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Guru Munnalal Shukla
- Nita Vidyarthi
Photos courtesy: Ruchi Saini

June 3, 2019

Acclaimed Kathak Guru Munnalal Shukla is one of those rare personalities who has interpreted and moulded his vision of life through his training, research, experience and perception of dance. Recipient of several awards including the one from Sangeet Natak Akademi, his latest is the 10th Raseswar Saikia Award (2018) at Guwahati. But awards to him do not make or break a life. It is simply a recognition. He has given abstraction to the age old art without sacrificing traditional movements or dramatic sensibility. His sharp style of conversation attracts and is continually interesting as it works on so many levels at once and has a range which few other contemporary virtuosos possess. The art of this renowned dancer may be mystification, casual and joyous but it is equally truth seeking and truth revealing. He was going down memory lane sprinkled with humorous anecdotes of his experiences quite nostalgically. The interaction with him does not falsify reality.

Considering your background, were you interested to dance from childhood?
I had no interest in dance whatsoever. I loved studying and wanted to study very badly. No matter how far I could progress in my education, succeed or get fame, whatever good or bad, I never wanted to work under anyone but be my own master! At the same time, I wondered what shall I do after my matriculation? Nobody would make me an officer! So I started learning dance and vocal music and gradually got fully immersed in it - "Mein isme Samadhi lain lee" (laughs). So much so that I would never be at peace without it. I felt as if I had not eaten anything when I had not danced, the craving was so intense.

Did you consider dancing because of your family background?
Once my Guruji, Pandit Birju Maharaj asked me, "Why is it that you never mention my name anywhere? Do you feel ashamed or embarrassed?" I replied, "Look at my bio-data and my brochure, your name is there, everywhere." I don't want to take advantage of the fact that Birju Maharaj is my maama (maternal uncle) if anyone asks me. If I can add anything to the existing repertoire of Lucknow gharana, only then would it be worthwhile to mention Maharaj-ji's name and how I am connected to the family. I do not want to add a blotch to it. But if anybody says, 'Wah! Wah! You have danced wonderfully, whose disciple are you?' Then I would very proudly declare that I belong to the Lucknow gharana. My work, my dance should speak for me. And I have tried to establish my identity as a dancer.

So you have a responsibility to the gharana...
From the very beginning one thing was in my head, that I am Achhan Maharaj's daughter's son (says emphatically). My mother is Birju Maharaj's elder sister. So the lineage (family) changes. Of course, it doesn't mean that I don't have any responsibility at all. I am a supporter alright. I don't stand in line with the children of Shambhu Maharaj or for that matter Birju Maharaj as far as the extent of responsibility that they ought to have is concerned.

Were you with Maharaj-ji all along?
Yes. I stayed with him, studied and listened to stories from him. He was both a maama (uncle) and a friend to me. We were very attached to each other when we were children. We played marbles, carom, ludo together and flew kites. I wore his clothes and loved it even though I looked like a joker in it. They were all rather heavy and I was very lean and thin but felt delighted that the clothes were my uncle's (maama)!

So you were not pressurized while learning or performing...
I was relaxed all along my career. Look, we are Katha Vachaks. My father Sunder Lal Shukla, was also a Katha Vachak. He had no fixed income from salary or regular teaching and used to run the family on whatever he got from Katha. But there was no pressure whatsoever. As I have already mentioned, I loved reading, especially collection of poems and it was important for me to comprehend them for abhinaya. Actually my search and aim was different from the mundane.

How was your journey then?
In my life I decided that when I teach, I shall not learn and when I learn, I shall not teach. It is said that one learns out of "Diksha, Shiksha and Parikhsha." So if I learn, I can't tie my hands and stand in the classroom. At one point I would have a family and have to earn for them. 'Kamna' (desire) would be over and 'Kamana' (earning) would begin. The matra (Hindi script) would shift from one place to another! Hence I am not worried about anything. I did not ever wonder whether life was difficult or smooth sailing. By God's grace I got whatever was required to sustain myself.

From the very beginning I felt that a Guru knows how to steer his students. I believe that it is not necessary that a Guru must always be present in the class since he has taken fees from his students. On several occasions I used to be upset when the Guru was absent from class. He sat in the office and classes were not held. But I never had a negative attitude towards it. Sometimes I thought, so what if he was absent?

Do the students ask you to teach them items which are short and can be performed fast?
They don't have to ask for it. Their eyes and expressions speak. Their voice stops but eyes talk. Our body has a number of 'indriya' (sensory organs). So when the mouth stops speaking, the hands, eyes etc. talk. That is true for all, not just for Kathakaars. If the hands don't 'speak', then the 'bols' don't come out. If the 'nazar' (glances) don't speak, then you can't portray the matter. Our whole body speaks.

Would you not like to document your knowledge?
The renowned S.K. Saxena told me that, "You are not to write life sketches, write tukre, paran or do notation or explain what tandava and lasya is. It all shows and is obvious in all your work." So I answered him on his four points that I will write, 'Mein aur Mera Kathak' (Me and my Kathak ). So you see it becomes entirely different. Then Talim, Kathak ke Sushkataye (Training and finer intricacies of Kathak), Samrachana (choreography), Adhyapan (learning) and Kathakasthapan.

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