Bharatnatyam dancer Meenakshi Srinivasan and Kathak performer Shinjini Kulkarni talk about their journeys, the challenges of practising a classical art form and the need to make classical dance relatable for the masses
Classical dance — an art form that finds patrons among the elite. This has been the perception for decades. But younger dancers are now breaking the norms and bringing it to the masses. Meenakshi Srinivasan, Bharatnatyam dancer and disciple of veteran artist Alarmel Valli and Shinjini Kulkarni, grand-daughter of Kathak guru Pandit Birju Maharaj ji performed at an event in the city last weekend. The two dancers share their journeys with us.
Here’s an excerpt from the conversation with Srinivasan...
How and where did your journey begin? What got you into Bharatnatyam?
I trained in Bharatanatyam, encouraged by my mother. I was fortunate to have had a good foundation in the art, with my initial training under Alarmel Valli, one of the foremost practitioners of Bharatanatyam. I had my debut performance — the Arangetram, while I was studying to be an architect.
I started performing actively much later and though I had stopped learning from Valli akka, she remained my greatest inspiration. She taught my body to move, feel and enjoy the dance like I do. My mother too is a driving force. She helps me to this day with my abhinaya. She has a keen eye for expression and has the ability to bring out subtle nuances, like subtexts in poetry. Senior dancers have always been an inspiration and continue to inspire me. Their contribution is immense and that thought always reinforces my commitment to the art.
What have been your challenges pursuing an intense dance form?
As a Bharatanatyam artist, my biggest challenges have been the ones that I set for myself — to be able to practise my dance every day no matter what, to improve a movement, to be creative, to sustain an emotion, to correct a flaw, to add an idea and to constantly take my dance to the next level.
What does dance mean to you?
Dance is the pulse of my life and I am because I dance!
How has it been performing in foreign countries? How do people there perceive India’s traditional art form?
Performing overseas especially in Europe is extremely fulfilling. The audiences are very well informed about our art. Our art is not new to them. They are followers of it.
What would you say to youngsters learning Bharatnatyam or any art form for that matter?
I would say that to learn a classical art is a blessing. The values and ideals that come along with learning a classical art are priceless. The art constantly allows for one to evolve and grow as a person. The ideals and values that come with learning a classical art are priceless.
Dance is life, says Kathak dancer
Dance is life, says Kathak dancer Shinjini Kulkarni, when asked to talk about her journey with the art form. “I was three when I began learning Kathak informally, in a very homely atmosphere,” says Kulkarni, grand-daughter of Kathak exponent Pandit Birju Maharaj. Very soon, she formally joined Pandit ji’s institute and began learning the classical dance form.
Dressed in a grey-coloured ikat kurta and white churidar, accompanied by a polite smile, Kulkarni exuded simplicity and charm as she got ready for her practice session before a performance in the city last weekend.
“When you are learning from the best, it makes your foundation strong,” she says of her initial days into training. “The taleem was intense and the house was full of artists, so it was more like holistic learning for me. I was imbibing the technical aspects of learning while having access to several thought processes and schools of learning,” she explains.
How is it being the granddaughter of the legend himself? “Oh, it is quite pressurising,” she quickly responds, adding, “It’s a huge legacy that I have to carry forward and thus makes the journey quite challenging, and so much more interesting at the same time. Nana is the source of it all.”
Speaking of Kathak, she says that it is one of the most flexible and open forms of art. “There are so many forms and perspectives to this dance form,” she says, before apologising to the tabla player for the delay in their practice session. “There is Sufi Kathak, there is fusion and what not. I personally do not champion the fusion Kathak form, because I feel it somehow dilutes the sanctity of the art,” she insists. Evolving traditional art forms is necessary, but keeping their originality is of equal importance too, she believes.
“We are now moving from mythology-oriented themes to social messages, which is great I feel,” says the young dancer of the Lucknow gharana. “I like to keep the gharana fragrance alive in my dance. I want to make Kathak reachable and relatable for the common man, yet maintain its purity,” she stresses.
Classical dance forms have been associated with the elite for ages. Viewing the dancers perform has been a status symbol since time immemorial. “The idea therefore is to make everyone enjoy it now. It should reach the masses, provided they are a keen audience,” she says.
When asked about the performances that have stayed with her, she says that the ones that don’t go too well, usually stay. “The aim is to make each one better than the previous,” says Kulkarni, who lives and breathes Kathak. “It is life, it is my heart and soul. Even when I am not dancing, I am thinking about it, worshipping it,” she signs off before gearing up for her taleem.