Asian Music and Dance

Abhay Shankar Mishra

Imagine this: you are a wide-eyed nine-year-old, you have just watched your maestro-of-a-guru dance in the chaos of birthday celebrations for Lord Rama, at the Ram mandhir in Varanasi, the musicians are charged up and ready to thrill again and you are next to give a solo piece.

This is how kathak exponent and resident teacher of London’s Indian arts and cultural centre Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Abhay Shankar Mishra, first learnt about performance, being accompanied by professional musicians and holding the attention of demanding audiences in temples whilst costume changes took place.

The young Mishra’s initial response when his teacher, the late Pandit Pandey Maharaj, told him to prepare for the celebrations was: “You’ve not taught me anything to perform …” His guru replied: “I have, dance the same tukdas you dance every day!”

As guru to his younglings he reminds them of the invaluable advice his young ears heard: “Footwork should be strong, then you have the chance of making your branches stronger, and everything else will bloom; if this doesn’t happen the top floor will be shaky.”

Mishra comes from a renowned musical family spanning over six generations. The youngest of six brothers, and the only dancer amongst his sitar and tabla-playing siblings, he also plays the pakhawaj. Aside from an MA in kathak, he has learnt from all three kathak gharanas: Lucknow, Jaipur and Benaras. His other gurus include Pandit Birju Maharaj and Srimiti Urmilla Nagar.

Mishra values the importance of personal development. He feels that in every experience, whether it is something around him on a daily basis, his own performance, watching his peers and seniors, collaborating on a project or in his classroom with his students, even during his self-practice, he is gaining something new.

With his lineage and dance background he is overwhelmingly accomplished, yet Mishra personally feels rewarded by the experience of sharing his thoughts and feeling for dance in his classroom with his students.

“I love this experience, giving what I have been given from my gurus, experiencing the changes within kathak that are developing inside me, sharing this with students and their responding with: ‘Guru ji, this is really good!’

Listening to Mishra, his passion for teaching is visible: he beams as he fondly speaks of his students. He says that he admires their curious minds and their questioning, as well as their developing imagination as they dance. “Their curiosity has led me to see the many possibilities out there. There are things I’m not sure that I can do. [My students] are using this dance medium in a different way, looking for something new; this is something I want to learn, take on in my own capacity, using my traditional experience,” he says frankly.

“I am learning to keep myself open so that I can see what others are doing and can appreciate,” Mishra adds. This openness is something he learnt from his guru Srimiti Urmilla, which he is realising more these days, to accept and not to keep away. When he switched gharanas due to a fellowship she welcomed his previous training by encouraging him to apply what he had learnt rather than questioning how a different style could better serve him. He has always admired how she has been led by her principles and seeing the same honesty and openness in her dance.

From Pandit Birju Maharaj, Mishra says he learnt that the key factor in teaching is dhristhi (focus). Maharaj also said to him: “understand what you give someone, understand their capacity. Don’t make dance so difficult that people will run away from you. Give them something they can continue with,” he softly voices.

His own advice to his students is: “Keep working hard in the area you are confident in. You have to believe, and recognise what you want. Believe in yourself, in the person you are.”

As for Mishra’s own aspirations, he has two: to take the dance that has developed him to other places in the capacity he can; and to give recognition to his late father Pandit Gama Maharaj’s artistic legacy which he says was short-lived due to paralysis. “I want to do something for my family. Whatever I do as an individual I also have responsibilities as a human, as a family man, as teacher … it’s not just about performing, but when I do perform, every thought and feeling I have ever experienced is in my dance,” Mishra muses. 

Aside from that he just wants to keep on doing what he does, or as he puts it: “I want to dance and dance,” pointing both of his hands to himself, Mishra adds: “I want to let the inner energy out, let go, move about, that’s all.”



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