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An unwavering dedication to dance

by Sakuragun Chan

In Indian classical performance art, the Guru-Shishya Parampara plays an integral role. It is handed down from teachers to their disciples. Traditionally attributed to traveling bards in the North of Ancient India, called ‘Kathakars’ or storytellers, Kathak is a dance form that involves telling different stories through movements and extensive footwork, but most importantly, through facial expressions. In a recent chat with The Daily Star, Kathak exponent Shibli Mohammad and his disciple Snata Shahrin spoke about their bond, and more.

Snata’s first meeting with Shibli Mohammad was in 1993, when her father Solaiman Khoka, an artiste himself, took his wife and daughter for a surprise visit with him. From that day, she considered the Kathak exponent as a parallel figure to her parents. “He is a wonderful person to be around. He goes out of his way to bring the best out of any students, if he sees their dedication,” shared Snata. “Despite his stature, his politeness and kindness touch hearts. I have been fortunate to receive his blessings.”

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Snata has been an assistant to Shibli Mohammad at the dance company, Nrityanchal, for a long time. “You can call me a teacher’s pet,” she expressed. “I do not want to have an individual school. Rather, I want to train children under the shadow of my guru.” Snata has not only excelled in Kathak, but also showcased her skills in contemporary dance.

Shibli Mohammad is one of the recipients of the Shilpakala Padak 2020. His teaching techniques vary from one student to another. “I treat all my students equally, because they are spending equal amounts of money for lessons. As far as the craft is concerned, I believe that Bhakti te Mukti – if you have absolute dedication to an art form, it is possible to reach the desired space,” explained the Kathak exponent. He also stressed that Snata is a patient and dedicated dancer.

Snata recalled her early learning of Thaat, a composition in  Kathak, during which her guru asked her to imagine a beautiful garden in front of her while looking at the audience, to bring the required facial expression. “If I have achieved anything today, it is only for the guidance of Shibli Mohammad and my dedication to overcoming my challenges,” Snata shared.

Shibli Mohammad, on the other hand, spoke about his gurus, who bestowed unconditional love and the passion for dance upon him. His first guru at Bhatkhande Music College in Lucknow was Smt Purnima Pandey. “I lived in her house for three months at one point. She treated me like her own child,” he said.

Later, he was trained in Kathak by Pt Birju Maharaj at Kathak Kendra in New Delhi in 1981. “When guruji visited Dhaka, my students saw me treat him as my parent. That is when they understood the relationship between Guru-Shishya,” added Shibli Mohammad.

 Snata received a gold ghungroo from her guru, which she made into a necklace for her wedding. “Only three of his students have been given this token of appreciation so far,” she added. Similarly, Shibli Mohammad received a panjabi from his guru, Pt Birju Maharaj, which he treasures.

Shibli Mohammad explained that it is only when students are released from the tutelage of their gurus that they come up with their unique characteristics and add to the learning lineage. “I have confidence in all my students. Snata has immersed herself into my training. I can proudly say that she will carry my teachings forward in my absence,” he concluded.

The author is an art researcher and writer in the making. Email: priyanka.chowdhury@gmail.com.

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