Padmashri Shovana Narayan’s name is synonymous with kathak. But the dance exponent has added another feather to her cap as an actor in director and writer Durba Sahay’s film Aavartan. The film explores the tradition of guru-shishya parampara, where the doyenne plays a Kathak guru, Guru Bhawna Sarasvati.
In an email interview with indianexpress.com, she talks about the experience of acting in a film, the tradition of guru-shishya parampara in today’s context, and her views on the commercialisation of traditional dance forms by Bollywood.
How was the experience of acting in a film?
It was very interesting. It becomes even more enjoyable when there is a good director, which I had.
Did your understanding of the nuances of expressions make the experience easier for you?
As a dancer, even though we understand abhinaya with all its nuances, yet the two mediums – stage and film – are very different from each other. While both require internalisation of emotions, the degree to which they should be externally reflected differs.
What made you say yes to Aavartan?
First of all, Durba ji is a good friend, whom I have known for years. Secondly, when she narrated the story and asked me to do the film, I found the story interesting. I found her faith in me touching; and as I know her to be artistic and sensitive, I had no hesitation in agreeing to it.
Could you talk about your character in the film, and also share if you relate to Bhawna Sarasvati in real life?
The emotional trauma, misunderstandings, insecurities of changing times and advancing age, ambitions of younger generations — which may rightly or mistakenly appear to be ruthless in their self-projection — all that is part of life. Every generation goes through it. It is an eternal cycle. This is universally true for any and all vocations.
When my students heard the story, one of them exclaimed to the director, “But didi (meaning me) is not so! She takes a backseat on stage and focuses the limelight on us!” Durba ji and I laughed as she explained that it was only a film.
With changing times, how has the guru-shishya parampara evolved?
When speaking of the guru-shishya parampara, I do think we need to re-evaluate its actual meaning. Gone are the times, when the shishya would go and stay in the guru’s ashram and learn the skills and also imbibe how to conduct oneself in life. But whether there is an ashram or not, what is essential in this parampara is that not only the technical skills are imparted and perfected by the shishyas, but also the intangible aspects of the art form, its soul, understanding of what it really means as also life’s values and how to conduct oneself in life.
Today, too, among disciples, there is a small number that tries to imbibe the actual essence of the parampara, showing the same devotion, sadhna and dedication. The guru, too, keeps evolving with changing times, but the core essentials remain intact.
What was the most challenging thing about acting?
As dancers, we are used to speaking through movements while keeping our mouths closed, whereas in a film medium, an expressive voice is important while expressions are to be conveyed with minimal movements. In a way, the film medium, minus the speech, reminded me of the ‘abhinaya’ as done by traditional Kathaks – “minimum movements, maximum emotion”.
Not many films are made on traditional dance forms and its various facets. What are your views on the same?
I agree and therefore it was so refreshing to see Durba ji concentrating on portraying “authenticity” rather than resorting to “popularisation”. There is so much beauty in “authenticity” and yet so very interesting!
Do you, at any time, feel that Bollywood has led to the commercialisation of traditional dance forms?
Commercialisation of art has become more and more pronounced in Bollywood, which is rather unfortunate. I am strongly of the opinion that the greatest harm to its (Kathak’s) origin, to its portrayal, as opposed to the truth, has come from Bollywood. Commercial cinema has always portrayed it in a debauched manner forgetting its original temple roots and historicity. After all, this is the only group of devotional dancers, who have been mentioned in the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata and also in the 4th century BC (Mauryan period) Prakrit inscription. There is also a great distinction between what some of the dancing girls were taught and what the actual Kathaks performed – a distinction which was totally overlooked or not understood by commercial cinema.
What advice would you give to youngsters who want to pursue a career in traditional dance?
I would say that any career is good. A good career depends on our attitude, efforts, sincerity, honesty and dedication towards the chosen art or vocation. What is our behaviour, are we compromising on moral and ethical values, in our language, habits, etc.? All these go a long way in projecting an image of the person as well as the vocation one represents.
On taking art – classical dance as a chosen vocation – why not? Like in any other vocation, the fruits depend on one’s own efforts, depth and dedication to it. However, it is not a vocation with overnight fame or financial benefits but one that demands perseverance, depth of thought and actions. But in the end, its rewards are far greater for it gives the much required ‘inner peace’.
The choice is ours and ours alone.
Would you be open to acting in more films now?
Who knows what the future will bring? I just know that my puja is Kathak, my atma is in Kathak!