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Updated: May 8, 2014 19:32 IST

Beyond confines

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Rajashree Shirke
Special Arrangement
Rajashree Shirke

Sangeet Natak Akademi Award recipient Rajashree Shirke on her journey.

It was a scream, a musical plaint, a keening of incompatible notes that, instead of assaulting the eardrums, tore at the heartstrings. This closing scene of Rajashree Shirke’s dance theatre production based on Rabindranath Tagore’s “Khata” about a young girl denied the right to education and choice, remains in the memory from the first time one saw her work. It sums up what one could describe as this dancer/choreographer’s artistic freedom: Freedom, on the one hand, from the vice of conventional presentation that goes by the name of ‘tradition’ in the classical dance forms, and on the other, from the fear of the ‘unpretty’ in dance and the musically off-key. Not long after that, the Mumbai-based artist was back in the Capital to receive the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award-2013 (conferred during the recent SNA festival in New Delhi) and perform solo. Here, she answers a few questions on her work over email. Edited excerpts:

On your experience of learning traditional forms that help you create the authentic flavour of your dance theatre productions…

The basic traditional classical form of Indian dance that has ever been my guiding light and anchor — is Kathak.

The allure of Kathak that took me away — its rhythmic-compositional repertoire (thhaat, toda, tihai, aamad, chakradhaar, paran, tatkaar, etc.); the synergy of hand movements (hasta-sanchalan), graceful body movements ; the ‘pada-nyaasa’ ( footwork) ; the striking pirouettes or ‘chakkars’ and the sublime, subtle and simple execution of abhinaya.

This proved to be my foundation from where I could probably search for expression and presentation through newer, different forms. My earlier training in Bharatanatyam at Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya, and extensive training in abhinaya broadened my perception of abhinaya that could grow beyond the confines of any particular dance —form. I have always been especially intrigued by the abhinaya aspect of Kathak. Since then, I have always been on an unceasing quest for that ancient, original colour in which the aspect of gat-bhaav (storytelling and portrayal) and abhinaya was predominant and not just the ‘rhythmical prowess’ that is so very enthusiastically demonstrated in the repertoire today.

Later, while researching the storytelling forms from the temples of Northern India, I happened to attend the Jhoola Mahotsav in Ayodhya. Over there I met traditional ‘Kathik’-s of the Ayodhya temples and also from various other villages.

The Kathik-s are the traditional community — a designated clan of professional performers invited to sing at all auspicious religious occasions. Their duty is to sing, dance, act and preach spirituality in an ‘entertainment package’ sort of way, for the common man. They sing hymns and couplets from our religious scriptures and other spiritual, devotional literature. They break down the intricate verses and explain its spiritual essence and meaning in ‘layman’ terms.

My tryst with the true-generation Kathik-s of the temples of Ayodhya unearthed endless possibilities.

The things that drew my attention were — the distinct features of the typical Kathik presentation and way of storytelling; the selection of lyrical verses from original texts; the original use of the dupatta to depict many characters, and its use as a prop; how the main Kathik would enter with his troupe of dancer/singer/actor/performers called the Kathik Mandali and they would sing the verse, enact with dance and footwork and dialogue (albeit in a rustic form) and how, at the end of each scene or situation, the main Kathik would stand as the sutradhar and comment, advise and educate the audience with morals and metaphysical truths. All these aspects bore a slight resemblance to the Kathak dance form. With the use of the nritta aspects that had the glint and prudence of Kathak along with these ancient moulds of presentation from the ancient Kathik parampara, I found an amalgamation of traditional aspects and genres that helped build the ‘instrument’ that could execute my understanding of the Kathak language — expressing and exploring the abhinaya, the gat-bhaav and kathakaar (storytelling) to the ‘Indian dance’ masses of today. The aspect I wanted to bring forth, basically, is the inherent capability of Kathak to tell stories in the most beautiful, vivid and colourful way, using the original design of the Kathik parampara

What themes inspire you?

I seek inspiration from anything that I read or see or listen to that strikes me with resemblance to contemporary society. I then pursue that piece for my research and production-work; because delving creatively into it is not just an exciting or challenging experience for me but a moral and social obligation towards art and society. I do not pick up an epic story or folklore or some piece of rare literature because of its interesting situations or dramatic plotting or simply something that has ‘scope’ or ‘ornamental value’. The literary piece or theme has to ‘seem alive’ or even ‘come alive’ for me, in our contemporary existence. I begin to picture myself as the protagonist today.

For example, my production “Mata Hidimba” based on the story of Hidimba from the Mahabharata. I chose Hidimba because I relate to her situation as a single mother who suffers the shackles of conditions and casteism; and loses her son Ghatotkach in the Mahabharata war.

Rabindranath Tagore, through his story “Khata” (The Exercise Book), vociferously addresses the cruel dogma of child marriage and female illiteracy. I wish to present Uma’s story seeing it as every little girl’s anguish whose aspirations, dreams and free will are subdued; and also raising Uma’s “questions” as every other girl’s — against the dogmatic customs of Indian society.

You trained under several very different gurus in both Kathak and Bharatanatyam. How do you feel each of them enriched your art?

All my gurus blessed me with extensive training, rigorous discipline and imparted their vast knowledge, vocabulary and experience of Indian classical dance. In this process, they have unknowingly enriched me even further, filling gaps about technique and formation with their transparency of thought and instruction which has helped and guided me tremendously; enhancing my abilities in all of my artistic endeavours.

My initiation into dance was by the blessings of Guru D.S. Satamkar. In Bharatanatyam, I received guidance about the intricacies of rhythm from Guru Kadirvelu; subtle nuances and maturity of abhinaya under the guidance of Guru Kanak Rele; perfection of line and completion of movement was instilled by Guru Thangamani Nagarajan. Finally, in Kathak, I was intensively trained and groomed in all the graces and speciality of all the three gharanas (Lucknow, Benares & Jaipur) by the late Guru Madhurita Sarang.

Your thoughts on the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award...

Every artist pursues his/her own art form, performing, teaching, creating and especially working towards the development and enrichment of the art form. But down the years, when one gets awarded with something as lofty as the prestigious SNA Award, one feels blissful with the realisation that his/her efforts were not for naught. The hard work and little achievements down the line did have meaning.

I do also feel an increasing sense of responsibility; I can now multiply my research and include a greater expanse of literary sources for my creations. This also is something I have been working on for many years now — inclusion and implementation of multiple sources of literature in the Kathak repertoire; apart from the general repertoire.

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