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A voyage of excellence

Sushmita Banerjee talks about her journey in Kathak.

September 11, 2014 03:50 pm | Updated 03:50 pm IST

Sushmita Banerjee is one of the most distinguished Kathak exponents of Lucknow gharana.

Sushmita Banerjee is one of the most distinguished Kathak exponents of Lucknow gharana.

Sushmita Banerjee is one of the most distinguished Kathak exponents of Lucknow gharana. Having started dance early in life, Sushmita, over the years, has matured into an artiste under the training of names like Guru Pandit Ramnarayan Mishra, Shrimati Maya Chatterjee and Pandit Vijay Shankarand, and has performed in platforms from across Europe, Africa, North America, Southeast Asia besides India.

“Kathak is the only dance form which gives you a lot of liberty to experiment,” feels Sushmita, who now runs training centres in West Bengal (Kolkata), Kerala and Geneva. In an interview here, Sushmita, who has “revived the Katha Shaili of Kathak under the tutelage of Pandit Birju Maharaj”, looks back at her journey so far. Excerpts:

What attracted you to dance?

There would be musical soirees, jatras and plays in which my family members would participated. My mother, late Ramola Banerjee, took an active interest in singing and acting.

Though she was extremely interested in dancing, it was unthinkable at that time for the daughter of a traditional family to take it up. At the age of four, my mother took me to Birla Academy in Kolkata where admission was given to students only from age five. When the principal told it to my mother, I began crying. My Guruji, late Pandit Ram Naryan Mishra, was coming down the stairs and requested the principal to admit me. Kathak became my passion, so I pursued only Kathak. I started performing from a tender age and when I lost my mother to cancer, it further motivated me to share my emotion through the medium.

What would you call your landmark productions?

My interpretation of ‘Avisar’ by Rabindranath Tagore was a collage of music, poetry and dance. My abhinaya in a performance based on Ghalib’s ghazal was rich both in its imagery and presentation. I am adept in both nazakat and khubsoorti which are the salient features of Lucknow gharana. Tulsidas’s ‘Ramcharitmanas’ was creatively interpreted in my choreography.

My piece-de-resistance was ‘Kumarsambhavam’ of Kalidasa which has not been previously attempted in Kathak. Pratiksha, Sita, Charavuyha, Hanuman from Ramayan and Tal Tarang — an eclectic fusion of North and South Indian percussions with Kathak, are some of my choreographies.

What are some of your cherished memories from performances?

I am truly blessed as I have shared the stage with late Bismillah Khan saab, Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Amjad Ali Khan and the late Nikhil Banerjee. Legendary Dhrupad maestro Ustad Aminnudin Dagar-ji would often ask me to show him what I had learned in my Kathak class. He would always attend my programmes in Kolkata. He was truly the greatest influence on me besides my mother.

Tell us about your journey as a Kathaka?

My journey in Kathak has been an enriching experience. Constant travel in different environments has equipped me to face life with an open mind and I have learnt to embrace different perspectives. It has taught me humility and my achievement is not a personal victory but is relevant in the larger scheme of things. Whenever I represent India, I put my heart and soul to make my country proud.

What have you achieved through Kathak?

I have taken Kathak to many places in India and abroad. I was invited by Princess Chakri of Thailand to perform Kalidasa’s ‘Kumarsambhavam’ in Sanskrit at the royal palace in Bangkok and by UNESCO to perform in Tokyo. Nippon Television invited me to perform in Osaka. I have various schools in India and abroad. My gurukul in Kolkata welcomes students from Germany, Kuwait, Switzerland, Russia, Spain and Holland every year. I collaborate with theatre artists from Spain and Cameroon for various choreographic works.

As a flag-bearer of SPICMACAY, I have put in my bit. With like-minded people I have started Kerala gharana, a platform for learning, teaching, performance, discussions, and administration of heritage, culture, music, dance, theatre, etc. I am also a visiting professor at Ateliers d’ethnomusicologie, Geneva. I have done extensive research on the thumris of Wajid Ali Shah for which I have been awarded Emeritus Fellowship from the Central Government.

I have done in-depth research on different versions of Ramayana. For this, I have got the Ram Kinkar Award. I have also researched on the eclectic influences on the music of Tagore.

What is the state of Kathak now as per your perception?

Solo performances are few and there is a growing demand for choreographed productions. The quality of performances is getting diluted. Previously, one dedicated a good number of years towards sadhna and riyaz before giving a public performance.

The positive change one experiences now is the availability of information and material to students through workshops, etc. which help them. It is a very difficult profession; only if one is extremely passionate and feel that it touches the soul should one take it up.

There is also some funding by the central Government now to help students pursue their learning further.

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