Interview with Shobha Shashikumar
Please tell us about your childhood days of dance and take us through your journey since.
As early as I can remember, all I could visualise was that dance was something extraordinary. I can recall how I felt that anything and everything about dance would mean divinity to me, which I think meant that it would give me a different feel altogether which may be I would not otherwise be able to feel. I think I had a bundle of strange thoughts which I could not put it across in clear language. But I knew clearly that there was this irresistible passion for dance.
I was desperate for a Guru. Somehow my mother could make sense out my nonsense. As she was passionate about dance and could not herself learn it in those days, she was firm to encourage me and put me under a good Guru. My father too encouraged me to pursue my interests. Being born and brought up in Tiruchirappalli, though there were not great opportunities in that city, I was lucky to find Guru Smt. Shanti Rammohan who was an authentic disciple and follower of the legendary danseuse Smt. Kamala.
She was a dedicated teacher and I trained under her for seven years and performed my Bharatanāţya Arrangeţram in 1993. Though I started learning from the age of seven, my effective learning started happening only under her tutelage from the age of fourteen. In fact, it is her teaching technique that inspired me and I follow it to this day. She would make the students teach one another, of course with her supervision. She believed that learning also happens by teaching others and at the same time, teaching is also a kind of learning.
After I came to Bangalore for my MA, I trained under Guru Revathi Narasimhan. She is a gifted choreographer and an inspiring Guru. I still recollect with the same excitement, her open discussions and honest enquiry into the subject. Her abhinaya sessions would be extraordinary. I did Vidwat under her tutelage and won a distinction. My MA in Dance too fetched me First Rank. All these definitely made me more enthusiastic to learn and perfect the technique.
You are an ardent follower of Bharata and the Nāţyaśāstra. How were you introduced to the Nāţyaśāstra concepts and techniques?
Like anybody else, I too associated Bharata’s Nāţyaśāstra to contemporary Bharatanāţyam. For me everything about Bharatanāţyam meant Nāţyaśāstra, as I had no idea about any theories. Even fact when I took senior dance exam from KSEEB, I started getting basic doubts starting from the understanding of Ćaturvidhabhinaya. I felt down the line, that practising dancers mostly were unable to connect their dance to the śāstras.
Basic questions about the technique of dance, its relationship with the dancer, divinity in dance and many such things sounded like gorgeous terms that absolutely made no sense to me. I also discovered that these queries were growing in strength and I knew if I did not pay attention to them, they would end my dancing as it was getting dry and uninspiring to me already. It was during this time of utter chaos that I was blessed to hear to Shatavadani Dr. R. Ganesh.
His talk on the eternal relevance of Purāņas in classical arts, gave me hope and confidence that I may find answers to my questions. As I had already enrolled for my PhD, I could take up my study seriously under the guidance of Dr. Ganesh especially in Nāţyaśāstra and Alankāra Śāstra. Each time I would have an exhaustive question paper of my own doubts, which he would patiently shed insights into and also recommend authentic sources.
Thus doing the homework as instructed, I could start consolidating on the basic concepts. Later Ganesh sir recommended that I learn Karaņās of Nāţyaśāstra from Guru Sundari Santanam to do justice to the study on aesthetics of āngika. It was my fortune to have met and learnt from an able and generous Guru like her who was herself a wonderful dancer, teacher and above all an inspiring human being. She would practice all the Karaņās everyday as sādhana. She had become an authority in Karaņās not by scholarship, but by experience.
Please tell us about the subject of your doctoral thesis.
As mentioned above, my thesis was on the topic, ‘Aesthetics of Angika and Sattvika abhinaya of Bharatanatyam’, from Bangalore University under the guidance of Dr. Nagesh Bettakote. Aesthetics was a word I first came across while I was studying my MA in dance. I felt a deep connect to it though it mostly sounded Greek & Latin to me at that time. I could guess intuitively that somehow all my questions were related to this subject.
So when I enrolled for PhD, I knew that I had to do it on aesthetics. It is a big joke to recall that I had to refer to the dictionary to rightly spell the word ‘aesthetics’ to be mentioned in my synopsis at the time of the registration! I somehow knew that technique could not be different from the goal of art, but at the same time it was important for the dancer to make the technique her own so that she could travel with it. So this much was clear that the topic had to connect the artist to her art which invariably had to be wedded to the goal. Thus the topic materialised.
How has research helped you in the understanding of art? Do you feel research in art, specifically dance, is a necessity today?
Fortunately for me, my research enabled me to connect to my art. Honestly, it could happen only after the deep aspects of the both the technique and its aesthetics started flowing into each other simultaneously. Technique without aesthetics and vice versa serves no purpose to the artiste. As PhD was only a means and a definite path to my goal, research was and has been of great purpose to my art.
I feel in research, the subject has to be demanding from within. Then research can bring that revolution, transformation, evolution of both art and personality in the researcher. Else it may serve an insignificant purpose such as just the PhD degree. But at the same time, I also strongly opine that, research as an attitude should necessarily be in every artiste; in fact in every thinking human being. Such an attitude prompts positivity and inquisitiveness which evolves one as an artiste. Formal research is not a compulsory one in performing art. But the joy of passing through an honest and an ardent research process is unique.
You have always believed that Aesthetics of art is of prime importance. What is the crux of this aesthetics and how can one develop sensitivity towards it?
The crux of aesthetics is seeking something sublime through the technique of an art form. Aesthetics can be tasted only with visualisation which is an exaggeration of an imagination that surpasses all realities of life. There has to be self-forgetfulness in such a process. Aesthetics cannot be approached with an egoistic endeavour. Hence ego is not just pride, but the very consciousness of one’s identity.
One needs to have a blank slate to write what one feels like. With a full page, there is hardly any freedom to express. So is the case in aesthetics too. It operates when the slate is empty and the chalk of Pratibha (artistic brilliance) is in hand. Honestly speaking it is difficult to develop an aesthetic outlook. It is a samskāra. One who is aware of the process logically, may strive to consciously develop it. Aesthetic footing is in identifying reality as a limitation and transcending it in art, by universalisation principle.
You present the Bharatanŗtya style of dance, how is this different from the present day Bharatanāţya?
As it is well known Bharatanŗtya is the style developed and named by Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam. Nāţyaśāstra, being one of the earliest compilation of an ancient dance tradition, finds relevance with every dance form in general and more so with Asian dance forms. Hence it is the mārga for all dēsi dance forms. While Bharatanāţya is a desi dialect, Bharatanŗtya is mārga incorporated in the dēsi Sadir dance form.
The benefit of mārga being attached to Sadir is that the āngika of Sadir has become more viable to depict emotions. The Nāţyaśāstra technique enables the artiste to exploit the āngika optimally as every limb is approached in insolation and then integrated into a wholesome unit. This approach enriches the technique of āngika and at the same time thoughts & ideas into bodily expressions with efficiency.
Also being from the Sadir background, the aḍavu technique is also kept and gradually a rapport between the two is visualised. When this blend materialises, there is greater scope and variety. Hence in Bharatanŗtya, by connecting the nŗtta and nāţya elements ideally, the nŗtya factor can blossom beautifully. Of course all these depend on the artiste also. So I feel Bharatanŗtya can be presented richer than Bharatanāţya.
How must a student of dance approach the learning of the Nāţyaśāstra techniques (ćāris, karaņās etc.)?
This is a very important question. Approach for learning of Nāţyaśāstra technique should be well defined. Of course the krama is already available in the Nāţyaśāstra itself. It is the genius of Dr. Padma to prescribe the angōpānga bhēdās of the Nāţyaśāstra as vyāyāmās. The various aesthetic possibilities of movements for the limbs have been cleared defined which are reconstructed by Dr. Padma.
Practising these help discover the limbs and their role in the movements. Then the ćāris are to be learnt, then the nŗtta hastās and the sthānakās and then the karaņās comprising of all these components. Most of time, some classical dance form background is present for most of the learners of this technique. I personally feel that no prior training in any other technique is a must. However if it is present, then the mārga technique can be learnt and related to it in order to embellish it further.
It is a noticeable fact that bharatanāţya dancers find learning karaņās to be very difficult. Over the years bharatanāţya technique has restricted the body to the horizontal division at the waist. The vertical division has been shunned from using torso and waist deflections. Hence the understanding of this concept takes a while. Most of the times, the aḍavus are also distorted while learning the karaņās. It is felt that aḍavus and karaņās are poles apart.
But with practice it can be discovered that they can blend well if at all we want them to. Hence it needs a lot of hard work, patience and perseverance on the part of the student and the teacher to blend both the techniques. Also I take this opportunity to request all earnest learners to go to a teacher to learn the elements systematically. It is more damaging than beautifying if they are incorporated without understanding and symmetry. The apparent ease and lightness of the movement in a karaņa is due to the mastery over it and not light dancing as it is generally misunderstood.
You maintain a wonderful balance between the academic research aspect of art as well as the performing & practical aspect. How do you perceive the two?
As said before, I perceive research more as an attitude than as a separate discipline. Actually in performance, this research attitude is indispensable. If one is honest to rasa, one has to get deep. Research is this depth. In conceptualisation and in actualisation, research is imperative. Hence there is no performance without research. Having said this, there is definitely the challenge of maintaining both ends. In conceptualisation, there is need for studies, references, field work, interviews etc.
They are all time consuming. Also research writing has its own unique expressions. As I enjoy both writing my thoughts and well as dancing them out equally, I handle them in my own way. When I take up research articles and books, my āngika sādhana is at a slow pace and vice versa. Still they are connected as the absolute art experience and so keep complementing each other.
As a guru and a guide to practitioners of dance as well as research students, what is your approach to teaching and learning of art? Also, is there an ideal way of teaching and learning art? Please share your opinion and ideas in this regard.
The responsibility of being called a guru is very high and scary. I prefer to honestly and comfortably address myself a student of art who is willing eagerly to share her experiences in her journey with other seekers just for the joy of sharing. It is simpler to be a good student if the thirst for learning is deep and honest. Often the fear of finding the right teacher is felt. It is justified definitely, but it is better to believe that the guru will come in the right way if one truly deserved.
This trust cleanses and humbles the soul which makes the student more deserving for being under the right Guru. While great devotion and dedication is important to learn the art, one must not forget that devotion to guru is not reduced to hero worship, but should elevate as commitment to art itself. Guru is a transparent personality through whom perfection of art should happen. The very guru should not become an impediment to the true goal of art.
Also, the guru should lead and let go. There cannot be a permanent commitment of schedule between the student and the guru, for the real commitment of every artiste is with one’s own self. The guru’s precious role lies in helping the student discover this. This principle is the same, whether it is for PhD or for practising art form.
You are able to draw examples, similarities and ideas from the subjects of philosophy, art and life with equal fervour. Do share with us how you perceive the three and tell us about your experience.
If one can connect to the fact that search for art, practising it and performing it are all means of Self-expression, then one is already connected to philosophy. If art gets deeper in understanding, visualisation and experience, then it is already a philosophy. If philosophy is extended and relatable in everyday life, then it is no more dry but full of life and beauty. Hence philosophy gets pervaded in life. When there is life in our living, then it becomes an inspiration for art and so becomes the raw material for art again. Again an inspired art transforms into a philosophy. Thus the otherwise independent concepts, start finding parallels and connectivity.
How did you come to meet Guru Bhanumati and Guru Sheela Chandrasekhar? Tell us about your association with our Gurus.
Guru Bhanumati is a rare combination of art and personality. One can see integrity in her and so it contributes to the strength of her art. I am very grateful to her for all the technical and moral support that she gave me at a time when it strengthened me as a word of reassurance about the appropriateness of my path and my experimentations.
With her critical comments, I could rise confidently on one side and continuously check on my approaches for enhancements. When one passionately embraces change with a purpose, there would be lots of challenges and objections. And so such timely support means a lot. Bhanu Ma'am is a greatly generous artiste with a bigger vision for art. I feel fortunate to have had her association.
Sheela is my colleague at Jain University, Performing Arts department. She is gifted with a highly magnanimous character. She is a gifted dancer, a committed guru and an ardent & humble student of art. She is very affectionate, accommodative and encouraging, but at the same time tough and firm in her stands. Association with her has enabled me to understand so many things. I hope and wish we continue to work together and continue to support each other always.
Your message to the students of art.
Today’s generation is brilliant. It is amazing to see the force in the young talents. My request to them is to be patient in learning and earning, but be impatient in yearning for art. While creativity is glorified by the present generation, it has to have strong backing of true purpose. For all the seekers of art, I would like to say that let a strong drive from within (which can be discovered with clarity if paid proper attention) inspire any work and let it be parceled well in an aesthetic art expression. When both content and form are in place, art will be adorable.
A person’s personality gets groomed by many people’s contribution. Similarly, I owe to many. It is difficult to even name the long list of those who have directly and indirectly influenced me as gurus, as friends, as elders and as family to become myself. My humble salutations to all of them. Without a good family support, nothing works. I am fortunate that my husband Shashikumar always respected my dreams and supported me unconditionally.
I would like to thank Nrityakalamandiram for giving me this opportunity to share my words about art. I thank Madhulika for the wonderful questionnaire. It was exhaustive, meaningful and an enjoyable set of questions. I wish the school, which with its unique attempts and endeavours has taken art a step further holistically, many more laurels.