118 years of Trust Interview THE TRIBUNE
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Sunday, January 17, 1999
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"In India feudal patronage still holds sway"

What strikes one on meeting Sharon Lowen is her large, lovely eyes. She looks like a fair Indian maiden, and not a foreigner. The renowned Odissi danseuse has assimilated and internalised Indian art and culture to the extent that she is more Indian than many of us. During the last 25 years, she has brought out the exquisite grace of Odissi through her performances in India and abroad.

Sharon is one of the few artistes who have a strong academic background. She is a Fulbright and Smithsonian scholar, with an M.A. in Dance from the University of Michigan. She was not content with learning Odissi only, and, to understand Indian dance, she took training in Manipuri, Mayurbhanj Chhau and Seriakella Chhau forms, too. Abhinaya is her strength, and she performs Odissi without altering even an iota of its form or style.

This left-handed artiste, along with being a performer, wants to contribute towards improving the appreciation and understanding of Indian dance.

She has written scholarly articles, held hundreds of lecture-demonstrations, and performed in universities, schools, museums and art centres, besides teaching as a visiting professor at universities in the USA. Belu Maheshwari met her recently for an interview. Excerpts:

What is the most memorable experience of your childhood?

The magic of attending hundreds of performances presented by artistes from all over the world. My parents were sensitive to all arts and cultures. They took me to theatre, dance performances, music recitals, and puppet shows. I imbibed so much. They helped me develop a holistic personality.

Do you feel art education is essential for the young?

Definitely. Only bookish education is not sufficient for the overall growth of the young. They should be exposed early to sports and the arts. My daughter went to the theatre when she was one -week-old. I cannot understand why young people do not come to watch performances. Parents should teach them auditorium manners. Live performances are not like your TV rooms, where people can walk in and out, go crunch, crunch while eating chips. Why only children, even adults in India need to learn how to behave during a performance and show respect to art and artistes.

Do you come from a family of artists?

No. My father is a chemical engineer and my mother has a Masters in clinical psychology. They later started a business. My mother, even at 60, loved to tap dance. Among my siblings, my brother is a surgeon, while my sister is a modern dancer, writer and poet in America. Now my daughter Tars is also in the USA.

How did you become a dancer?

As I was fortunate to be exposed to classical dances of the world, I got interested in the pure form. As India has a rich tradition of dance, I thought of coming here. I was fortunate to get a Fulbright scholarship to India and I started learning Manipuri. I was focused in my studies of the East and to understand this culture I even went to theatre workshops.

Was the progression to Odissi dance a natural step?

I went to meet Kelu Babu (Padma Bhushan Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra). He saw some promise in me and said if I continued I could become a good dancer. I found him a very good teacher, generous about imparting his knowledge. I found Odissi had wide scope for abhinaya. I even learnt Mayabhan Chhau, which is basically a male form of dance. It provides flexibility and strength to the body. The dances of East India have a lyrical quality to them, they have a rich tradition. I have also learnt ballet and modern dance.

Did language not prove an impediment to communication, especially with the accompanists?

Dance has its own language, so communication with accompanists is not difficult. Most of my accompanists are Oriyas and they have been with me for a long time. I have also over the years picked up many Indian languages in order to understand their poetry, like Sanskrit, Oriya, Hindi, or Telugu. Poetry in these languages fascinates me, I try to get into it. Anyway, poetry is not literal. It has many nuances.

What is the difference in the teaching of dance in India and abroad?

Dance training in India is more individualistic. In the USA, it is taught in large classes. Indian dance can ideally be taught through the guru-shishya parampara. By a strict definition, this parampara has declined here also.

Its attributes were that the guru was a father-figure -- a mentor, guide and philosopher. The shishyas gave their body and soul to be moulded by the guru.

In the West, there is an emphasis on training, preparing the body and choreography-- every movement has to be synchronised to perfection. Here it is abhinaya, laya and taal -- your own interpretation of the words.

What is required to rise above the ordinary as a dancer ?

One can learn anything technical, like the movements. To be a cut above, you have to delve deeper, understand the very concept of dance, the history, the meta-physics, the philosophy-- everything has to be absorbed. I feel, after you reach a certain position or level in a field, you have a responsibility to make the form grow, spread and contribute.

What other difference do you find in the art scene in India and abroad?

Abroad, artist(e)s do not push, if they are good they will rise. Here the scene is entirely different, so much manoeuvring and under-cutting goes on. Then, in the West, there is lot of interaction among artistes; here there is hardly any. Another difference is there you have professional event managers and personal managers. Unfortunately in India, it is personal contacts which matter. Here the system of feudal patronage still holds sway. The maharajas have gone but new culture czars have come up.

You have been a part of the dance scene in India for a very long time. What are the changes that you have witnessed?

I have been around for ages. The artistes were first trying to popularise art; they were not competing with each other. Now art has become popular, respectable. Now we are competing for the same programmes. There is terrible pressure to outwit another dancer for a slot.

What norms do you follow?

I feel to be a good artiste you have to be a good human being. In my 55 years of life, I have matured, understood life. I feel I have more to give to my art now. My norms are that I will not ask for programmes. I never cut another artiste. If it is my due, I will get it.

What are your other interests?

From time to time, I like to work in theatre. I have worked with Einstein Repotery Company, I have been part of Videshi Kalakar Utsava for 6 years. I choreograph for films and television in India, the USA, England. I have featured in a Telugu film.

How would you define yourself ?

I can say that I like what I have achieved for myself. I am a competent choreographer, a team person, a good dancer. I enjoy structuring things, creating. I start my performance with Veena Vadini Varde Mangalacharan. This 1945 poem by Suryakant Tripathi Nirala is what I empathise with. ‘Cut the shackles that bind. Shower us with light as you remove darkness and illuminate our way. Teach new steps and new sounds. Give fledgling birds new voices and wings to fly’.

What are your beliefs? And what is the motto of your life?

Never underestimate yourself or anyone else. Try to reach your highest peak of excellence. Do not do things you are not comfortable doing and never be afraid. Fear brings out the worst qualities in a human being.

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