It is rare to find any member of the Jain community in visual, plastic or performing arts. The community has its scholars and promoters: the names of Nemichand Jain, OP Jain, Jyotindra Jain, and Saryu Doshi come to mind instantly. But practitioners are few. Some who come to mind are the Dhrupadiyas, Gundecha brothers, theatre personality Kirti Jain, Kathak dancer Rashmi Vajpeyi, and Bharat Natyam dancer Parul Shah, who retired as dean of the Department of Performing Studies at the city’s MS University. However, they are better known for their scholarly pursuits than performance.
Even this line-up has poor representation of men. Then I met this brilliant young Bharat Natyam dancer from Bengaluru — Parshwanath Upadhye — who had come to Delhi to participate in a thematic programme on divine weapons curated by Usha RK, a corporate honcho turned cultural visionary. Usha’s selections meet stringent, discerning standards.
Named after the 23rd Tirthankara of the Jains, Parshwanath Upadhye was born in 1982 in Belgaum, Karnataka, in the family of a Jain priest. No one had even dabbled in arts in their family. His mother, however, nurtured a deep interest in dance and when even her second child turned out to be a boy, she decided to fulfil her secret desires by dressing young Parshwanath in dance costumes like a doll. Little dance pieces followed, and before he realised it, Parshwanath was learning Bharat Natyam from local guru Ravinder Sharma, under whom he went on to complete his Arangetram.
His focus at this stage in his life was not really dance, for he was serious about getting a Master’s degree and appearing for the civil service exams. What a waste of a great dancer it would have been if he had joined the IAS or the Karnataka Administrative Services! It was after shifting to Bengaluru that he completed his MA in Kannada literature, and then spent four years preparing for and attempting the exams. For another two years, he coached other civil service aspirants, but mercifully kept up dance practice. “Although I trained, I stayed away from performances, and realise now that I wasted so much time.”
In Bengaluru, Parshwanath joined the classes of Kiran Subramaniyam and Sandhya Kiran. “These disciples of Padmani Ravi and the Dhananjayans, hailed as among the best dancing couples, invest a lot in angshuddhi (the correctness of body lines). So they didn’t teach me many items but perfected my technique, sorted out insidious flaws that often creep in, and cleared my doubts about several microscopic aspects of dance, including the intricacies of tala or rhythmic patterns,” says Parshwanath about his gurus.
That was not all. It was at the bidding of his gurus that he stepped into a performance career and made a tremendous impact pretty much from the word go! They also encouraged him to perform with dancers from other styles and other gurus. “This taught me what makes things work and how to work with others,” he admits. This open-minded eclectic approach is rare to find in gurus. He was also encouraged to start independent dance compositions right from scratch. Parshwanath’s ability to slip into any performance situation and command his audience is the successful outcome of his gurus’ pedagogy as much as his own tireless efforts.
In a time of shrinking numbers of male dancers, he stands out, unforgettable in a striking Tandava, or the depiction of male energy with gentle lasya, the elements of dance depicting the grace of the feminine form. So perfect is his technique and treatment of body kinetics that he was selected to dance with the Shobhana Jeyasingh Company in 2013. As anyone who follows dance knows, Shobhana is a perfectionist and only the exceptional make the cut.
Masterly control of the body comes from honing multiple skills. He is also a black belt in karate, a state-level swimmer as well as a trained Carnatic vocalist. “I still swim, practise Kalaripayattu and karate, and also sing. I try not to get into a monotonous regimen or schedule,” says Upadhye, recognising that the body is his principal instrument. “I guess karate and dance complement each other. Karate helps me improve my stamina and maintain masculinity, which I personally feel is the most important asset of a male classical dancer.” Karate is known for fluidity of movement, which in his case came from dance and helped him win many competitions.
“I am inspired by senior dancers in Bengaluru itself,” says Upadhye, admitting that Padma Subrahmanyam, with whom he trained in one of her intensives in 1996, is a perennial source of inspiration. Among dancers one generation older, Rama Vaidyanathan has impressed him, and internationally he has been inspired by Malaysian dancer Shankar Kandaswamy, dance teacher, choreographer and one of the artistic directors of The Temple of Fine Arts, Malaysia.
What Parshwanath enjoys most is the process of creating dance. “This role involves creating, teaching and performance. Performance is high intensity — it demands 100 percent but it is shortlived, a one-take wonder. The creative process, on the other hand, is longer and gives more joy and satisfaction”. That is why, with his wife Shruti, also a dancer, he has established the Punyah Dance Company and the Upadhye Dance School. At the school he has proved to be a stickler for solid grounding in the basics, “but no spoon-feeding.”
Punyah productions incorporate both the Margi technique based on the Natya Shastra, the oldest extant text on dramaturgy and the fine arts, as well as various regional art forms. They use this language of movement to reinterpret India’s epics and mythology with a fresh, youthful perspective. The company has performed all over India and in some centres overseas to full houses. Even in India, where there is no strong culture of buying tickets to watch dance, the company has performed “Hara”, a Shiva-inspired theme, to full houses in a 600-seater auditorium in back-to-back shows spread over many days.
Asked about future dreams, Parshwanath answers, “I am fascinated by the idea of dancing in front of a temple”, specifically, the 4th century Jain temple at Kambadahalli, a few km away from the world-famous Jain pilgrimage site of Shravanbelagola. He would love to dance in different landscapes as an offering of gratitude to Nature’s panoramic magnificence. He would also like to create a grand gurukul in his home town of Belgaum, which has a salubrious climate and a history of artistic excellence.