Punya Srivastava talks to Kathak guru Dr Shovana Narayan about her personal and professional life, and the role of spirituality in it
Hers is a 64-year long journey of sadhana.
To the world, her journey might have started at the age of three. But, can a child of such tender age display such dedication to an art form, if not for the samskaras of previous lifetimes being carried into this one? Especially when her family— Brahmin zamindars hailing from North Bihar—had been academically oriented since generations? When I posed this question to Kathak exponent Padma Shri Dr Shovana Narayan, she pondered for a second and sighed, “I don’t know.”
Sitting in the alfresco cafe of the gorgeously landscaped India International Centre (IIC) in the cultural epicentre of the national capital, Dr Shovana Narayan exudes grace and modesty. Her artistic brilliance radiates from the depth of her humility. She does a mellow namaskar every time she comes across an old acquaintance (be it a friend or a staff member) in the breezy lawns of the IIC.
With over 30 awards decorating her illustrious career of 60 years, Dr Narayan’s is a name to reckon with. Perhaps this was the reason I felt jittery when I learnt that I would be interviewing her for the magazine because it is natural to be a bit awestruck with someone who has been celebrated across the globe and yet comes across as someone grounded and approachable.
Dr Narayan’s kitty is full of accolades and achievements. The dancer in her has blazed a trail in contemporising Kathak and bringing to the limelight various philosophical works and social issues of India, through her performances. Following is an excerpt of a tête-à-tête with her.
Did you choose Kathak or did Kathak choose you?
I would say that we both found each other. Like any other two-year-old with an excessive amount of energy, I would pester my mother, asking her, “What should I do now?” She would say, “dance.” She took me to guru Sadhana Bose who took me under her wings. That was my first foray into dance, and I simply loved it! When she saw my size and age, she was completely taken aback. She told my mother, “You have brought God’s own child.” But this ‘God’s child’ became her favourite because I took to dance as a fish takes to water. Even as a child, there was a sense of seeking within me. And then the external environment was also quite conducive to my seeking, thanks to my parents, especially my mother. She introduced me to the world of Indian philosophy, Sanskrit, Vedic, and Hindi literature.
Would you say that this is because of some past life samskaras?
I don’t know. See, I am a physicist. I have a scientific side to me which believes in logic. But I am also aware that there are some phenomena that are beyond scientific explanations. So I don’t know whether I believe in it or not.
But what I know is that every child is born with a creative streak. It depends upon the external environment, the family’s orientation, as well as the inner determination of the child as to how she will unleash her creativity and to what extent. Each person has been blessed with the power of determination but the level could vary. It is in our own hands to either utilise that creativity or to stem it.
And you were that child who chose to be determined...
I was determined and stubborn. I still am. I knew I wanted to be a dancer as it was my mode of expression in which I was most comfortable. I am very content with myself. I am into my dance. Kathak is my yoga; I do it with all my heart. Perhaps, that is the reason that I exude what I feel.
But then, how did academics find place in your heart, particularly science?
I love science; I love logic. I have a questioning mind. Also, even though I started dancing at a very young age, I still loved to study.
[Dr Narayan did her graduation and then post-graduation in physics from Miranda House, Delhi University. She also holds two M.Phil. degrees, one in Defence and Strategic Studies, and the other in Social Sciences and Public Administration.]
But you were already an acclaimed dancer when you became a bureaucrat with full-time service. And shortly, you also founded Asavari Institute of Kathak. How did you manage so many roles together?
I have always believed that life is like a jigsaw puzzle. Each one of us (she gave special emphasis to these words) is a multitasker. The question is whether we utilise that skill or not.
There are variants in life which seemingly do not gel well with each other all the time. But if you have that passion, commitment, dedication, sincerity, and hard work, everything will fall into place. Time management also plays a significant role. When you do not allow things to overlap, time management becomes a natural habit.
Also, whatever you do, do it with sincerity, whether it's your marriage or life as a parent and grandparent, particularly, a long-distance marriage. Life is full of obstacles. If two people in a relationship have faith, belief, and trust in each other, nothing can break their relationship. Understanding and respect for each other is a prerequisite.
You had a long-distance marriage...
Even today, my marriage is a long-distance relationship. (She is married to former Austrian ambassador to India, Herbert Traxl, for more than three decades.) The only thing that has changed is the duration of our separation. That’s because both of us have retired. Earlier, we used to meet every quarter for a maximum of 10 to 12 days at a time, that is roughly 45 days a year. There was no internet or mobile phone available. Letters took at least 10 days to reach you, and you had to wait for four hours for a trunk call to materialise.
Of course, things have changed drastically in the last four to five decades.
Mankind has progressed tremendously, indeed, in the context of technology and economy. But collectively, as people, I think we are still where we were aeons ago. If not, there would have been respect for each other, for each other’s views, and a better understanding of each other’s differences. Today, there is no respect for life. We want to see conformity everywhere. If you don’t conform to my views, I will use violence to make you conform. If God wanted uniformity, He would have ensured it during the time of creation. He would have made everyone, everything, alike. But look at the diversity in nature; look at the array of different kinds of people He has created. How beautiful that is! If God wanted uniformity, there would have been only one kind of flower in the world, only one season. But look at the iridescence of nature!
We have to understand that there are differences in the world and that these differences have to be accepted and respected, celebrated and enjoyed.
And art has a role to play here...
Classical performing art has always played that role. Look at the teachings and philosophies of saints and artistes across the world, across the eras. They all talk about the same thing, be it Surdas, Raskhan, Bihari. Or be it Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi. Rumi says, “Listen to the plaintive notes of the flute wailing the pangs of separation.”
Their language was different, but the essence is the same—let us purify ourselves of our impurities, elevating ourselves by the love of God. I see the same depth in the music of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart that I see in my raagdaari (Hindustani classical music). All of these take me to those deep crevices of stillness within my heart.
Would you say that an artiste who has experienced the sublimity of his art, is at par with any yogi, sanyasi, or sadhu?
I would say so. If you look at our Indian philosophies, you will see that our devis and devatas are made out to be artistes. Krishna is Natawar with a flute. The sound of the flute transports you to another realm. Saraswati has a veena in her hands. The veena represents the music of life within you, the harmony within you. Because, if the strings of this veena are too taut, they’ll break; if they are loose, they will be tuneless. They have to be in perfect harmony. Look at Nataraja Shiva, look at the concept.
Indian philosophy has given importance to the performing arts. Mainly because it is also taken as one part of the bhakti marg, towards sublimity. Art is a path to sublimity because an artist forgets herself and elevates her inner self. We kathak dancers deal with emotions, we strike at the hearts of the people and not only their intellect.
What is spirituality for you?
For me, spirituality means believing in yourself and, at the same, time elevating yourself. It means having faith in whatever you believe in but, at the same time, the belief needs to come from an honest and sincere space within you. The space in which you feel oneness with your higher Self; that which makes you a better human being. Spirituality is that which inculcates a sense of positivity in you for yourself as well as other human beings and living beings. It includes the environment too, of which, human beings are a part of and not the whole sum.
What motivates you to rise and shine every morning?
Every morning, I get up and stand in front of the mirror to do my riyaaz. I am alive when I am dancing and performing on stage. I express myself through my dance. Dance is the only motivation I require to wake up every morning.
I remember the day of my father’s death quite clearly. I was in my mid 20s and received a call around eight in the morning, informing me of a train accident that involved my father. I was alone when I got the news. I took a cab to the site of the accident, searched for my father’s body, found it, got its post-mortem done, brought it back home, and the next day, I gave him mukhaagni. Two days later, I had to perform in Mathura.Would I have refused to perform? I went ahead with the programme while my sister took the ashes to Haridwar for asthi visarjan. I performed despite my tumultuous emotional state. I was performing a Radha-Krishna dance but was crying from within. At that time, it was my dance that gave me strength and solace. It was the sublimity of dance that gave me the space to embrace my emotions and then rise above them.
What makes you so humble?
Look, at the end of the day, you have to live with yourself. And you have to be happy with yourself. I have always believed in this. And it was ingrained in me by my parents that whatever you do, have your feet firmly on the ground and your head on your shoulders. Because everything else is an illusion.
What would you say to the readers of Life Positive?
I get the impression that the majority of people are attracted to things that glitter. But all that glitters is not gold, be it a glamorous profession or a lifestyle. People today do not give enough importance to the means by which they strive to reach the end; they believe in shortcuts. But we need to understand that this world is an illusion. We need to give importance to our inner selves and to the path that we walk on. Running after glitter might mean falling into the ditch—both intellectual as well as spiritual.
Let us be honest with ourselves; let us be honest about the means we adopt to live our life, to meet our ambitions and aspirations. Let us not lose sight of respect and sensitivity towards others.
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