In the lens of the beholder

STAGE AND BEYOND: Shovana Narayan in a still from the film

STAGE AND BEYOND: Shovana Narayan in a still from the film

Anyone who knows Shovana Narayan knows her ringing laughter, the kind not always expected in polite diplomatic circles. She’s a diva who doesn’t seem to care about her image, but only gathers more fans, the more frame-free she lives her life. Thereby hangs a pun, it turns out, as a documentary film on the eminent Kathak dancer was just premièred at the Open Frame festival of the Public Service Broadcasting Trust this Tuesday. “Shovana”, by filmmaker Aparna Sanyal, was screened at New Delhi’s India International Centre to an encouraging audience response.

Shovana is used to having her life studied. She was also the focus of a 2016 documentary, “Born to Dance”, by Beenu Rajput, and has been the subject of innumerable interviews and a book or two over the decades.

filmmaker Aparna Sanyal

filmmaker Aparna Sanyal

Aparna says she filmed the documentary over a year, having first researched for a year. Even for someone who carries her eminence as lightly as Shovana, being in the eye of the camera over long periods of time can’t be terribly easy.

“Frankly, I wasn’t doing it for her,” says the acclaimed dancer. She likens the experience to a stage rehearsal, where other people are always present, carrying on with their own tasks, but the dancer need not bother about them.

“I said, ‘You hang around, do whatever you want to.’... For me she was just another person.” Shovana does admit to wondering sometimes whether she was being caught on camera saying anything “indiscreet”. However, she did not ask to go through the footage before the film was finalised. “No,” she maintains. “I didn’t want to impose my views on anything. Everybody has their own way of looking at it, and I respect it totally.”

To some she may seem “superhuman” Shovana continues, while to others, she might not appear great at all. “The pendulum might swing the other way,” she observes, adding what matters to her is whether she is carrying out her own work “with my whole heart and soul.”

It was Shovana’s personality that drew the filmmaker to this project. She had worked with her earlier, while filming the making of Shovana’s 2014 stage production “Shunyata” in collaboration with Tibetan monks. This culminated in the short film “Shunyata — When Kathak Met Cham”.

“That was my first introduction to Shovanaji,” says the director, although she knew of her. Interestingly, Shovana — among the earliest ‘dual career’ classical dancers, combining the responsibilities of a civil servant with the demands of performing internationally — happened to be a colleague of Aparna’s father in the civil services.

“There was something really nice about her,” says Aparna, who felt there was a “cloud of happiness about her that followed her everywhere.”

The film brings across the erudite background of the dancer, the vital role played by her parents in providing their daughters an eclectic education and the opportunity to appreciate art. Shovana’s students, her sister Ranjana Narayan and her husband, Austrian diplomat Herbert Traxl (who has been his country’s ambassador to India in the past), share their perspectives.

For the filmmaker, the aim was to offer “a reflection of the artist’s process” as well as to discover what made Shovana the artist. “Would she be Shovana Narayan without her mother being what she was, without her husband being what he is?”

From the students we learn of Shovana the meticulous guru, a demanding taskmaster who leads by example. We also see part of a Doordarshan interview, some clips of Shovana’s productions, some backstage footage, and also glimpse Shovana on her research trips to Kathak villages.

The film doesn’t include much that could be termed critique of the dancer’s work, either from her peers in the dance world, or musicians and other artists she has collaborated with. Aparna says some people were hyperbolic in their praise but their inputs would not have added significantly to the film, whereas the “personal stories were far more honest.”

Shovana was a trail-blazer in that she based her choreographic work on material as diverse and unusual for the time as the writings of Omar Khayyam; the Buddhist principle of shunyata ; an episode in the life of Mahatma Gandhi when as a child he was taught to recite the name of Ram by a maidservant Rambha, and numerous other themes. In this context, although the dancer herself, an articulate speaker, mentions her constant habit of “swimming against the tide,” we don’t hear the assessments of others in the field, whether in agreement or disagreement.

To the filmmaker such inputs would be nothing beyond dance politics. “That is something that doesn’t even interest me. I’m more interested in what makes her what she is, what inspires her,” she states.

And anyone with a dissenting tone would have had to agree to speak on camera, and “nobody would be honest enough,” avers the director. She didn’t want to make a film with a voiceover, which could have bypassed that problem. “Second, if it is a narrator’s film it becomes my voice. My decision was to stay with people who had actually stayed with her, lived their life with her.”

Catching up with Shovana following the screening, we find her more forthcoming. “Of course there was a backlash,” she says but explains, “On the one hand they loved it and on the other hand they had a problem!”

While Flamenco and Kathak collaborations are common today, recalls Shovana, “I did it in 1989, the first ever trio with Ballet and Flamenco. Everyone would say, what the hell are you doing!”

When she presented “Mohan and Rambha”, says the Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi award recipient, “people said, ‘ Achha, Angrezi mein naach rahi ho . (You’re dancing in English).’ Now everybody is dancing in Angrezi !”

Such comments however would be interesting only to dancers, notes the director. “I’m sure the film would have been different if I had been a dancer,” she says. And while “every dancer has a politics and every artist has a politics,” where Shovana stands “is made very clear in the film.”

Being made by someone who is not a dancer but an “enthusiastic” member of the audience is also the film’s strength, feels the director. Certainly, for anyone interested in human relationships, the film has its charms. For example, when the husband and wife talk of their long-distance marriage that routed the dark prophecies of the doubters. One of their secrets, which helped overcome the lack of adequate telephone connectivity in the past, was sending each other long messages recorded on audio cassettes every week.

Then there are the sequences of her practising her tatkaar and jogging. Again, maybe a non-dance audience wouldn’t blink, but to see an Indian classical dancer of Shovana Narayan’s stature in shorts and T-shirt is significant. “I’m not concerned about image. I don’t have to put on a false persona,” she says.

No wonder she can tell her students, “Have your head on your shoulders and feet firmly on the ground. Art should teach you humility, not arrogance.”

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Printable version | May 17, 2022 11:54:56 am |