Seasoned exponent Prerna Shrimali on why Kathak is essentially a solo dance form and how she approaches group choreographies
Passion to pursue a classical art form is one thing; realising that passion even before one can take a few steps steadily is another. Dancer-guru Prerana Shrimali is at loss to recall when she took to Kathak. All she remembers is by the age of five, she was dancing! And ever since, “all that I wanted to do in life was to dance,” she says with conviction.
Here she is, standing tall among the eminent performers of Kathak today. As a recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi award nearly a decade ago, she is also one of the leading gurus. “I am and an out and out performer. Teaching came by the way, I never sought to become one. But as I advanced in dance with my dance academics as well, I was being approached to teach. At that point of time, though mature enough, I wasn’t too keen to teach. I wanted to just dance, perform all over the place – as simple as all that! But when Madhavi Mudgal asked me to teach, I couldn’t say no. Gandharva Mahavidyalaya where I taught for 13 years gave me the best in everything. I was surrounded by good people. I realised that teaching grounded me to a great extent. Otherwise, we are flying with high expectations.” She says teaching changed her psyche because young aspirants who come to learn from her are not always what she wishes them to be. “You have to come down to their level in order to mould them into dancers of quality. And to be honest, teaching like driving teaches us patience,” she laughs aloud. So she shifted to being a guru? “Not before, I was an established dancer,” she chips in.
Hailing from Jaipur, Prerana is an epitome of grace and poise. “I owe it all to my gurus and my mother who is my greatest strength. The gurus of those days may not have been academically qualified and not as articulate in that sense of the term but they had wisdom. Their knowledge was immense and their creativity had no bounds. They instilled a sense of decorum, discipline and dedication in their disciples along with technical aspects of dance. My guru Kundanlal Gangani established me firm on my foundation while Guru Gowri Shankar (of film ‘Pakeezah’ fame) and Hari Maharaj sculpted me into a thinking artiste. I don’t find this anymore in the gurus of these days nor in the pupils. Though I’m steeped in the idiom of Kathak, I do admit change as inevitable, as an evolution of an art form. Dance has travelled a long way – from temples to proscenium to open spaces and to enclosed auditoriums, basically to reach out to people, literally too as the audience are seated at a distance spanned across an entire space. However, one should know where to draw the line . You cannot dilute an art form; you cannot change its grammar – you have to work within its confines and still strive to establish a rapport with changing viewership,” she elucidiates.
However, the senior dancer has a thing or two to suggest to the present generation of young dancers. “They compromise on classicality and on the form itself and that is because they are not confident. There is a sort of rush in them to make it to the stage without absolute grounding. It takes years to delve deep into a style and establish oneself. Instant gratification is today’s mantra. I can’t blame them entirely since they succumb to the demands of the times. But somewhere I have faith that the heritage of Kathak will survive.”
Prerana is a person who upholds her inheritance with pride and tries to strike a balance between modernity and tradition. “Kathak is essentially a solo form. But I find this is slowly vanishing from the stage. I have my own reasons to give for this – solo format is complex; the artiste is alone on the stage holding everything in her/his hands and leaving the rest to the imagination of the audience. There are multiple roles to play and emotions to display – all by a single dancer. Abhinaya is subjective and its soul is onlysolo. The audience will also have to use their artistic intelligence to discern and appreciate. As opposed to this, group dynamics are much more overt. But then, group choreographies also have their own complexities. At least with me, I first try out a piece in solo and then develop it into a group production after I’m convinced that it looks best in group. For instance, being from Rajasthan, I knew the life of the royalty and chose to look at Meera as a woman first with respect to her background and her times and then as a devotee of Krsna. I chose seven of her rare verses and imagined myself in each one of them. Then I was convinced that it could appeal and enrich in a group production. Same with my “Saptavarth”. What I object to is that group is not to viewed as a substitute for solo – with the idea of two or three instead of one dancer. That is playing to the gallery which unfortunately most choreographers are doing these days,” she states.
She feels the guru has a great responsibility to mould the pupils into being creative, thinking dancers. Studying dance is also important. “ I have respect for academics. I’m a product of Kathak Kendra. I topped the charts in diploma and specialisation (performance) during my time. But Kathak is all about virtuosity – grammar is its soul and this should not be overlooked,” she says as a word of caution to young aspirants.
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