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Vividh Mat tickles the intellect and regales the senses
Photos: Ashwani Chopra

May 15, 2016

World Dance Day celebrations in the capital, have taken on unique dimensions. In the case of Kathak professional Shovana Narayan, the last three years have linked dance productions of her institution Asawari to themes pertinent to life as lived today. After a mind-tickling intellectual discussion with top names from different disciplines contributing their individual points of view, the Kathak artistic statement comes as a finale - contextualising as it were, the entire performance, giving the presentation an immediacy and relevance.

The two day event entitled 'Vividh-Mat' (varied opinions), in other words 'Bhinna ruchi' as the Sanskrit text would say about subjective individual preferences in life, the objective of the exercise was to look at inner man transcending differing perceptions - the first evening's topic "Dharma-Adharma" ruminating on the ever relevant question of right and wrong act. Inevitably, this subject spurs quotes from the Mahabharata action and the Gita. Is the Indian, over the years becoming more religious, was a query. Said Dr. Pushpesh Pant, noted Indian academic, combining the unlikely disciplines of food critic (his book India: the cookbook was named by The New York Times as one of the best cookbooks of the year) and historian, the definition of Dharma as "Dharayati iti dharma" shows the word having little to do with Hinduism. Dharma is a 'vyavasaya'. Describing the religious identity as something one cannot however shake away no matter what, he preferred to think of Dharma/Adharma in terms of Just and Unjust - as a code of conduct without straying into religious sanctions of right and wrong - which invariably create fissures among people.

The most lucid tongued poetic quotes on the subject of the "Ganga/Jamuna tehzeeb'' came from Saeed Naqvi, senior journalist, television commentator (his wide range covering the Worldview India programme on television to reporting on the Beatles visiting Maharishi Yogi) and contributor to innumerable publications, both Indian and foreign. An authority on the mingled Hindu/Islamic culture of this region during the bygone centuries, his Persian, Urdu, Hindi poetic quotes of many like Abdul Rahim Khankhana's references to Krishna, of his own visit to Bangladesh and what he experienced of the syncretic Hindu/Muslim culture which was so much a part of the sub continent, were all voiced leaving a nostalgia for those times. Rounding off the discussion was Amit Baruah, winner of the Prem Bhatia award in 2000, for his coverage of Pakistan, at present Resident Editor of the Hindu Delhi edition, stressing the need to stave off anything threatening the idea of a syncretic India, with varying cultural perceptions coexisting in amity.

L to R: Dr. Yatindra Mishra, Amit Baruah, Dr. Pushpesh Pant, Saeed Naqvi

Shovana Narayan

Shovana Narayan & Shruti Gupta

The 'Karna-Kunti Samvad' in Kathak based on Dinkar's longer work 'Rashmirathi' on Dharma-Adharma featuring Shovana as Kunti and Shruti Gupta Chandra as Karna, despite compulsions making the rendering to taped music, rung in a powerful finale to the evening. The exchange reveals a Kunti, trying to purchase Karna's loyalty by revealing to him on the eve of the Kurukshetra war, the secret of his birth - entreating that he keep away from killing his own blood brothers - the Pandavas.

If Shovana's quintessential performance portrayed Kunti's desperate last attempt at a Pandava victory, acknowledging after all these years the son she had so wrongfully discarded due to a young girl's fear of societal boycott, the performance of Shruti Gupta in the role of Karna was no less convincing in bringing out the mixed bitterness, grief and anger in responding to Kunti, without descending to melodrama. Without Shruti's strong performance with all the dignity of Karna, the dialogue would have fallen flat. And the costume designing for the role (for a female playing the part) was excellent. Karna's anguished admonishment "Mother, you have waited too long - all the years when I was humiliated as 'Soota putra', where was the mother in you? Though I promise I will fight only Arjuna. With one of us falling, you will still be mother of five Pandavas." The last desperate embrace as mother and son finally part was very poignant.

The second day's subject "Can the twain meet?" had a distinguished panel of discussants with renowned art critic Shanta Serbjeet Singh, moderating and holding the proceedings together. Well known poet Keki N. Daruwalla, who has dealt with the contradictory realities of Indian life, mentioned the East/West coming together much before Kipling's work. Gandhara art of India showed clear Grecian influence. Mecca which the Muslim faces while praying lies in different directions depending on the person being in India or America. The concept of 'Yavanika' or curtain was brought by the Greeks. Tagore was influenced by so many cultures. In the Indic civilization binaries did not exist - after all we thought of the Ardhanariswar concept where gender polarities coexist in utter harmony. The entire East/ West schism has been perpetrated over hundreds of years with clichéd statements of East as spiritualistic and West materialistic. Continually creating feelings about 'the other' and hardening borders of us and the others is dangerous. As Shanta Serbjeet Singh mentioned, the clamour for fusion, showing the effort to find togetherness in a globalised world, must let differences remain and be respected.

Print and television journalist Seema Mustafa spoke of her brash dismissal of a Ravi Shankar/Zubin Mehta concert, for not providing either the best of western or Hindustani classical music. Ravi Shankar meeting her later pointed to her western outfit with the nose-ring she wore as an accommodation of cultures, and the need for learning to interact across cultures. Dr. Alka Raghuvanshi, a writer, the first trained Indian curator making exhibitions relevant in the global context, spoke on the Indian art and craft, Them and Us, Folk and Elite gulfs. With crafts kept out of esoteric homes, we now have a culture of village lumpens in trouser wearing boys. The way craftsmen recreate again and again with children learning the rope from traditional families, we still lack schools which can absorb and use the 49 million skilled craftsmen, bridging the artificial gap between art and craft.

Shovana Narayan & Sunit Tandon

Shovana's group

The art expression of Can the twain meet, was a performance which was emotively almost draining even for the audience - based on the powerful poem by Pavan K.Varma - on the Draupadi-Yudhistira interaction. A racy group prelude by students of Shovana was followed by the presentation in three parts starting from Panchali's lustrous black eyes, unforgivingly fixed on Yudhistira for citing custom and using to his advantage the mother's innocently uttered words of sharing the blessing, (before seeing Draupadi) preventing her being the virgin bride of Arjuna who had rightfully won her and whom she had fallen for. Her desperate plea "Ma Kunti bachalo mujhe" had been quietly overruled with talk of custom by the head of the Pandavas, who had lost his heart to this dark beauty. "You never won me, and yet you used me as a pawn in a dice game, with all the humiliation which followed," Draupadi accuses. The riveting dance/theatre mix, a treat for the audience, had Yudhistira's part compellingly read out from the English text by theatre director Sunit Tandon, with Draupadi's danced and mimed responses. The Yaksha represented by a blinding spot thrown on the stage, posing questions on life's riddles, at the only surviving Pandava, Yudhistira, whose answers, finally cleanse Draupadi of her bitterness with the realisation that he alone had steadfastly loved her (for Bhima had his Hidimbi and Arjuna his Subhadra). She finally turns to him with unhindered love.

Post retirement, with sole concentration on her dance career seems to have injected a new conviction into Shovana's art.

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

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