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Dance on, diva

An ode to Shovana Narayan as she completes three decades as a guru. Ruchira Hoon tells the teaching journey of India’s ‘Kathak Queen’.

india Updated: Aug 29, 2009 22:53 IST
Ruchira Hoon

It was 1974, and Shovana Narayan was being hounded. Her pursuer was a girl named Shruti Gupta Chandra, and it seemed that all she wanted to do was to be taught by Shovana didi, who she considered her guru anyway. After weeks of persuasion, didi caved in and began teaching Chandra at home, on Pandara Road. Thus began the teaching journey of India’s ‘Kathak Queen’.

“It didn’t matter how many breaks I wanted to take, Shruti would keep coming back and saying, ‘Theek hai, ab aap sikhao.’ What else could I do but go along?” says Narayan. As word spread, the number of students grew, and Narayan soon realised that she would have to formalise the education that she imparted. And so Asavari, her dance school which offers training in Kathak, instrumental and vocal music, was born in 1979.

In the 30 years since then, hundreds of students — talented, passionate, devoted — have taught the dancer at least as much as they have learnt. Recently, the students of Asavari paid tribute to their guru at the LalitArpan festival at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre. They are also planning an evening featuring several dance gurus in November and a choreographed performance by her disciples in February 2010.

“I was young myself when I began teaching, but the fact that I could make a difference to so many young lives makes me really proud. Today, Shruti is a painter and dancer. And some of my other students like Madhura (Phatak) and Shivani (Salhotra) are inspiring professionals in their own right,” says Narayan, a disciple of Pandit Birju Maharaj, who has been performing now for over 40 years. “And I know that through Asavari, we are paving the path for a fresh generation.”

Talking tradition

The single biggest draw of Asavari appears to be the gurukul parampara that it follows. Many of the students talk about the guru-shishya relationship between them and their didi, who has not only taught them the nuances of Kathak but has passed down “her sensitivities and messages of love, righteous practice and trust”.

Nineteen-year-old Karthika Singh, who has been training under Narayan since she was two-and-a-half, recalls how patiently didi would explain the subtleties of the dance form to her. “I would sit and watch my older sister dance and whenever I felt like it, I’d break into a jig,” says this student of Philosophy at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College. “From a hobby, Kathak became a passion. I would come to class no matter what. And it was didi who aroused that passion.”

This is a view that most of Narayan’s students share. Dancer Madhura Phatak, one of didi’s oldest students, recalls how each moment was a learning experience for her. “Even when she’d scold me for making mistakes and I’d burst into tears, I’d realise that as my guru, she was demanding from me the same perfection that she was capable of,” she says.

Phatak, who is now a solo performer, also teaches dance to physically-challenged and underprivileged children. “This is the realisation that didi has given me — that anyone can dance as long as they feel it from within.”

Asavari itself has taught its students more than just dance, since Narayan and her mother Lalita Narayan, known mostly as ‘Auntyji’, would often explain the various compositions to students as well as talk about Hindu philosophy and thought. The students also learnt from artistes such as Ustad Shafaat Ahmed Khan, Ali Sardar Jafri, Naina Devi, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena and Naresh Kapuria.

Learning Curve

Yet, Narayan credits the success of her academy to her students. “They have compelled me to think differently about the various aspects of dance,” she says, and recalls how at five, Singh asked her why Lord Shiva, a god, didn’t know that Lord Ganesha was his son when he beheaded him for refusing to let Shiva enter Durga’s chamber. “I did give her an answer that satisfied her temporarily, but at that time, it forced me to think out of the box,” says Narayan.

Thinking “out of the box” is probably why, despite the poor patronage of the performing arts in India, Asavari has held its own. Narayan describes her students as “full of life and zest” and remains a hands-on teacher herself, often directly involved in the students’ practice sessions.

Her students reciprocate her affection. Salhotra sums it up. “She is our guide, our mentor, our guru, our mother. It is she who has taught us to express ourselves.”