Reputed historian, collector, critic, curator and editor of India’s only yearbook on dance –attendance, Ashish Mohan Khokar is penning Guru Pratap Pawar’s biography, to be released at Triveni, on Sankranti, 13 January, in Delhi, by Dr. Karan Singh, who has also written the Foreword.
I was born in small-town India (Dhar, MP) which had no awareness of or exposure to classical dance. We were a Maratha family with connections with farming and to the Army and certainly with no associations to the arts. Later, in Indore, I had started learning bharatanatyam as some teacher claimed to be teaching that! But the teacher was both erratic and eccentric, often even beating me, so I gave up as I got a chance to do roles in Bharatiya Kala Kendra’s second Ramlila in Delhi (1958). So I was performing professionally even before I had learnt professionally!
How did you come to learn from Pt. Birju Maharaj?
At Bharatiya Kala Kendra all stalwarts of north Indian music and dance were engaged. Doyenne of Lucknow gharana Kathak Shambhu Maharaj ji; Jaipur gharana’s Pt. Sundar Prasad ji; sarod master Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan (Amjad’s father) and many more were there. As Birju Maharaj was also the star performer of the Kendra, he was also teaching. I just came under his tutelage and became his first ‘formal’ disciple.
So how did you later end up taking and teaching kathak across five continents?
Fate. After fifteen years of performing and establishing myself in Delhi as a serious artiste, ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) sent me to Guyana, then Trinidad to teach at newly-opened Indian Cultural Centres. From there, I performed and taught in the USA, and finally came to London and it became my permanent home. To date I’ve taught about 2,500 students, of which at least five are world-famous like Akram Khan.
Akram Khan! How was he as a student?
Akram is disciplined and devoted, a perfect trait for a serious dancer. His lagan (steadfastness) is for all to see, now. He has established himself prominently but still maintains old values and traditions, while doing solid contemporary work.
What has dancing and teaching across many continents meant to you in a career spanning fifty-two years?
Joy, fulfilment, struggle, success, name, fame, hardships, standing, outreach, awards and rewards. My main struggle was to achieve national recognition from my humble origins without connections. My reward has been in getting to know many lovely children and parents, especially in the UK which has been my home for the last thirty years.
How far can kathak or traditional dances be used for new, contemporary works?
Dance is an art where body and soul are connected; music and melody; rhythm and beat. Forms should not limit us but challenge to create. I see all dances as gifts of the gods. That’s why I was among the first to do flamenco-kathak duets in the UK.
What do you see as the future of male solo dancers?
It was never rosy! In any given point in time, there were only a few men and many women dancers. Today, it is easier than it was fifty years ago as there are a lot more avenues and channels for using dance training: films, fashion, television and the like.
What has been your mainstay and vision for dance?
Tapsya, kartavya and nishthurta: hard work, selflessness and determination have been my bedrock. I have always been positive and struggled against many limitations. Dance has given me mostly joy. It has given meaning to life. Dance is my best friend. I love teaching.
Pratap Pawar: Global Guru of Kathak is published by EKAH BIOS, Price £25 Hardbound 133 pp, A4 size, colour. Available at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan London. www.attendance-india.com