A simple devotee of the Lord, the renowned dancer explored poetry, compositions, katha, music, and dance, in her offerings at temples, re-telling stories associated with Krishna. Her stay in Vrindaban culminated in a 90 minute choreographic composition – Ashtayam. On World Dance Day, Devissaro shares a chapter from their evolving journey.
The impetus for Daksha Sheth’s career as a dancer and choreographer has always come from her very pragmatic research and training in a wide range of indigenous movement arts, embracing classical, folk and ritual dance, as well as various martial and akhara traditions of India. The first 20 years of Daksha’s life in dance, however, were devoted to Kathak, and Vrindaban, where Daksha lived from 1990-1993, provided an ideal environment for following an exciting line of dance research — a search for the roots of Kathak as a temple dance.
Daksha and I, with our young daughter Isha and new-born son Tao, rented a large 14 room haveli within the Radha Raman Ghera in Vrindaban. The haveli had two courtyards, one on the first floor and one on the ground floor, and a large hall that served as our studio. The cost of renting this haveli was less than half the cost of the one room barsati in Nizamuddin, New Delhi, where we had lived for a number of years.
Our initial intention in shifting to Vrindaban was to create a dynamic centre for exploration and experimentation in dance. Our experience of trying to create new work in Delhi while needing to do other day work to cover the exorbitant rents meant that the creative process was essentially a part-time and ad hoc endeavour, generally undertaken at the fag end of a long day. We saw moving to rural India as a way out of this bind. After shifting to Vrindaban, we imagined (naively, it turned out) that other Delhi dancers would come and join us in our life-style experiment.
It soon became clear that Daksha and I were, however, badly out of sync with the times. While we were trying to move out of Delhi, most other dancers were keen to move into Delhi. Our belief that young dancers, with a passion to explore and experiment, would happily leave the bustle, hassle (and pollution) of Delhi for a quieter, more focussed life in Vrindavan turned out to be sadly misplaced.
While Daksha and I have primarily been concerned with striving towards the future of Indian music and dance, we both have drawn inspiration in this quest from the past. We have sought to re-trace the sap back along the branches of Indian culture, towards the roots, in the belief that it is from our cultural roots that new and virile branches can sprout. In that sense, we have always had one leg in the past and one in the future.
With the support of a grant from the Department of Culture, Daksha was able to employ local Vrindaban musicians – Rasbihari Das on tabla, Gemini on sitar, and dhrupad and haveli sangeet singer Braj Bhushan providing vocals. I offered support on pakhawaj and bansuri. Incidentally, Braj Bhushan was himself a pandit from the Radha Temple of Barsana. We also were able to employ a local poet, Guru Kalyanji Prasad Sharma, who became the principal inspiration and resource in Daksha’s quest into the roots of Kathak.
Kalyanji Prasad Sharma was old and frail (later diagnosed with tuberculosis, he died in 1993), but he came daily to our haveli, to tell Daksha (and Isha) the stories of Krishna. He also sourced poetry for Daksha to set to dance. The poetry was taken from the Ashtachhapiya and other Braj poets, or, if Guruji could not find one suitable, he would write an original poem for Daksha, appropriate to whatever story in Krishna’s life was relevant to that particular day and time.
Kalyanji had from boyhood been a Ras Leela artiste (specialising in performing as Radha) and later, a Ras Leela Mandali manager. He was intimately and profoundly alive to Braj culture. The stories of Radha and Krishna, and the extensive body of poetry associated with this, were his home turf.
Interestingly, Guruji always referred to himself as a “kavi” (poet), yet he never recited poetry, he always sang it! And, to my delight and surprise, he sang the poetry in raga and tala, always choosing the appropriate raga for the time of day or season, and clapping it out in ancient talas – generally not teentaal — but dhammar, dhrupad, rupak, sultaaal etc. And this Kalyanji could do “on the spot” – he immediately could transform any Braj poem into song – in correct raga and taal – as if this was the simplest and most natural thing in the world!
For someone like me, having trained in the Dhrupad tradition, where all compositions were ancient works of legendary musicians long dead, it was a revelation to see that the same process of setting words to song was still alive, in however modest a form, in the 1990s.
Over a period of three years until his death, Daksha worked with Kalyanji, collecting, composing and choreographing on Ashtachhapiya and Braj poetry. The compositions were rehearsed with the musicians in our studio and then offered as nritya seva by Daksha and the Nritya Seva Mandali (as we now called ourselves) – predominantly in Radha Raman Mandir, but also, as the word got out, by invitation on special festival days to Bhanki Bihari Temple. Later, when Daksha and I were travelling to Nathadwara, we were also able to offer nritya seva at the Eklanji Temple.
It is important to clarify that the offering of Nritya Seva was never a kathak dance “performance”. There was no “announcement” of Daksha’s impending dance, nor was there anything particularly “significant” about her dance that set it apart from the offering of other devotees – be it flowers, prayers, coins or whatever. Devotees offer to the deity that which is precious to them.
For Daksha and the Nritya Seva Mandali, dance and music were most precious, but it was just one of numerous offerings happening within the temple at the same time. Daksha’s offering may have been different, but intrinsically, it was neither better nor worse than any other offering. The quality of any offering is not what is offered, but the quality of the heart that offers. Devotees always gave space for Daksha to dance (as they did for the sankirtan and other music performances that were also offered within the temple), and many also enjoyed to sit and watch, but there was nothing formal about this. People came and went as they pleased, and the other temple activities carried on simultaneously. In the Temple of Krishna, the dancer was not a devi but a devadasi — a simple devotee of the Lord.
Daksha offered Nritya Seva at Radha Raman Temple once or twice a week, and at different times during the day, allowing her to explore stories and activities associated with Krishna at different periods of the day. It also allowed the musicians to explore a range of ragas and taals. Daksha was also teaching Kathak to a group of young Vrindaban girls, many daughters of pujaris, with the hope that Nritya Seva would continue after her.
Our daughter Isha was one of the students, dropping in and out of class freely as she pleased. The other students became her close friends and play mates. Isha also loved dressing up, and this (I suspect, more than dance) encouraged her to also offer Nritya Seva in Radha Raman Temple – as indeed did Daksha’s other students. Our son Tao was born during our time in Vrindaban, and he also loved playing in the studio (and temple), banging on the numerous drums and being taught to dance by his big sister guru.
During our time in Vrindaban, Daksha was invited by Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan to create a work for the 500th anniversary of the massive Govindev temple in Vrindaban. With the help of Guruji Kalyan Prasad, Daksha created a 45-minute performance, the first part in Chhau and the second in Kathak. The American shakuhachi player Tim Hoffman, who had lived and trained for many years in Japan, joined the Nritya Seva Mandali for this occasion. As the Govingdev Temple is a listed heritage site, no electric lights were permitted within its sanctum, so the performance was lit only by oil lamps. The performance was recorded by IGNCA.
Daksha’s three years stay in Vrindaban culminated in a 90 minute choreographic composition – Ashtayam, which she and the Nritya Seva Mandali performed – only once as it turned out – at Kamani Auditorium, Delhi, in 1993. This work came directly out of the nritya seva offered in Radha Raman, and was a collection of compositions arranged according to the eight divisions (Ashta-yaam) of the day, as followed in Radha Raman temple.
The music of Ashtayam was set to Haveli Sangeet, with 16 ragas used – two for each divisions of the day – as well as a range of taals. The full-throated strength and rawness of the voice -characteristic of Braj – provided a sharp contrast to the syrupy ghazal voice that accompanied much Kathak in those days. Each of the eight sections of Ashtayam contained both abhinaya and pure dance, with Daksha also acting as storyteller (katha), re-telling Krishna’s activities and pranks during the day, or reciting the poetry.
Following Kalyanji Prasad Sharma’s death in 1993, Daksha and I, with kids in tow and surrounded by numerous tin trunks containing all our belongings, left Vrindaban. We took the train from Mathura to Trivandrum, where Daksha’s Kalaripayattu teacher, Gurukul Govindan Kutti Nair lived. We have lived in a village on the outskirts of Trivandrum ever since, pursuing the dream of creating a strong, vibrant, contemporary idiom of Indian dance.