Learning always

Kathak artiste Shovana Narayan sees changes in classical dance forms for what they are... reflections of socio-political scenes of the times

Kathak dancer Shovana Narayan

To call Shovana Narayan accomplished feels like an understatement. A doctorate in Physics, a scholar, a civil servant, an elegant danseuse and a much-revered teacher, Padmashri awardee Shovana’s journey is nothing less than a lifelong roll of honour.

One of India’s most distinguished kathak maestros, Shovana was initiated into dance by the legendary dancer-actress Sadhana Bose when she was barely three years old. In fact, Shovana recalls that she gave her first stage performance in Kolkata when she was all of four! “My earliest memories of dance are all of hers…her expressions, her fluidity of movements and the gentle way she used to hold my feet to correct my dance steps – these are beautiful moments that are still fresh in my mind,” she exclaims. Shovana went on to get schooled from some of the greatest Gurus India has produced. After learning from Sadhana Bose, Shovana trained under Guru Kundan Lal and then for several decades with Pandit Birju Maharaj.

Many pursuits

The discipline and rigour these Gurus instilled in her stood Shovana in good stead even while she pursued, most curiously, her other great passion, physics. “Right from my childhood, I have loved physics; its sense of logic appeals to me as does the joy of pure math,” she says. Not only did Shovana obtain a doctorate in her favourite subject, but also went on to become a civil servant, while never neglecting her kathak training.

Superhuman much? Shovana laughs. “I do not know why but focus came easy to me. But this does not mean there were no challenges and obstacles in my way… I was perhaps just too determined to let them deter me,” she says. The danseuse believes whatever tested her mettle only left her enriched. “Dance was and is my life and breath; hence it is part of me. Scholastic pursuits and civil services were dear to me and provided challenges that I loved. Personally, I have never found all three overwhelming; in fact, I would say they complement each other.”

Life, a jigsaw puzzle

Perhaps why Shovana, who says her style of teaching is akin to how a mother disciplines and trains her children, is never sympathetic to excuses pertaining to time from her students. “I have always believed one will find time to do what one truly loves. This is what my parents instilled in me and this is my life mantra, if you will. I always say that life is a jigsaw puzzle. If one goes about it with dedication and passion, fire and sincerity, then all the pieces fall into their rightful places,” she says.

For Shovana, one such ‘jigsaw puzzle’ is the sadhana she brings to her kathak productions and how she views the contemporising of the art form.

She says she does not fathom why it is believed changes in classical art forms is a new phenomenon. “Art does not live in a vacuum and what is viewed as tradition today was a form of contemporising at some point in history,” she believes. To support her point, she gives the instance of Radha-Krishna as an entity. “Till the 11th century, Radha was not considered an indivisible aspect of Krishna as she is today. It was poet Jaidev who raised her to that level. He was responding to the socio-political issues of those turbulent times. Was that not contemporising?” she asks.

A deeper perspective

It is perhaps this attitude of questioning and analysing that gives Shovana’s kathak productions a deeper perspective. “For me, the idea is paramount. I have to feel for a subject or thought, and then I let it germinate within me for a while. Once it sort of consumes me from within, slowly, it takes on a form in terms of ideas, concept and treatment. Only then do I look at other aspects such as text, music and choreography,” she says, describing her creative process.

Deeply connected with her students, Shovana believes teaching is not just imparting technical knowledge but also instilling a desire to keep pursuing their art. “My aim is to spark creativity within them,” she says. Does she think it would be prudent for them to have alternate careers as well like she does? “There are no hard and fast rules; it depends on the individual’s capacity and sensibility. But that said, without sincerity of purpose and a passion that comes from within, it is not possible to excel in anything, let alone in two full-fledged professions,” she says.

Shovana, who recently presented the 17th edition of the LalitArpan Festival in New Delhi, is already on to new projects and performances. Soon, she will be collaborating with an Austrian orchestra and the Shillong Choir who will be playing Schubert’s music to her performance of Shakuntala. In December, she is planning a production based on some shlokas from the Bhagavad Gita.

Evidently, for Shovana, achievements no matter how many, are only par for the course.

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