Kathak dancer Shivani Varma transforms the dance form into a commercial art to make it less rigorous

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The camera pans to an ancient fort, where an enraged king is appeased by his court dancers. The camera now zooms in on a young fairy in a silk sari, descending from above, her wings flapping slowly. With sparkling eyes, she begins to dance, her gait as light as that of a celestial elf.

A handsome viewer, stunned by her ethereal beauty, falls in love. The fairy is the Kathak dancer Shivani Varma. The scene is part of a short film created for a fashion brand. “A dancer’s life demands total immersion,” Varma beams confidently.

According to purists, classical Indian art forms such as dance and music are for traditionalists who can understand and appreciate the nuances. But the 36-year-old is reorienting dance as a commercial art in order to bring it to less rigorous observers. She is not ingenuous; A former lawyer, Varma was trained by the biggest names in modern Kathak such as Pandit Birju Maharaj and Shovana Narayan.

“There is a lack of awareness of classical arts among Indians, which makes it difficult for young artists to pursue a career there,” she says. The dancer, however, takes an extreme view of the classical discipline, blaming a post-colonial Indian hangover that glorifies looking at the West as trendsetters, which fails us to appreciate the fact of to be Indian. “In the field of performing arts, we have one of the most complex, developed and cerebral systems. We should be an example for others to follow,” she insists. Varma’s fashionable style pairs well with strategic collaborations that might appeal to a contemporary audience. Her performing repertoire is eclectic for a ballet dancer – fashion events like Indian Tailoring Week, literature festivals, theater productions and art exhibitions in venues considered “popular” by the culturally curious.

Varma’s method is unique, as it stays true to the technical aspects of Kathak, experimenting only with storytelling and presentation. Proof of her success came after dancing at the wedding of AR Rahman’s daughter, which led to a creative partnership with the famous composer. Her next performance is scheduled for the upcoming Jahan-e-Khusrau Sufi Festival in Jaipur later this month. She is both the principal dancer and the choreographer of the dance ballet “Moomal”, a tragic love story from the Sindh-Rajasthan region; the director is Muzaffar Ali. “I was mainly trained in the gharana of Lucknow. For this show, however, I chose bandishes or technical pieces with bowls associated with Jaipur’s gharana due to the regional context, although it would have been easier for me to work with my own taaleem,” says- she.

Varma’s other ongoing projects include a recital in collaboration with designer Varun Bahl and Jashn-e-Sahar, which celebrates the life and legacy of Urdu poet Kunwar Mohinder Singh Bedi ‘Sahar’ – she will dance to his sung ghazals and composed by Mohammed Rafi. Varma will close the year with a recital based on a concept that highlights the influence of Kathak in Indian cinema at the Metaphor Literature Festival in Lucknow. “The influence of Kathak is so vast in films that I’m spoiled for choice. There are cinematic pieces from maestros such as Pandit Birju Maharaj and Gopi Kishanji. From Paakeezah to Mughal-e-Azam, from Devdas to Bajirao Mastani, Kathak has been celebrated in many cinematic works, making songs and dances evergreen. Kathak translates songs and dances into unparalleled beauty,” she says. Varma makes a fairy tale out of Kathak, but reinvented with his own idiom.

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