Shashidharan Nair has been dancing professionally for over 35 years. Of these, nearly 30 have been devoted to Delhi's popular arts institute, the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (BKK), where he is a choreographer and teacher of Chhau and ballet training. The last refers to training artistes to take part in the dance productions of the Kendra, where dancers require varied skills from a range of genres — Kathakali to Kathak, Odissi to Modern Dance, Chhau to Bharatanatyam.
Nair, trained in Kathakali, Kalaripayattu, Mayurbhanj Chhau. Odissi and Modern Dance, besides the Creative Dance pioneered by Uday Shankar, is eminently suited to the job. He is currently pursuing a Senior Fellowship from the Ministry of Culture on martial arts of Kerala. Having joined BKK as a repertory artiste in the early 1980s, he has grown with the institute. Nair, who has also choreographed private productions for schools and artiste groups, acknowledges the support of BKK in giving him a platform all these decades.
From his boyhood years in Kerala studying India's ancient arts, Nair came North and was brought under the wing of some of the most forward-looking artistes, Prabhat Ganguly and Gul Bardhan of the legendary Little Ballet Troupe. After 10 formative years in Gwalior, he settled in New Delhi. Even as he busies himself with BKK's ongoing Festival of Ballets, the veteran looks back on an eventful dance journey. Excerpts from an interview:
How did you happen to join the Little Ballet Troupe?
I first came to Delhi in 1971. I performed in the “Ramayan” (BKK production). It was Krishnan Namboodiri who suggested I join Little Ballet Troupe in Gwalior. So I joined and stayed till 1981.
What was it like?
I was only 16. Little Ballet was at its peak then. Prabhat Ganguly was the choreographer. We were about 25 people including the teachers. Classes were from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. From 10 to about 11.30 we had exercises. From 11.30 to 1 we had improvisation, then an hour's break. From 2 till about 6 p.m. there was training. It could be Chhau (under Krishnachandra Naik) or training in the old or new ballet productions. We also had to work on the stage. They trained us in all the areas: light and sound, stage craft, costuming. Say we were performing in a village. We would get only the platform. Everything else — curtains, light and sound equipment, properties — we had to set up. They would keep changing the groups, so everyone got a chance to learn. We would travel in the hot months. Loading and unloading the trucks was also our job. That is also a learning.
How was the student-teacher relationship?
It was like a family. We played Holi together, celebrated all the festivals. During heavy rains classes would be cancelled. Then we would make pakoras…. Prabhat Da felt everyone should be free. He would always say, “Don't hold yourself back. Dance is above feelings of shyness and hesitation.” He would always cite theatre people, saying they don't hesitate to start yelling anywhere if required.
What did Prabhat Ganguly teach?
He was the best exercise man. He taught about body language, how to use each part, from toe to head. Also improvisation. Say, you take a “zero” shape. How many ways can you cut it up to make different shapes? He concentrated more on improvisation. Improvisation is the best part of creation. He would ask one group to do something, then another group, then choose.
What about Gul Bardhan?
Gul Bardhanji was supportive. He taught us cutting and costumes.
Where did you perform with the LBT?
All over Madhya Pradesh. Around 1978, we travelled from Kashmir to Kanyakumari over two months. We would do a show or two in each State. Their famous productions were “Ramayana” and “Panchatantra”. In Ramayana, I was Lakshman and Gul Bardhanji was Ram. Sita was played by Panchali Bardhan.
Little Ballet's production quality was going down, and they were getting more interested in theatre. I thought it was the right time to come to Delhi. I joined BKK as a repertory dancer. Then I worked as a ballet trainer. Once I choreographed a production “Tripurantaka” for my students. Then Shobhaji (Shobha Deepak Singh) asked me to choreograph.