Beautiful young Kathak dancer Shivani Varma joined classes for folk dance, “which were a lot of fun” at the age of three. That was at the behest of her mother, a lawyer who loves the arts, but self-admittedly has ‘two left feet’! Her father, a senior executive in the corporate world, “has no clue about music and dance, but enthusiastically supports everything I do.”
By the time she turned eight, Shivani had completed formal Kathak classes at the Uma Sharma School of Dance. Her guru here was Manish Gangani. When he left the institute, she left as well, for he would come home to teach her. The pursuit of studies at the tony Delhi Public School, RK Puram, halted dance training even though her dance teacher at school, Asavari Pawar, daughter and disciple of Pratap Pawar, attempted to revive her interest in dance.
She went on to join Lady Shri Ram College for graduation in Political Science. Here she performed with Vidha Lal, today one of the bright sparks of the younger generation of Kathak dancers. In college, once again, nostalgia for the dance days overcame her and she was advised to approach Kathak guru Shovana Narayan. When Shivani called, Shovana answered the phone herself. “My essentially shy nature took over and I found myself tongue tied. I lost more years because of my reticence,” says Shivani with a half-smile.
“When I joined law and began dating Vedanta, who is my husband today, he and his family encouraged me to go back to my dance dream. Shovana-ji embraced me as a disciple from the word go, and I felt like a mother’s favourite child,” says Shivani, who enjoys a close relationship with her guru. “She not only taught me and inspired me, but encouraged me to dance at every opportunity. In fact she gave me every chance to grow and realise my capacities and capabilities. The lessons I learnt from her were many and go beyond dance,” recalls Shivani.
Among the most memorable moments with her guru are the leading roles she played in magnum opus productions like ‘Shunyata’, which featured Grammy award winning monks of the Palpung Sherabling Monastery. “The strong relationship with a guru in the Indian context is difficult for an outsider to understand. It is lifelong and complete. There is no ‘me’ when I dance. Each and every time that I dance, it is this relationship that is framed on stage. If I perform well, it is a tribute to her, and is only due to her blessings. I don’t think the language of modernity gets that, or can convey it,” says Shivani, who is firmly of the belief that in the classical arts, the guru- shishya parampara is the nucleus.
Another strong influence on her ouvre has been her long association with dancer Sharmishtha Mukherjee, daughter of President Pranab Mukherjee, a well known Kathak dancer herself, who has now sacrificed her artistic side to serve people through politics. “Sharmishtha Didi is the closest I have to an elder sister and I have danced in each of her choreographies, from ‘Anand Dhara’ based on Tagore’s poetry to ‘Rain Storm and Autumn Leaves’, a combination of Vivaldi’s music and Tagore, to ‘She’ based on Goddesses of the Rig Veda, to ‘Banaras’ which based on the world’s oldest inhabited city!”
In ‘She’ and ‘Banaras’, the music was provided by the popular Indian fusion band Advaita, that liberally uses folk and classical music. “The soundscape is fast, distinctive and memorable. The choreography matched it, with the well trained dancers performing energetically, capturing the mood of the goddesses.” This performance travelled to five European countries and had over 20 shows in one month to standing ovations. In addition, there were as many as 50 shows in India in just one year. “The feel of this choreography and that of ‘Banaras’ that followed was very contemporary, while staying well within the idiom. I learnt a lot just watching the creative process!” In fact it remains Shivani’s regret that ‘Banaras’ did not have the run it deserved as Sharmishtha joined politics!
If one looks at the list of Shivani Varma’s performances, one cannot miss the fact that she has done a lot of collaborative work with experts in various fields, especially around poetry. The collaborations began in 2010 when she was part of a multi-media performance called called ‘Daastan-e-Purani Dilli’ which had been conceived by sisters Zakia Zaheer and Dr Syeda Hameed, daughters of the royal house of Rampur. “Actually Shovana-ji was the principal dancer and I was part of the accompanying ensemble. One time she was not available and I was asked to step in for her. The finale, built around Ghalib’s poetry, was quite powerful,” recalls Shivani.
Amongst those who viewed this performance were Meera and Muzaffar Ali, a fact that she got to know about only two years later. “I was surprised to learn that Muzaffar Ali had taken many pictures of me that day. Soon, I was contacted by him and invited to work with him for a show in Lucknow, on the poet Majaz Lakhnawi. We mounted the show in three days, with music and aesthetic inputs by Muzaffar sahib, with me dancing to poetry read by his son Murad.” The association with Muzaffar continued with a performance in Jahan-e-Khusro, where Shivani found herself doing a solo performance and also a duet, dancing once again, so many years after the LSR show, with college senior Vidha Lal. It was a big break, that was followed by collaborative work on other poets including Rumi, Mir and Ghalib. She also worked once again with the Rampur sisters for poets as varied as Amir Khusro and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
“For many people, breaking new ground while doing collaborative creative work is hard. But it comes easily to me. I ensure that all aspects of the dance form are revised daily, so that things are in my control,” says Shivani about her willingness to work with masters from different fields. But Shivani lives in a milieu where poetry is the norm, for her father-in-law, former diplomat — and till recently Rajya Sabha member Pavan Varma —ß is a leading authority on poetry. His iconic book Ghalib: The Man, The Times has been translated into several Indian languages.
Among Shivani’s other memorable programmes was one at Kamani Auditorium with ikebana artiste Veena Das. “She had chosen the Navarasa as her theme and wanted me to dance appropriate pieces of five-minute duration, to suggest the nine sentiments. Unfortunately, she had judged the time badly and I had to dance for 15 minutes and more in each case. Thank God I had Shovana-ji and live musicians accompanying me. I think Shovana-ji’s ability to deal with the unexpected on stage entered me via some kind of guru-shishya osmosis, and I felt no fear!”
Shivani believes that working with abhinaya, the delicate expressional part of dance, where subtlety and silence often carries the day, requires the artiste to reside, metaphorically, in a quiet space. That is why she ensures that she does not clutter her day. In fact, she cut back drastically on work as a lawyer to devote more time to her enduring love. “I love to dance. I love the stage. I love the feeling of light on my skin. You know, I become a different person on stage,” admits Shivani with eyes aglitter. Law’s loss has most certainly been dance’s gain.