Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Teaching and learning Bharatnatyam: Praveen Kumar

It was just by chance that I came to know Praveen Kumar, the Bharatnatyam maestro from Bangalore. I was in Delhi for holidays and on the last day of my holiday, on an impulse I decided to go and watch his dance performance at India Habitat centre. I had never seen a male Bharatnatyam dance and it was probably that curiosity that drove me to his performance.

It was wonderful to watch him dance and I clicked lot of his pictures during the dance.

After my return to Italy, I added some of his pictures to Kalpana.it and wrote to him, asking him to look at those pictures and that if wanted I would be happy to send him some pictures in higher resolution. He wrote back to me to thank me, and thus we started to correspond.

In November, when I had an opportunity to come to Bangalore for work, I wrote to him, saying that I would like to see him perform and perhaps also while he taught his students. He had just come back home after a dance tour in UK, and he immediately agreed to meet me in Bangalore.

It was not possible to watch him perform nor to see him teach his students because of my busy work schedule. But one afternoon I visited his home and ate wonderful food cooked by his mother. There was besibhele bhat (rice cooked with vegetables, and spices) sandige (balls of puffed rice mixed with gentle spices) and curd rice, followed by rasgullas.

His dance school Chithkala is part of his house and his home, spartan, simple and full of empty spaces, is very tastefully done, reflects his personality with lot of Ganesh statues. His dance school is one big room in minimalist style with a dancing Natraj on one wall, a Ganesh picture in an angle, and a wall covered with mirrors.

After we ate, I asked him if he would give a small performance for me. You are not suppose to dance with a full stomach, but he agreed to give a small performance. It was very thrilling to know that he was dancing just for me, and it was the most wonderful gift that he could have given me.

All through the lunch and then his dance, we talked about his dancing and his life. Here are some excerpts from this informal talk:

Sunil: It is not common to find male Bharatnatyam dancers. How did you decide to become a dancer?

Praveen: I was always dancing. Then my father said, if you are you interested in dance, learn it properly. I was fifteen at that time, I was in high school, that I started to learn dancing. I continued my studies at the same time and became a graphic designer. For one year, I also had a job as a graphic designer. Then I said that my real passion is dance, and I want to take it up properly. So I gave up my job and took to dancing full time and opened my dance school.

Sunil: And your parents, were they happy with this choice? Normally society does not seem to accept male classical dancers.

Praveen: No actually, my parents supported me.

Sunil: Tell me about your Guru, who taught you dancing?

Praveen: My first Guru is now no more. Now I am a disciple of C.V.Chandrasekhar. He is in Chennai. He is 75 years old and still dances. Perhaps you remember him, he was with me during my performance in Delhi.

Sunil: In Chennai? How does that work? And why did you decide to have him as your guru?

Praveen: It was just like that, by chance. I go to Chennai occasionally to be with him. But now looking back, I am very happy that he accepted me as his disciple. It is not easy to find Gurus like him. Many persons can teach Bharatnatyam. They can teach you specific dances on some songs. But they can’t explain the whole thought process that goes behind composing a dance. My Guru is very good because he does not just teach me specific dance steps, but I can learn about the thought process that goes behind making a specific dance.

Sunil: Do you mean a particular school of dance? He can explain the meanings of gestures and their significance?

Praveen: It is more of a particular style of dancing. Each teacher has his or her own style of dancing, so a Guru teaches you that style.

Sunil: But isn’t classical dance mean that you have rules about specific movements and you have to respect them?

Praveen: Yes, there are specific rules of dancing but it is more than that. You can observe life around you and adapt those in your dancing. You look at organisation of a piece, administration of a performance. Not all Gurus think about those. For example, in salsa you start with your hands in this position (makes a gesture with one hand raised up, palms turned downwards), while in Bharatnatyam you start like this (makes another gesture with one arm lifted and palms held upwards), so you can learn from others and then adapt it and incorporte it in your dance.

Sunil: So your Guru doesn’t only teach you specific steps but he can teach you how a dance performance is created?

Praveen: Yes. For example, you may remember one dance from my performance in Delhi. It is usually not done by male dancers. He proposed that I adapt it for my dance. He wrote the lyrics in front of me. And then it’s music was set up. Perhaps it was the first time that a male dancer was doing that dance. Thus, it is not just about learning steps, but I could see and understand the whole creative process in making in that piece of dance.

Sunil: It must be very fulfilling to have students with whom you can share such knowledge and not limit yourself to teaching some dance steps?

Praveen: Yes, it is very fulfilling. Very few students can appreciate that. Among my thirty students, perhaps one or two can have that kind of commitment.

Sunil: You were talking about salsa. Have you ever been to a discotheque?

Praveen (smiling): Not in India. But I have been to discotheques a few times outside India. A few times, when I was in USA and then also in UK. People think that if someone is a classical dancer, he can’t do the discotheque kind of dance, but it was fun and some persons were very surprised that I was dancing like that.

Sunil: Have you ever been to a modern dance workshop like the Jazz dance?

Praveen: Workshops like that abroad are too costly for me and we don’t have many such opportunities here.

Sunil: Attitudes towards males dancing have changed now? Among your students do you have only female students or also some men?

Praveen: Yes, the attitudes have changed. Now we have more men dancing. Among my students I also have a university assistant professor, who is a man.

Sunil: And do you also get students from outside India?

Praveen: Yes, I have had some students who come from other countries to learn dance.

Conclusions: I think that it is a privilege to be able to look behind the public faces of performers and artists and have a glimpse of their lives and their creative processes. I found this particular conversation important for understanding some facets of the teacher-student relationship in learning Bharatnatyam.

Praveen is a gentle person and I am glad that he opened up so easily to share his thoughts. The memory of him dancing just for me in his dancing room will always remain with me. Thank you Praveen.

You can also check the pictures from Praveen's dance performance in Delhi at Kalpana.it.

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