Talking to Shovana Narayan – Renowned Kathak dancer of India

Shovana Narayan is a Kathak Maestro and an outstanding dancer. She created a new and innovative style of performing arts by enriching it with a deeper and wider canvas of expression and dimensions. She has been awarded with Padmashri in 1992 and Sangeet Natak Academy Awards in 1999.


She talks to us about her school and college days and the importance of guru and her journey in dance..

Please tell us about your school and college days.
I was born in Calcutta and I did my kindergarten in Loretto House, Calcutta. Thereafter, as my father was transferred to Bombay I did my schooling (1st standard to 5th standard) at Convent of Jesus and Mary, Fort, Bombay. Then my 6th and 7th standards were at St Joseph’s Convent, Patna, after which we moved to Delhi. At Delhi I finished my schooling (8th to 11th standard – those were the Senior Cambridge/ISC days) from Mater Dei Convent.
College studies were as follows:
1.       B.Sc. (Physics Honours), Miranda House, Delhi University (1967-70)
2.       M.Sc. (Physics), Delhi University (1970-72)
3.       Master’s Diploma in Public Administration, IIPA, Delhi, 2000-2001
4.       M.Phil (Social Sciences), Punjab University, 2001
5.     M.Phil (Defence & Strategic Studies), University of Madras, 2008
6.       D. Litt (HC), University of Khairagarh

Any memorable incidence of those days you would like to share with us, which had an impact on shaping your personality.
As a performer, my two performances, one at the age of four and the other at the age of 20 taught me a lot. The first made me get over my stage fear and the second taught me stage-craft.

How important do you feel is the role of a teacher in student’s life? Please tell us about your guru and the impact of his teachings on you.
A guru’s role is extremely important for channelizing our energies, for giving us directions, for honing our skills and techniques that equip us not only to do well in our chosen vocation but also to deal with all kinds of challenges in life and much more.
For me, besides my school teachers who equipped me with knowledge and my dance gurus who imparted me the skills and knowledge related to Kathak, it was my mother who imparted in me the values of going deep into the subject, knowledge about Indian philosophy and literature (especially as I had been studying in Convent schools), deep understanding and appreciation of various cultures, importance of time management, of ethical actions, honesty, sincerity and hard work for whatever one does.

What are your views on incorporating art/dance forms as a regular part of the School curriculum? What must be done by the school management to encourage the students to pursue their passion in dance?
Since the late eighties/ early nineties, I have been speaking at various forums about the need to make the appreciation of performing arts part of mainstream school curriculum. Reason is for us to see.
In an age where hard materialism defined by economic and material gains are the byword, is there a need to discuss a subject like traditional and classical dance, is the issue. To find an answer to this, we may have to turn our attention to the happenings around us. The age of commercialization seems to have brought in its wake, an atmosphere of “more affluence but less happiness and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology” as stated by Hope College psychologist David G. Myers. It seems that everything today preys on our inner self to make us unhappy and more dissatisfied and bolsters the age old adage that “wealth does not ensure happiness”. In this atmosphere there comes the imperative need to be able to withstand pressures of crass materialism and harmonise our inner self. Inability to do so leads to unfortunate situations where suicides and violence of various kinds dot the media pages. In sharp contrast is the world of classical dancers who seem to be largely distanced from the world of violence.
Traditional Indian method of education had recognised the power of performing arts that helped in harmonizing energies and tendencies of ‘tandava’ and ‘lasya’ within. Perhaps this formed the underlying principle of imbuing our deities with artistic attributes whereby Goddess Saraswati held a ‘veena’, Lord Shiva performed the ‘tandava’ and was dubbed Nataraja and ‘Natwar’ Lord Krishna could not be seen without his flute! Dance has been taken to be one of the higher forms of Yoga in traditional Indian philosophy whereby its practice brings about the harmonization of the physical, the mental and the spiritual as it keeps the balance between the three ‘gunas’ (‘rajas’, ‘tamas’ and the ‘sattva’). The three ‘gunas’ are the energies through which our deeper consciousness functions.
This need is ever so evident today when the threats or influences being faced are quite different from the influences that were faced in the last thousand years of Indian history. With increasing globalisation, every country is under increasing pressure today from outside influences. With increasing speed of technical advancement, pressures are mounting and in this scenario, the development of a balanced individual becomes all the more necessary.  It is this pressure that led to the escapism phenomenon in different eras – the ‘flower children’ of the sixties and the spate of suicides and criminal acts of later decades! As an answer some have taken to spiritualism.

There is thus the need to understand the relevance and importance of ‘culture and performing arts’ in the growth and development of every individual and therefore, of society. Inter-linkages between science, performing arts, ancient Indian texts on range of subjects and philosophy that impacted and influenced development of science and maths, should form part of education and there should be a policy to cultivate the minds from a very young age and appreciation of these genres with associated appreciation of classical and traditional folk performing arts, ancient and vernacular language, literature and their transliteration, Indian folklores and their relevance today. These should, to my mind, be part of mainstream subjects in all elementary and middle school curricula with a cautionary note that it eschews any hint of regional cultural imperialism and biases.
The imperative to keep an open mind and develop firm roots in our traditions increases day by day. It is necessary to see that the tree of our individual person is a strong and balanced one, able to withstand pressures of all kinds of storms and tempests and which is also capable of appreciating various cultures of the world.

How do you see the Western dance form as against Indian dance form? And your views on mixing Indian dance form and Western dance forms.
Unfortunately, we compare apples with oranges namely western popular dances with Indian classical dances. No one pauses to reflect on the fact that western classical music and western classical ballet are genres just like our Indian classical music and Indian classical dances. Both genres of classical performing arts are deep, requiring in depth knowledge, immense training and an approach that is almost spiritual in nature.
When senior classical artistes of two different cultures collaborate, each one, while being true to his/her own genre of art, training and identity, respects the other collaborating artiste and both find similarities to draw a beautiful collage pattern. Yehudi Menuhin did not play sitar techniques and neither did Pt Ravi Shankar forget the traditional Indian Ragadari to adopt a philharmonic approach.  This can happen when each artiste has a strong base in his/ her own art form and is then able to appreciate all cultures of the world.

In your knowledge what percentage of young generation still prefers to learn traditional dance form in place of western dance form?
One should not go into percentages talk. It is important to note and understand as parents and as elders as to what kind of intangible atmosphere is being given at home and outside that affects and moulds the child’s mindset. Let us also keep in mind that the media onslaught full of materialistic pursuits and gains is enveloping everyone. In this kind of atmosphere, it is not uncommon to find children of homes with a healthy spirit and atmosphere of classical performing arts growing up as balanced human beings.

India is a land of many classical dance forms. Why did you choose only Kathak? What is the inspiration behind?
To begin with, at the tender age of two and half, it was my parents’ interest in Kathak especially it was a form with which they were familiar as we come from that part of the country. Secondly, when I grew up a little, they also afforded me the opportunity of learning another dance form so that I myself could make an informed choice. I chose Kathak because to me, it represents life in all its hues. There is no artificiality whether in stance or emotional expression especially when doing abhinaya. Then it hones one’s skills in improvisation (‘upaj ang’) and also in a subtle manner, hones the skill of leading the musicians and taking judicious decisions about the length of each item as required.
For in-depth and successful ‘abhinaya’ at myriad levels, which is a difficult test of psychological state of mind, it exhorts the dancer to feel various situations and be mentally involved in them, thus, in the delineation of ‘abhinaya’ especially the ‘bhava batana’, so as to be able to unconsciously travel the entire gamut of ‘alidha’ (referential), ‘lakshana’ (metaphorical) and ‘vyanjana’ (poetic).

Tells us about the dance festivals you organise to encourage the young talent.
The three dance festivals that we have been organising have different aims behind it; if one is introspective to discuss the wide canvas of a chosen theme or subject through intellectual debates and performances, another featuring stalwarts of the respective art forms, then the third is to see and present the potential of our young artistes some of whom are bound to become torch bearers of the great classical traditional art forms.

You combined your career as a classical dancer with your demanding profession as a senior civil servant in Indian Audit and Accounts Service. How did you manage both efficiently?
I had grown up with a duality: I was always a good scholar and I was a keen dancer whose reputation was growing by the day. Thus later in life, studies was transplanted by my career in the IAAS. My dedication to Kathak as a performer continued uninterrupted and unpolluted.
Yes, I always had a deep sincere, honest and dedicated approach to both areas. Neither was a hobby. Hence when one does anything with love, passion and commitment, not only does time management become automatic but also there is no question of stress and strain.

And then everyone at some point of time in career comes across some or the other challenges. So, have you come across any challenges or difficulties and how did you tackle those and your advice to the younger generation on tackling challenges and difficulties they face in their career.
Life is full of challenges and ups-and downs. And that is what makes Life! But if there is clarity of purpose, sincerity, honesty, faith in yourself and in relationships to person or to professions, the ability to understand and be aware of one’s limitations, ability to do hard work and go deep into the subject, one automatically finds that new doors and windows start opening up even in the so-called impregnable wall of obstacles of life.