DANCE Dancer Praveen Kumar, the recipient of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Award for Bharatanatyam, says exploring the male emotion has always fascinated him. ARCHANA NATHAN
Almost always the object of much adulation and amour, Lord Krishna has never had to struggle too hard to win a gopi's heart or go on a self-imposed penance to woo his Radha. But how would he feel if a gopi were to give him the cold shoulder and walk away? What would go through his mind and how would his ego react to this unanticipated turndown?
These were the emotions that Bharatanatyam dancer Praveen Kumar said he grappled with at a recent performance in Delhi where he performed a ‘rare' javali choreographed to a famous Telugu composition by Sarangipani that tells the story of Krishna in this unexpected circumstance. Sitting in the living room of his Basavangudi home in Bangalore – Karnataka's first recipient of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Award for Bharatanatyam conferred on him by the Sangeet Natak Akademi – he narrated the storyline of the javali he performed in Delhi. Krishna is generally surrounded by gopis who are always seen competing with each other for his attention.
On this particular occasion, he comes across a group of young women and notices this one really beautiful woman among them. He lovingly calls her but she snubs him and goes away. Krishna is shocked because no girl has ever reacted to him in this manner. His reaction to this insult forms the thrust of the Javali. It was in an abhinaya workshop conducted by Kalanidhi Narayanan in the mid-nineties when Praveen was first exposed to the possibility of a composition that focussed, for a change, on how a man felt, instead of the regular woman-centric compositions.
“Kalanidhi maami taught me a Kshetreya padam that goes like this – “Rama Rama prana sakhi nada bhaasi…”. In this padam, Krishna is thinking about Rama and wonders how he was able to send Sita to the forest when he himslef realises how difficult it is to stay away from a gopi, even for a second. For a composition like this, I realised that one needs to exercise control over one's emotions. At that time, I was still growing as a dancer. But the concept of such padams was astonishing in itself,” said Praveen.
Largely unexplored, these emotions and themes, Praveen said, he rarely came across in performances he watched. Instead, male dancers are usually made to perform bhakti pieces only, especially in padams and javalis. At Kalanidhi Narayanan's workshop, Praveen realised that there are numerous male-centric songs and while choreographing the abhinaya for them is challenging, it is most definitely thrilling at the same time. “Kshetreya padams and javalis have set tunes. So if I get the script and the notations, I can work on it. I ask the singer to record the song for me and then I compose the piece at leisure. A couple of years ago, I choreographed a devaranama in Kannada, ‘Maneyolagaado Govinda,' which is a popular piece. Everybody commonly explores tayi vatsalya in this composition. But I tried it from a father's perspective. There are no references to gender in the song. Everyone thinks vatsalya is an emotion only the mother is capable of and the father isn't. I thought I should try it,” he said.
Sitting next to the memento he received from Leela Samson – the Chairperson of Sangeet Natak Akademi – who Praveen Kumar confessedly is a huge fan of, he talks of how happy his guru, Professor C.V. Chandrashekhar, was when he received the award. More often than not it is just one class a year, but Praveen goes to Chennai to train under his 76-year-old Guru whenever possible. “A strong foundation in dance was given to me by guru Narmada who emphasised on neat and clean nritta under the Pandanallur style. Chandrashekhar Sir played the role of polishing the finer aspects of my dance. Also, from a man's point of view, he would tell me how to stand and what posture looks good on a male dancer. The same step, sometimes, looks better on a boy a certain way and for a girl in a totally different way,” he said.
His guru also encouraged him to explore these rare unconventional pieces that focus on emotions that have not been explored previously in dance.
Chandrashekhar composed and wrote the lyrics to a varnam in Abhogi that was tailor-made for Praveen. “The varnam, put very simply, is about a man pining for a girl. In the pallavi, you see the nayaka longing for the nayaki's love, followed by the anupallavi and charanam where he remembers episodes from the past, of times they spent together. My guru had this wish of composing a varnam on men, but he said he never got a chance. When he decided to choreograph this varnam, he said – ‘at least now let me complete my wish,”' recounted Praveen .
When asked if the composition would be the same if a female teacher had composed it, Praveen said: “I feel that a man can probably relate better to male-centric emotions in a composition. I don't know if the same composition from a female teacher would have the same idea and the same depth. Also, because he ( his guru Chandrashekhar) is a composer himself, the composition is his brainchild. He knows more about it and naturally, the piece had more depth.” Treading confidently in the bastion of male emotions, guided by his guru, it is then not surprising that at the age of 40, Praveen is a recipient of a prestigious citation. When asked about what he shared in common with other recipients, he said, “We are all very passionate about our art forms.”