The dancing duo

They are different in every way except in their shared passion for the dance form

Nirupama & Rajendra

Popular kathak-duo Nirupama and Rajendra’s latest production is titled Abhisaar. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the couple themselves are on a lifelong abhisaar.

“Abhisaar means to be in pursuit,” says Rajendra while Nirupama nods vigorously. “It could be a student going to a new city to study, an entrepreneur beginning a business venture; it could even be birds beginning their migration, or it could be a woman’s search for love,” she says.

It could also be two dancers, passionate about their art, coming together in their search for perfection, like Niru and Raju, as they are fondly known, did nearly 30 years ago.

Pushing boundaries

Even three decades later, their love for each other is as palpable as their commitment to their art. “We are very different people, but right from the start, our vision was the same — it was to take our art beyond its pre-conceived boundaries. We were young and hungry — eager to eat up new concepts, bring in different sounds and tinker with a range of choreography,” says Nirupama. She believes her innate spontaneity and “lust for celebration” gelled well with Rajendra’s solid technical knowledge of music and dance as well as his immersion in traditional arts because of his family influences.

“It is not as if we didn’t have our differences,” muses Rajendra. But he is quick to add that it was those differences that they converted into strengths. “It was never about who is right but what is right for our work. This mantra has held us together,” says Niru.

Indeed. So much so that today, Niru-Raju’s organisation Abhinava Dance Company is admired for its cohesion, arguably the biggest reason for the slickness of their presentations, be it the Broadwayesque Ram-katha Vismaya, the mercurial Kathakitatom or the spectacularly colourful Rang, as its very name suggests.

Often, their productions are never kathak in its purest form. Has this got them flak from the classicists? “As a couple we decided very early on to practice the kind of art which does not become an obligation for the audience. We didn’t want people to turn up because it is some relative’s rangapravesha; we wanted them to come only for art’s sake. And this meant tweaking the form, brainstorming, falling and getting up but being determined to take it further,” says Nirupama.

Rajendra recalls an incident where, in a festival of male dancers, he had performed Param-Purush an out-of-the-box look at masculinity and femininity. Some critics had sniggered about whether the hero was the dancer or the stage lighting! “Such responses only inspire us further. We strongly believe there is space for traditionalists, post-modernists, as well as those who want to follow a middle path. One needs courage as well as talent to go beyond set boundaries and yet appeal to the audience,” he feels.

As part of this quest to ‘present paramparas with a new intelligence’ as Nirupama puts it, they approached their mentor and guru Dr Shatavadhani Ganesh, a polyglot-scholar, when it was time to brainstorm for a new production. “That was when he laid out the possibilities of abhisaar for us,” explains Nirupama. “There are many wonderful aspects of our mythologies and epics apart from the much-performed bits of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. We literally were trying to sniff out some of these unknown gems,” she says.

Eventually, they zoomed in on the journey of an abhisarika who goes in search of her beloved in the middle of the night. “Imagine… this story has humour, dread, anticipation, a sense of adventure all wrapped up in the sentiment of love. The abhisarika, after a journey fraught with surprises, catches sight of her beloved and freezes. We stopped the performance at that point and asked the audience to come up with their versions of what happens next,” narrates Nirupama.

Search continues

What happened next was that the surprised audience did come up with many interpretations; and Nirupama (who played abhisarika) chose a few and performed them on the spot. “The audience were thoroughly enlivened — and this is what we mean when we say our classical arts need to be looked at with a new eye,” she adds.

The dancing couple’s appetite for an innovative vision has resulted in several successful experiments, the most recent being Madanotsava, a day-long celebration of spring that garnered much appreciation from all over. “It was a carnival of music, traditional games, food, group activities... we never had so much fun before,” recalls Rajendra. What Rajendra does not say but implies is that for the couple, dancing has always been about ananda, one of those Sanskrit words heavy with meaning but quite untranslatable. And it is in this pursuit of ananda (fun, if you insist) that they have found success as well as togetherness.

 

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The dancing duo

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