On a pleasant spring evening in Delhi, the stage inside India Habitat Centre’s Stein auditorium reverberates as a three pairs of ghungroo-laden feet thump lightly and continuously for several seconds in sync with the accompanying tabla beats.
The stage is dark except for a single large beam of light focused on the trio – the effect is ethereal and haunting. The chhann-chhann sound of their ghungroos and the thap-thap sound of their feet go on unchanged for a dramatic, suspenseful few minutes – evoking the rhythm of a train heading steadily towards its destination.
At the end, the leading lady in the centre between two male dancers turns around and faces the audience, her light eyes lit with fire, and launches into the next part of her performance without pause. The audience releases its collective breath.
This is one of the many memorable pieces of technical and creative innovation in Shivani Varma’s Kathak performance Champaran ke Bapu. She conceptualized and choreographed the dance-drama after educationist Sukanya Bharat Ram first suggested the idea of presenting an ode to Mahatma Gandhi.
With her nimble grace and mastery over the ancient classical dance, Shivani depicts slices of history in fluid motion: Gandhi’s first step off the train on to the platform at Champaran; the peasants’ expectations of this messiah; their rising anger at the tyranny of the British and their nonviolent protests; the drawing of the Radcliffe line that drew families and people apart and led to the rewriting of history; and the pain of Partition. And yet, this is a story of courage, not loss.
Politics, history and fights for justice are topics close to Shivani’s heart. A political science graduate from Lady Shri Ram college in Delhi, she completed her LLB from Delhi University’s Faculty of Law and began practicing at Delhi High Court under notable advocates. She married a lawyer, Vedant Varma, who has a flourishing legal practice.
But Shivani always had another love along the side. Having begun learning Kathak from the age of three, she grew up to become a disciple of Guru Shovana Narayan and was mentored by danseuse Sharmistha Mukherjee.
By the time she reached college, she found herself “in favourable circumstances”, and was noticed by filmmaker Muzaffar Ali who gave her opportunities to perform in leading roles in many classical projects including the Sufi festival, Jahan-e-Khusrau.
She has also performed at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games 2010 and has given recitals at a number of literature and art festivals, even fashion weeks.
“Gradually, my legal practice became secondary and dance went from passion to profession,” says Shivani, seated cross-legged on a chair in her husband’s legal office in the basement of their sprawling South Delhi home.
Dressed in a white cotton kurta, the petite 30-something appears like a child as she gesticulates wildly, describing the various alaaps and bols of her performance the previous day. Alongside the law offices is her dance studio, where she conducts Kathak classes for little children.
Shivani regrets that classical dance does not find patronage today from government or private sponsors, and that dancers have to eke a living from other jobs. “I wish more Indian parents sent their children to learn classical dance; it would help revive an interest. Kathak is so much more than just dance; it teaches you India’s history, poetry, languages, philosophy, culture,” she avers. This feisty danseuse herself is an inspiration to try it.