Asian Music and Dance

Urmila Nagar

Having witnessed two generations of kathak, senior dancer and Guru Urmila Nagar holds a wealth of knowledge of her art form. In an interview with her shishya Abhay Shankar Mishra, she speaks from her experience as an established representative of the Jaipur gharana to discuss the art form to which she has dedicated her life

You are known as a successful dancer and Guru; in your opinion, who is more important in today’s kathak community, the Guru or the dancer?

I would say the roles of both are very important. It is not always necessary that the disciple has to be a great Guru or the Guru has to be a great dancer; however, if I had to choose one which had a more important role I would say the disciple as they have to learn and present their art form to thousands of people and also have to carry the name of their Guru forward which is a huge responsibility! It is through their presentation of the art form that they will highlight their Guru’s name and encourage more people who will come to learn from their Guru.

What changes have you noticed in the current generation from previous ones?

Today there are far more facilities available to learn any art form in any field, which were not there before. In earlier times, there were not as many Gurus teaching this art form and also they were very moody. It was also much more difficult for society to accept girls or women learning vocal or instrumental music or dance. Another difference is if today the disciple does not show enthusiasm or discipline in their learning then the Guru also does not have as much time to teach that disciple. The fact is this generation is a lot more intelligent and tactful than before.

How much emphasis or importance do organisations such as Kathak Kendra, Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Bhatkhande, ITC and such places give to the gharanas?

Overall it is the responsibility of the Guru to maintain, preserve, promote and highlight the originality and uniqueness of their gharana. But these days the Guru’s and the artist’s vision have changed. The Guru would like to see everything in one artist, all the best learning, talent and devotion, whereas these institutions and organisations are doing a good thing by having Gurus from different gharanas teaching in one place, making it possible to see the work of different gharanas and read about all the interesting work going on in these places.

Every year hundreds of artists graduate from musical and art institutions and obtain high-level degrees in their art field. Why are they not accepted as high-level artists on a national level?

The reason for this is not all of today’s artists have had the opportunity to learn in depth, i.e. they are not fully able to get involved with dance. In earlier times we were continuously practising or at least involved in dance or music in some way. We were always singing, dancing, playing instruments, learning, teaching – in one way or another, something was always going on. We had full-time involvement with music and dance and had no other responsibilities. Esteemed musicians like Sharda Sahai, Latif Ahmad or Hasmat Khan would visit and we would sing and play instruments and dance with them. There were always talks and discussions about music and dance. This is also very important to the learning process because it affects the artist’s development. This is clearly lacking in today’s training as the current generation of artists has other responsibilities and learning dance and music is something they do in addition to other activities. Today’s newspapers and magazines cannot capture those things and even good newspapers cannot find good artists or Gurus. 

How does a gharana get established with respect and honour?

A gharana which is strong and grounded will acquire a prestigious reputation and international status. Take Lucknow Gharana, for example: their dance and Guru are both unique and their name is also well-known. Birju Maharaj is directly from this gharana and his many disciples are highlighting his name and the gharana’s name both nationally and internationally.

Are you in favour of experimenting with kathak?

I am in favour of it as long as the boundaries of their parampara, i.e. tradition, are respected. Within these boundaries, experimentation is safe. However, if these boundaries are broken or, at the very least, not respected, then I am not in favour of it. Today everyone is interested in experimenting with other art forms and stretching the boundaries of their art form; however, if this is done while maintaining the grounding and tradition of the art form then it is fine, but losing your main foundation and experimenting beyond your respected boundaries will not be a successful experiment.

Abhay Shankar Mishra belongs to an established family of Banares tabla gharana. He trained under great Gurus like Pt Birju Maharaj, Smt Urmila Nagar and Pandey Maharaj. Abhayji has been the resident kathak teacher at the Bhavan Centre, London for the last ten years. 




Join the weekly Pulse newsletter and we will send you the latest news and articles straight to your inbox