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Updated: July 22, 2010 18:54 IST

Awesome experiences

LALITHAA KRISHNAN
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Saswathi Sen
Saswathi Sen

A prime disciple of Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj, acclaimed danseuse Saswati Sen has done her guru proud in terms of her virtuosity and creativity. Lauded for her collaboration with her guru and her solo performances, she has proved an expert choreographer in her own right, who has also turned writer (her biography on Birju Maharaj is due for release). The artist speaks about how destiny shaped her life.

Family background …

I come from a family of eminent doctors, lawyers and academicians. I was the first to take up dance as a profession. My mother had a strong affinity for the arts. My father, who was in the military for many years, was widely travelled and spoke fluent Italian. The dance school, where my guru, Pt. Birju Maharaj, and his uncles, Pt. Shambhu and Pt. Lachu Maharaj taught was near my home. My initial training was under Reba Vidyarthi for about seven years. I appeared in Maharaj-ji’s productions in minor roles. At the higher secondary level, I received the Central Government Scholarship with the stipulation that I take up dance full-time under a professional teacher. I was blessed that Maharaj-ji accepted me as his pupil. I joined the medical college at Aligarh, but found myself constantly missing my dance, music and family. I explained to my father that medicine was not my calling and returned home to join B.Sc. Anthropology and later, M.Sc. That is when the real learning began. I became my guru’s prime disciple and went on to do my diploma and masters at the Kathak Kendra, Delhi. My sister Baswati Mishra followed in my footsteps and now runs her own Kathak institute in Delhi.

On the threshold …

I joined Loretto School to teach English and Kathak. Noting my talent, the Mother Superior and a Senior Director of Kathak Kendra convinced my father to allow me to take up dance full-time. Soon after, Satyajit Ray who was in the process of filming ‘Shatranj Ki Khiladi’ requested Pt. Birju Maharaj to compose the dance sequences. By chance, Ray had seen me dance at a film fest inaugural and persuaded my parents to let me do the film sequence. Gradually, more engagements and appreciation came my way. But it was not until age 30, that I began accepting remuneration for performances.

No looking back …

Since then, I have travelled all over the globe – Europe, U.S, U.K, Canada, Australia and the Middle East. My first big opportunity abroad came in 1973 during a tour of Russia with my guru. In 1974, my first trip to the U.S materialised with my guru and Kumudini Lakhia. That got me a lot of mileage. I often conduct lec-dems and workshops. Now, I visit the U.K almost every summer to teach at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. I regard this as a service since I was in the teaching profession.

Unforgettable moments

Every artist treasures certain once-in-a-lifetime experiences. In one such, I had the privilege of dancing in ‘Sri Krishna Parijatham’ conceptualised by Vempatti Chinna Satyam. This presentation was a confluence of four styles - Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Odissi, staged at Hyderabad and Bangalore. With Vani Ganapathy (Bharatanatyam) donning the role of Krishna, Sanjuktha Panigrahi (Odissi) playing Rukmini and myself (Kathak) as Satyabhama, the entire programme was specially choreographed by our respective gurus – living legends working together in artistic harmony. It was an awesome experience to be attuned to the quicksilver wavelength of such luminaries. What an impact it had on the participating artists and the audience! Unforgettable! Vempatti grew to love me like a daughter. Such is the binding power of great art.

Sources of inspiration …

They include great musicians and dancers, apart from my own guru Birju Maharajji. It was sheer bliss to watch guru Kelucharan Mohapatra (Odissi) work in tandem and perform with my guru, a union of two great minds. I have worked with guru T.V. Gopalakrishnan at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, London, and benefited greatly from his approach and encouragement. So has it been with Balamurali ji. I have also danced to some compositions of Lalgudiji. Shambhu Maharajji of course, is a constant source of inspiration. I admire the unique energy and charisma of Sitara Devi with whom I share a perfect rapport, though our styles are quite different. Pt. Debu Chaudhary, Pt. Ravi Shankar, Pt. Bhimsen Joshi and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan are all consummate artists, who inspire.

Lucknow gharana …

The three main kathak gharanas are Jaipur, Benaras and Lucknow, which have distinctive improvisations in layakari and abhinay. Kathak is very open ended in this respect. Jaipur is noted for rhythmic finesse, Benaras for kavit tora (rhythmic phrases) and Lucknow for a lovely blend and balance of abhinaya and footwork. Very graceful movements evolved, particularly after Birju Maharaj’s contribution. He focused on the subtlety and beauty of abhinaya, apart from the rhythmic strength and ‘chakkers’ (pirouettes) in vogue. Maharajji’s father was master of rhythm who could keep four talas simultaneously. His movements held elegance and grace which Maharajji inherited, and gradually all dancers were influenced by his genius. Birju Maharaj retired at age 60 from Kathak Kendra and I joined him to form the ‘Kala Ashram’ (Delhi) which follows a strict syllabus and trains over 400 students. . We have a branch in Bombay and recently opened one in Kolkata.

On fusion …

It often trails into confusion! There should be no compromise, no gimmicks. For tradition bound artists, innovation is a constantly evolving process – the chandas, layakari, abhinay. Inspired by nature, my guru creates a new tihai. It is every artist’s desire to draw the audience into his creative space. However, a surfacing genre called contemporary Kathak actually distorts the form, going against tradition. We are unhappy with this self-styled form, as it does not reflect Kathak’s quintessential elements. Such ventures tend to confuse the uninformed. One can get very experimental but shouldn’t name it after a great tradition, especially when one deviates from its spirit.

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