Kathak's ‘abhinaya' queen

Devoted to Kathak: Saswati Sen has been committed to Kathak for four decades and more. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Saswati Sen defies stereotypes, devoid of the mandatory handloom/ silk sari, ‘arty' jewellery or ‘kohled' eyes that one has come to expect from a classical dancer. She is regular. Nothing about her prepares one for one of Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj's prominent disciples. The petite dancer was in the city the other day to perform at ‘Parampara', the Indian classical dance festival on at JTPac.

Early training

Saswati Sen began her Kathak education (Lucknow gharana) under Reba Vidyarthi at Kathak Kendra run by Birju Maharaj's uncle, Shambhu Maharaj. She went on to become Birju Maharaj's disciple and it is said that she is the driving force behind Maharaj's dance school Kalashram, New Delhi. She considers herself “fortunate to be able to continue ‘guru-shishya' relation for the last 43 years.” She was the recipient of the Sangeeth Natak Akademi (2004-5) and the Sanskriti Award etc. A regular on the lec-dem circuit, she is associated with SPIC- MACAY, Ford Foundation, and the American Center.


Renowned for the ‘abhinaya' aspect, she makes a strong case for naturalness in performances. It is the open-endedness of Kathak, the space to innovate and experiment, that appeals to her. Saswati says, “A Kathak performance cannot be repeated. How I project the audience's sense of understanding and how it is understood…it is different every time.”

Her first guru

She began learning Kathak under Reba Vidyarthi (actor Ashish Vidyarthi's mother) when she was six. “I didn't, for that matter nobody from my family, at that point know what Kathak was. I went to this ‘place' (Kathak Kendra) near our house and learnt dance. ‘Reba Di' was so good with children and I kept going to her.” This was the early 60's when girls learning dance and music were frowned upon. She would attend weekly classes at Kathak Kendra.

As she would walk back from class, she would pass a group of ‘boys' who would sit ‘gossiping' at the Kathak Kendra. “I would hear snatches of conversation. ‘This Bengali…this' or that. I felt they were discussing me. And I decided this group was bad.” Little did she know that the leader of the ‘boys' was none other than Birju Maharaj, who would later on go on to become her guru. Although she had acted in Birju Maharaj's production ‘Krishnayana' when she was around 15, she didn't know who he was.

A couple of years later she was selected for the Government of India's national scholarship. This was the time she joined medical college in Aligarh. She hated medical school, missed Kathak and fell sick. That put an end to medical education. She opted for anthropology and the National scholarship instead. One of the prerequisites for the scholarship was that it should be a celebrated guru. “‘Reba Di' wouldn't qualify. But she told me she would take me to another guru.”

Birju Maharaj

“And who did she take me to? Surprisingly, to the leader of the ‘bad' boys, ‘Maharaj-ji'. I told ‘Reba Di' I didn't want to learn under that person,” she says. That's how she met Birju Maharaj. An exponent of ‘abhinaya' that she is, various expressions flit through her face – anxiety, fear, shyness, sadness…“that's how badly I didn't want to learn under ‘Maharaj Ji'. But I didn't know his greatness then and I was very young.”

After months of crying in ‘Maharaj Ji's' class, she was told by him that if all she intended doing was weeping, she could leave. She didn't leave, of course. Later on, years later, when she told him about her ‘childish' reaction, he asked her, “But what did I do to you?” That was the beginning of a long ‘guru-shishya' relationship. “He moulded me like how a potter moulds clay!”

So were the ‘bad boys' gossiping about her? Saswati laughs, “It seems they were saying good things about my dance.”

Shatranj ke Khiladi

Those who have seen the film might remember ‘Kanha tose main haari…', a Kathak performance in the Satyajit Ray film. Birju Maharaj sang and Saswati danced. It took a lot of convincing on Satyajit Ray's part for her parents to relent. “But since it was ‘Satyajit Da', they agreed. He told my parents that it would be like I was performing on stage only that there would be a film camera instead of the audience,” she says. That one performance made her famous in West Bengal. “I was invited for so many performances,” she says.

Future plans

Among her (‘and Maharaj Ji's') plans is a desire to work towards popularising Kathak in Kerala. If that pans out we will get to see more of Saswati and Kalashram.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 10:42:55 AM |

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