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Kathak, because there is more than one way to serve your country

Ayush Agarwal

I am a namesake Engineer, Nascent writer, football fanatic, confused being. That's it, really.

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I had closed my eyes before she came on stage expecting the music to give me a cue. A few seconds later, the melodious sound of Ghunghroos filled the space. She had walked in. I opened my eyes and there she was at the center of the stage, beckoning three other women onto the stage. The music started with a melodious sound and a soft tempo. All four of them started flowing with the music, their movements as if imitating the waterfall itself. Gradually, the tempo picked up and the percussion of Ghungroos resting on their ankles were matching each and every beat, as they performed Kathak beautifully. I had a ball in my chest looking for an escape, that they don’t miss a step, and then it dissolved. I had trust and faith that they won’t, and I was left in awe of her, as I found myself clapping with the entire hall around me.

There are people who leave you with a yearning, just shy of envy of what they have achieved. Mruga Vora Shroff is one of them. She is a trained Kathak dancer who has attained her Visharad, but that’s the least of all things she stresses on. She said that it was just the beginning.

“The ideology that some people come in with, is to complete the 7-year course. It’s just the conditioning phase, achieving Visharad doesn’t define the quality of the artist. It’s very subjective, something very good for me might not be as impressive for you and that’s the reason we have to keep practicing to hone ourselves.”

Mruga comes from a family where her forefathers were involved in the Indian freedom struggle. Inspired by their lineage, they have had a penchant for the Indian culture, something that connects them to their roots. Her grandfather had a deep interest in classical music and her grandmother was a Sanskrit teacher. Mruga’s mother started pursuing Kathak without having any professional inclinations. Along the way, she met Mruga’s father, a perfect fit who is also a folk dancer. Her parents moved to Surat so that her mother could be with her grandfather after her grandmother passed away. They eventually started a dance academy to pass on the knowledge they had to the next generation.

“Previously my mother used to commute between Mumbai and Surat and take weekend classes. This was also a way she came back to spend time with her parents. But then being the only child she chose to move to Surat and eventually opened an academy with my father. Amidst all this, I was born.”

Mruga vivaciously tells me how her childhood was a joyful ride. She wasn’t compelled by her parents to pursue dance or Kathak for that matter. I’ll juxtapose two images for you. Mruga is Kathak Guru and a Terence Lewis dance scholarship diploma holder. Free spirited Mruga, who wasn’t even fond of or had any inclination towards dance when she was young.

“There weren’t as many distractions then, so I was involved in all the extra-curricular activities there were. My parents followed the ‘Own your failure and your success’ – If something went well it’s your achievement and if it went awry it’s your learning. They were never behind me for studies or Kathak, I failed and got motivated to study all by myself, that was the level of freedom I had.”

Her parents gave her a mix of freedom and discipline, responsibility and volition, strength and virtue; contrasting values that you would rarely find in a person. During her training at the Terence Lewis academy, her yoga tutor met her parents and complimented that she had never seen a student brought up in such a disciplined manner. 

“Whether I wanted to pursue it or not, dance was always there. I feel there is a misconception that if your child starts young, they’ll be able to learn quicker. It requires a certain level of maturity and understanding, and you don’t know when you’ll get that.”

Mruga had not invested all her energy into dance from a young age, but she did have it around, she did practice. Her mother Smt. Smriti Vora was her first Guru and even though her parents were Gurus, she wasn’t given any special privileges. She was assigned a specific class, time, and a batch, and was only allowed to attend lessons then or interact with her batchmates in case she had doubts. Even in her mother’s class, she had girls who danced far better than she did. She didn’t find her spark and love for Kathak until she was a teenager.

“I couldn’t see the beauty, until one day, I was to perform a piece I was taught at a dance festival. Even during the rehearsal, I couldn’t find what was beautiful in it. My Guru told me, ‘ye cheez apne gharane ki hai, bohot acha hai’, par kya acha hai? (‘This piece is from our school, it’s very elegant’, but what is good or elegant in this?) On the day of the festival, while performing on stage, it kindled in me, the good and the beauty of the piece I was performing.”

After training under her mother’s tutelage for 16 years, they decided to find a Gharana’s Guru, one where dance has been passed down for generations. They found a Guru in Delhi, but as she started training under him, she couldn’t catch up to the pace.

“It was one of the most depressing time of my life, but I didn’t give up. Today, I see it, the beauty that my Gurus talk about. If you’re not ready for the journey, you won’t realize the essence of the art. Parents approach us with, ‘My child cannot devote 8 hours, but they’ll be able to do 2 hours a week’, then aim for the state championships and not nationals.”

For the past few months, we’ve come across plenty of stories of how our athletes literally gave their blood and sweat to get where they are today. Mruga stresses on the fact that it’s not a CV point or something you can flaunt for marital purposes, you have to invest your time to understand it.

Currently, she is pursuing her training under Guru Shree Munna Lal Shukla. Alongside this, she is doing her bit to pass on the art form to young ones at Noopur Nritya Academy. She did pick up other dance forms as well like Contemporary and Jazz.

“One day I told my mom, I wanted to try the western forms. I wanted to know their way, only to bring in the positives to our dance. To understand why our dance was coined boring and theirs wasn’t. Classical dance is very centric to emotions, storytelling, and expressions. It is an art for a class and not the mass.”

Standing on the TEDxDumas platform she shared a story with the audience about her ancestor. I’ll try to capture the essence of it.

“He was given a cup curd in it’s purest form, by a vendor and he didn’t like it. But he came to the same vendor everyday to buy the cup of curd, only to develop a taste for the purest form of curd in existence. Classical dance is much like the curd, you have to develop a taste for it”.

Very inanely attesting to the same, when we started drinking alcohol at parties, the conversation that ‘you have to develop a taste for beer or whiskey or scotch’ was all abuzz and here we are.

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