh was almost family," she says.

Kumar grew up amidst musical notes and rhythmic footwork. Her being a dancer was ordained. At four, she heard the call, tied the ghunghroo, and learnt the sophisticated classical vocabulary of eye and hand gestures of bharatanatyam, the only dance form taught in her school.

At 16, she dropped out of school and stepped into Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad, to hone her skills. Wide-eyed, she watched Mrinalini and Mallika Sarabhai dance the dance of the gods. Even after years of rigorous training, Kumar was always the 'sakhi', never the protagonist in a dance production. The honour of being the protagonist remained with the Sarabhais. But Kumar was content being the sakhi. All that ever mattered to her was that moment when she immersed in the dance. Nothing else remained. No one else existed. It was Kumar and the dance. That was her Being.

Call it serendipity. Or absent-minded coincidence. Kumar took to odissi, another classical temple dance. This time, her mother was not prepared to send the daughter off to Balasore, Odisha. She found a teacher in Guru Mayadhar Raut, Guru Ramani Rajan and Rashmi Ranjan Jhena, and a school in New Delhi - Bhartiya Kala Kendra and Triveni Kala Sangam.

But Kumar's quest was not over yet. She embraced what she should have begun with: kathak, the Jaipur gharana of kathak which was developed in the courts of the Kachwaha kings of Jaipur in Rajasthan, and lays stress on powerful footwork and multiple spins.

Playing with her curls, Kumar sat opposite me tracing her journey from Lucknow and bharatanatyam to her current passion for kathak and experimentation. I was intrigued. Most classical dancers stick to one dance form for a lifetime but Kumar hopped seamlessly from one to another. Why? I asked. A void? Restlessness? Unquiet? Or, an ache to explore and experiment? I asked Kumar. What? What is her heart pining for?

Silence fell between Kumar and I. She snaked the mauve dupatta around her neck, her large, leaf-shaped silver finger ring glistened as she, what I assumed, raked her heart. "I don't know. No one has ever asked me this. I do not have a quick answer. Maybe it is bhakti ras. You know, it is Krishna," she began.

Suddenly, the kohl-lined eyes sparkled. "It is devotion. It is piety. It is worship. Bhakti defines me. I get tipsy with the fragrance of incense sticks. My feet unknowingly walk into a puja store. I sing bhajans."

Kumar tries to explain the inexplicable. And fails. Not because she cannot, but she chooses not to desecrate the sanctity of dance. What she enumerates is the fluidity of kathak as a dance form where she is not shackled by the 'orthodox regimentation of bharatanatyam and odissi'. "With kathak, I can be myself. Dance the way I want to."

Perhaps, it is this yearning for 'the way I want to' that lures Kumar into experimentation. In MoG, she was performing with Swiss danseuse Elfi Shaefer Shahfroth with whom she has worked together on several dance exchanges in Zurich. To take forward her love for dance, she recently launched Sattbhoomi, an amphitheatre and multispace in Jaipur to promote performing arts, art-related events and workshops.

My body temperature was raging, I was still feeling unwell, but I had to ask Kumar what dance meant/did to her. "It is meditation. It is moksha. It is who I am," she says as she walks down the staircase with me.

That night, as I lay in bed still unwell, my phone pinged. "How are you feeling?" Between the toras and parans of kathak, Renuka Kumar was concerned about my well-being. Often, formal Q&As turn merely into words strung as stories. Occasionally, it becomes friendship. That ordinary afternoon in the Museum of Goa, I had walked in with questions and high fever. There, I found a dancer. A friend. And a belief in goodness.

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