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Vasudha Bachchan

IWB Blogger

Padmashree Dancer, Shovana Narayan Recalls Her Crazy Fan From The USSR

  • IWB Post
  •  January 11, 2018


Padmashree winner and renowned Kathak dancer, Shovana Narayan, greets me warmly. My nervousness about engaging her in a conversation is somewhat quelled.

I am looking forward to knowing more about this inspiring woman, who has dedicated her life to the exquisite art form of Kathak. She is also known for the unique routines she has choreographed to express social evils like female foeticide and incest that plague India’s society.

“When I had my first performance on stage, I was barely four years of age,” says the versed dancer when I ask her about her first recollection of being on stage. She recounts how she had experienced crippling stage fright on the day of dress rehearsal. She had refused to perform until her mother had convinced her to trust herself. On the day of her competition, Shovana adds, she had been awarded the first place for her performance.

Shovana and I talk about her venture, the Asavari Centre for Kathak, and what inspired her to begin imparting her knowledge of dance. It was due to a young girl, Shovana tells me, who had approached her early in 1970 and had asked to learn Kathak from her. Shovana, at first reluctant due to her rising recognition, had finally agreed to teach the young girl. That meeting brought upon the subsequent foundation of her institute.

I ask her if she has ever encountered the kind of social injustices that she represents in her dance and if those encounters were the root of her social sensitivity. “I have never experienced any of these issues in my personal life. I was born in an extremely progressive, upper middle-class family and my parents gave me all the freedom to pursue dance and literature.” Shovana adds, “My mother’s involvement in social work and politics opened up a world of social sensitivity for me. I saw her reaching out to help women in need. In fact, I don’t ever remember the doors of my house being closed to anyone in want of help. I think it was those people and their problems, which I witnessed at a young age, that inspired me to express my concern about them through my dance.”

I muse over her words and silently admire her unique and beautiful method of addressing societal injustice. Shovana and I discuss the unique ‘Guru Shishya Parampara’ that she encourages in her school, in which a student is taught the technicalities of the dance and beyond. She believes that a teacher facilitates a wholesome transmission of knowledge – imbibing in the students the very ethos and spirit of dance and life.


“People are not close minded,” she says when I ask her about the kind of reactions she received from her audiences when she first began incorporating social issues into her routines. “I got a fantastic reaction from the public at large and raving reviews from the critics. When I first performed about incest back in 1996, the audience was so touched that they were reduced to tears. All my routines were received with warm appreciation.”

I bring up the amount of gender bias that men also face. This discourages them from pursuing art forms like Kathak, which are considered ‘feminine.’ Shovana ji remarks that success in our society is usually gauged on the financial reward attached to the job in question. Therefore, even though men still turn up to her school to learn Kathak, they are considerably less in numbers than women. “Kathak requires a lot of hard work and dedication. There are no shortcuts to instant fame and fortune.”

“All us classical artists are very spiritual,” she tells me about her pre-performance rituals. “I just take the name of God and leave everything in His hands because you never know what your next moment might bring you.”

Our conversation steers to the kind of performances she has done over decades, and she recounts a performance that is particularly close to her heart. “It was a state visit of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi to USSR in 1982. When I was finished with my demonstration, a gentleman had sprinted across the security towards the stage and sprayed my feet with flowers.”


When I inquire about whether her family is on the stage with her or in the audience, Shovana remarks that she is the only performing artist in her family. Her own family was from a political background and her husband, an Austrian ambassador, from an entirely different culture. However, she adds, her family, whether her parents, her husband or her son, has always been her pillars of immense motivation and support.

I imagine the remarkable evolution of Kathak through ages. “The outer covering keeps on changing. New finesse and refinement come in, but the essence of the art form remains the same,” she comments on her own journey as a dancer since the 1950s.

Shovana ji and I conclude our rich conversation as we discuss the influence of Kathak and other classical art forms and how important they are to keep the core of Indian culture alive. Whether it is for the purpose of entertainment, or to pursue professionally or even to express our emotions, art is to our souls what language is to our tongues.

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