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Updated: November 6, 2010 21:40 IST

The story so far…

ANJANA RAJAN
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Prerana Shrimali. Photo: Sandeep saxena
The Hindu
Prerana Shrimali. Photo: Sandeep saxena

"To me Kathak is a complete language. I have never stepped out or felt the need to step out of the Kathak idiom to convey any ideas," says Prerana Shrimali

Dedicated artistes see life through the prism of their art. Not surprising eminent dancer Prerana Shrimali, who recently received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for her contribution to Kathak, takes Kathak not only as her vocation but as a metaphor for all of life. If Kathak means one who tells stories, she points out, all human beings are engaged in weaving their own stories, whether their chosen medium is painting or song or science, and “every form is Kathak.”

Her performances too are usually a mellow amalgam of technique and storytelling. Recently resettled in her hometown, Jaipur, Prerana visits Delhi a week every month, taking classes at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra. So it seems her life story has opened a new chapter, as she tries to put down new roots in a town that has changed beyond her expectations, and after a year-and-a-half, is still suffering from “culture shock” as she puts it.

But, having, as she says, “already explored Delhi” and wanting to do “something concrete” in Jaipur, which though it has seemingly lost interest in classical arts, is also the home of the Jaipur gharana of Kathak of which she is an illustrious representative. Here, she evaluates the contribution of her guru, Kundanlal Gangani, to Kathak and takes a hard look at what ails the dance form, even as she expresses what for her is Kathak's timeless appeal. Excerpts from a telephone conversation:

Has the concept of gharanas in Kathak blurred over the years?

A lot of differences have crept in over the years. Kathak has become more of a performing art than anything else, and the proscenium changes a lot. At the performing level it is difficult to tell the difference between the gharanas of Jaipur, Lucknow and Banaras, unless you are aware of the subtle technical differences, such as the bol (rhythmic syllables) used in each. Elements like the costumes, make-up, the lighting, and even in some cases the manner of speaking are the same in almost all presentations. The exceptions are legends like Sunaina Hazarilalji, who has maintained the distinctiveness in costuming as well as presentation, and Sitara Deviji who is a unique artiste.

How do you see the contribution of your gurus to the development of Kathak and to the Jaipur gharana?

Whatever I dance now is what I have received from Guru Kundanlal Ganganiji. Although I learnt a bit under Guru Gauri Shankarji and a bit from Guru Giridhari Maharajji, the credit of moulding me into a dancer goes to Guru Kundanlalji. One thing is, I have not seen a single disciple of my guruji who was out of laya. The next thing is, his dance was very beautiful. People have a perception that the Jaipur style is all about footwork, but he had a very balanced approach to dance.

For example, once he taught me a sargam (swara passage) within a tarana. He said, first do it as footwork, then introduce body movements and then we will bring in the bhava ang (expression). Although he was not educated — he could only just sign his name in big letters — I discovered years later that this was the way the Natya Shastra spoke of composing a piece of music.

He also created an orderly, complete format of presentation. He taught us to build on a rhythmic phrase — how to make it grow organically, how to shape, extend or shorten it. And he introduced the gat in vilambit (slow tempo). The gat had the nayikas (different kinds of heroine), it had chhed-chhaad (teasing between Krishna and the milkmaids). I realised he was introducing abhinaya into the nritta (purely technical aspect of dance). Normally in nritta, there is no space to do abhinaya in vilambit tempo.

Another important aspect he added was to introduce a chhand (poem) before performing a thumri. A thumri is just a moment (of a nayika's journey in shringara rasa), but by putting a chhand before it, he created a background, like the ground on which you walked into the thumri. No other guru of Jaipur or any other gharana did this. Also, though he was a non-performing guru, he knew how to mould a performer.

After several decades as a popular performer, can you look back and analyse your personal contribution to your chosen field?

Contribution is a big word, and I wouldn't call it that, since it can only be called so if it becomes a trend, but this is how I feel. To me Kathak is a complete language. I have never stepped out or felt the need to step out of the Kathak idiom to convey any ideas. If a language has a strong grammar, the language is bound to be good. We got that grammar by doing years of nritta. There are traces of my guru which I follow. If you feel there is balance in my presentations, it is because of him.

Also, I learnt how to create a graph for my performances. Guruji taught us never to let the tempo flag once you have built it up. Once for a particular event in which I needed to choreograph a French poem, I needed to start my performance with a tarana. I searched for a slow tempo tarana and began with it, then took up a thumri and then went on to the poem in vilambit. (By starting with a slow tarana she could include all elements of Kathak in the presentation without letting the tempo slide backwards). Also, I love poetry, and poetry finds its way to my performances!

Any special memories of your guru?

I saw him dance when I was in third or fourth standard. I think a child is naturally attracted to beauty. When I saw him I thought he was beautiful, though he was not a handsome person, had thick glasses and all. If as a child I found him beautiful I feel his dance has to have been beautiful. If he had to leave the class while teaching us a bol it was compulsory that by the time he came back, we had built it up to something else. Thus we learnt almost painlessly how to develop a bol.

What do you feel is the worst thing about the condition of the Kathak field, and what for you is the best thing about it?

The perception of Kathak from both outside and within the field is what I would like to change. This approach lacks depth. Also, there are less educated people in the field, and even those who are educated somehow become dumb. I see this dumbness in many of the new dancers and gurus. Kathak is seen as just toda, tukra and footwork. This is not true. It is thumri, it is bhajan. When I danced in Chennai once, some people came and asked me, where is this dance form from. This can only be changed by dancers, and they should be more aware and more vocal about it.

The education (training) system should be changed. Right now you are making dumb parrots. You can't see the form itself only the skill. After a performance people remember only the chakkars, because there is no content. Dancers are clueless about poetry. I would like this to change.

As for the good things, they are all pervading!

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