Guru Munna Shukla retired some years ago from Kathak Kendra, where he dedicated much of his productive life to polishing artistes of the new generation. He has been busy running classes in East Delhi as well as at Bharatiya Kala Kendra. Guru Munna Shukla on where dance is leading him.

Guru Munna Shukla is a cheerful soul given to saying, “I am drowning in my art, and loving it!” Retired some years ago from Kathak Kendra, where he dedicated much of his productive life to polishing artistes of the new generation, he has been busy running classes in East Delhi as well as at Bharatiya Kala Kendra. While his approach to Kathak is loyally bound to the school he was born to — his grandfather was the legendary Kathak maestro Achhan Maharaj, and his uncle and guru is Pandit Birju Maharaj, the current doyen of the Lucknow gharana — Munnaji's approach to choreography has always eluded stereotyping. Lately, he says, his interest has shifted from the virtuoso to the sentiment-soaked. Despite his stature and despite being one of the leading teachers in the Capital, he is utterly deferential to his guru, and works in accordance with the guru-shishya parampara. Excerpts from an interview with the veteran:

How has your approach to dance changed with age?

Nowadays spiritual and devotional themes attract me. Bhagwan, Ishwar and Paramatma — these are not synonyms, but totally different in my opinion. I am also thinking a lot about nature. From my childhood, since I didn't get a chance to study I immersed myself in the theory, literature and philosophy of dance, and this has influenced my dance and teaching.

How has this translated into your choreographic work?

Nowadays I am less attracted towards the ‘dhoom dharaka' of fast, dazzling footwork, etc. Of course, I still do present it, but I enjoy choreographing on the theme of nature. Even when I am working on some rhythmic element, such as a tukra, I like to introduce a nature-related logic into it — say, storm clouds gathering, etc.

We should never forget nor forsake the roots of our dance. Our elders would tell us, “Fly by all means, but don't fly into another country!” So whether in terms of dance, music or costumes, I try to keep my creativity within the tradition. However, with time, social concerns change and tastes change. My way of using the hastaks (hand gestures) and the approach to covering the stage have changed. I also try to bring some thehrav (gravitas) to the dance. I want people to experience some peace when they watch it.

I have set the verse from Abhinayadarpanam, “Yato hastastato drishtih…” to movement. I feel if one is able to properly assimilate its meaning, one will have achieved something.

The delicate movement of the wrists, the neck, the subtle effects called kasak-masak — all these I try to concentrate more on. These subtleties are not obvious in compositions that are set to a very fast tempo.

The other thing about my compositions is, however simple I may want to make them, there is always a certain amount of intricacy, as that is my way.

How do you see the relationship between music and choreography?

It is an inextricable and subtle relationship. Sometimes I feel the music should not even be very loud. I like the dance to show up in relief against the music. If the music is simple, the dance can be elaborate.

Also, sometimes I contrast rhythms. For example if the music is playing a rhythm of four, the dance might be set to a pattern of three. I find this more interesting than setting the dance exactly according to the music.

What is the responsibility of a guru?

To show the way, marg darshan, is the biggest duty. Not to mislead one's disciples. And not to favour some over others. It should never be that if one can't afford to pay a lot and others can, the less moneyed one should be discriminated against. I try to be fair in offering performance opportunities to all my students. As for duty, a child who had participated in one of my workshops for Spic Macay called and told me, “Guruji, I want to learn Kathak from you and I want to give up my Bharatanatyam.”

I told her, by all means learn Kathak, but never make the mistake of giving up the art you have learnt for 10 years. In contrast, one of my students wanted to learn another dance form. I said fine, but the guru she approached asked her to give up Kathak altogether. She cried and related this to me! To me this is not right advice from a guru.

What is a shishya's (disciple's) responsibility?

It's hard to describe. (Birju) Maharajji has thousands of disciples, but he has tied the ganda only for five. So many have asked me too, but I have never tied one for any student. Especially while my guru is alive, I will never do so. However, a worthy disciple is one who stays connected to the art, whether through teaching or performing. I have five or six such dedicated students that, were I to call them even at night and say put on your ghunguroos, they would do it without a murmur.