Bharat Sharma on the Narendra Sharma Festival of Dance, coming soon

Since his demise in January 2008 at 84, renowned Contemporary Dance choreographer Narendra Sharma, founder of Bhoomika Creative Dance Centre, is remembered on his birth anniversary with the Narendra Sharma Festival of Dance (NSFD). Eminent choreographers have been invited to the festival, whose scope increases every year. This time the event, starting October 16, features 12 soloists. Here Bharat Sharma, the founder’s son and current director of Bhoomika, talks about his father’s contribution and puts the Contemporary Dance scene into perspective. Edited excerpts:

What is the thought behind focusing on solos this time?

This year Bhoomika proposes a two-part festival — a three-day festival of solos in Delhi, and a 12-day performance circuit in Kangra Valley.

This time the focus is on individuals to perform solos, but individuals who make group activity as their primary area of artistic engagement and praxis. Over three days of this festival, each dancer appears on stage to say their part of the story.

In India, it is difficult to sustain groups and dance companies. Most soloists in this festival are leaders of their own group. Somewhere their personal careers have got sidelined due to exigencies of sustaining their dance companies. This festival attempts to re-invent and recover parts of their unique personalities. Some solos have been choreographed by eminent choreographers on senior dancers to investigate a parallel journey of looking within as well as on their bodies.

Your father was a pioneer in so many ways…. How would you assess his contribution?

For me, his life is a yardstick to measure and read the times he lived in, dispassionately and courteously, especially from 1920s onwards.

My father re-located to Delhi in 1955 from Mumbai to teach dance to children at Modern School – an elitist but progressive school. When he arrived, the city was pretty much a clean slate with only a handful of dancers. While Sangeet Natak Akademi operated from a single room in Regal Building under Chairmanship of Nirmala Joshi, there were other institutional interventions, mainly Bharatiya Kala Kendra under Sumitra Charatram, Modern School under M.N. Kapur and Triveni Kala Sangam under Sundari Shridharani, who was a dancer and classmate of my father at Almora School.

Sumitraji was drawn to Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, and wanted to do a dance-drama on the text. She was married into DCM group, who turned out to be important benefactors for the arts. She was advised by Dharam Vira, her elder brother and first Cabinet Secretary in Jawaharlal Nehru’s first government after Independence, to approach my father. Dharam Vira had seen Uday Shankar’s ‘Ramlila’, an experimental magnum opus with shadow play, produced entirely for the village community around Almora with a specially built open-air auditorium. He was a ‘bhakt’ of Uday Shankar, who pursued Dada for years after closure of Almora School to re-start it anywhere in India, with full support.

In Delhi, upon prodding from Dharam Vira, Sumitraji approached my father to choreograph ‘Ramlila’. Rehearsals started in Modern School. The very first ‘Ramlila’ was co-produced by National Ballet Centre of my father, who took care of all artistic inputs, while Sumitraji funded it through Bharatiya Kala Kendra Trust.

I was just a few months old then. Delhi saw its first major influx of artists from different parts of India, mostly dancers and musicians from Kolkata, Mumbai and Kerala.

Given the expanding scale of production, rehearsals shifted to Scouts and Guide Hall in present-day Pragati Maidan.

First ‘Ramlila’ was performed in present-day Ferozeshah Kotla Cricket Stadium with a massive stage set-up, with a cast of approximately 50 dancers and live musicians. It was a roaring success, and set a trend in Delhi. There were heartburns too. Pundits criticised saying the production was influenced by ‘western’ ideas, there was no authenticity, no technique in dancers — oft repeated arguments we hear even now.

But credit to Sumitraji for persisting with the ‘ballet’ troupe. In the next few years a host of dance companies cropped up in Delhi. Kamla Narendra Lal, a colleague of Sumitraji, soon took an independent course and took Bhagwan Das Verma away to set up Natya Ballet Centre and they choreographed yet another big production, ‘Krishna Lila’. And soon there were almost half a dozen dance companies, including Yog Sundar’s Indian Revival Group. I dare say by the mid-’60s Delhi had stolen the thunder in dance from the rest of India.

In 1957, Bharatiya Kala Kendra decided to take over the production lock, stock and barrel, without my father. He had a job while others did not. Everybody was happy to opt out and get employed.

The breakup was a setback for my father. In subsequent years several choreographers were hired by Bharatiya Kala Kendra to sustain the newfound group. Each year some tinkering was done, but the structure remained the same for several more years when in 1961, Sumitraji again requested my father to return and re-design the production in even bigger spectacle. Between 1961 and ’65, the production was overhauled, with Joytindra Mitra coming as music director and Tapas Sen as lighting designer, and ticketed shows were put up for full one month during Dussehra days at Ferozeshah Kotla Grounds. That phase changed the Delhi dance scene yet again.

For me, these were the early beginnings of new direction in Indian dance, and the way we know Contemporary Dance in the city now owes itself to these beginnings. It is important to take note of how the a cultural landscape of a city is shaped.

Narendra Sharma’s other major contribution was in dance education. Today Delhi has the densest presence of dance in schools in comparison to other cities. Credit goes to him for those early beginnings in Modern School that became a benchmark for other schools to follow. In his 30 years in school he choreographed almost 300 ‘ballets’. Our second leg of the festival, ‘Andretta Riyazshala’, points to this aspect of his career.

What inspired you to take the solo stage after years, and what are you planning?

Yes, I haven’t danced a solo for 12 years. Did not get an opportunity. The trajectory of my work had also changed – more teaching, art administration and organisational efforts in building a support system in South India. Plus I relocated from Bangalore to Hyderabad, and then back to Delhi. For me it was a tall job to re-invent myself in Delhi — I was away for 18 years. Running a dance company in India takes a toll on individual careers. I was telling my colleagues in the festival not to go my way. I felt a bit left out telling others and not applying the principal to myself. So I took the challenge and that has made me nervous…

I am premiering “Neti! Neti!” – an exploration in movement of ancient Indian argumentative process of negation...Not this, Not this, Not that…

Narendra Sharma Festival of Dance

Shri Ram Centre, New Delhi, October 16-18, 7 p.m.

Andretta Riyazshala

Performance Circuit in Kangra Valley, Himachal Pradesh, October 21 – November 1