A journey begins with a Puraskar

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Young artistes are often rewarded with scholarships and fellowships that further their training, but there are few awards that recognise them as practitioners making a valuable contribution to the arts they have pursued. In this direction, the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar instituted by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 2006 is an important step towards opening up the arts and making young performing artistes feel more welcome by acknowledging their significance.

The Yuva Puraskar carries a purse of `25,000. It is awarded in the fields of music, dance, theatre, traditional and folk performance forms and for outstanding scholarship in the performing arts. Earlier this month, Yuva Puraskar awardees for 2010 were felicitated in New Delhi. The list of awardees was made public in late 2011. Over the course of six days, the awardees also presented solo performances at various prestigious venues in Delhi. The Yuva Puraskar in dance was presented to Arushi Mudgal for Odissi, M. Amaljith for Kathakali, Naren Barua for Sattriya, Pallabi De for Kathak, Praveen Kumar for Bharatanatyam, Madhu Nataraj for contemporary dance, Yeleswarapu Srinivasulu for Kuchipudi Yakshagana and Yogesh Gangani for Kathak tabla. Three months on, a few of the awardees share how this milestone may have defined their lives.
Based in Kolkata, Pallabi De is a student of Kanan Sen and Pandit Birju Maharaj, a prodigy who started dancing when she was four. She describes a life in dance, “I had an elder sister who also danced, and my family tells me that I used to imitate her. This was when I was about two years of age. Also, my mother is a singer and I have grown up with music. It was quite natural then that at the age of four, I started learning Kathak under Kanan Sen. She was a great teacher and encouraged us to spread our wings. When I was 12, she organised a workshop with Pt. Birju Maharaj. The workshop made a significant impact on my style and I continued to learn from Maharajji during the short workshops he would conduct in Kolkata, while training regularly with my guru. At 15, I began going to Delhi to attend summer classes at Kathak Kendra. In 2000, I finally took the plunge and moved to Delhi. I lived with Saswati Sen and trained only with Maharajji between 2003 and 2011. Till 2011, I was a senior repertory member at Kalashram and also a teacher.”
De, who is a postgraduate in Economics, was expected to end up in academics, but her passion for Kathak saw her strive to make a name for herself as a dancer. “The Yuva Puraskar has definitely brought more recognition and respect. Suddenly there is a reason people know about you; there is more curiosity and thus more acclaim. Personally, I must confess that I dreamed of being awarded the Puraskar ever since I heard about it — I came into dance with the understanding that I would make an absolute success of whatever I did, and this is a step in that direction,” she remarks.
Speaking from Kuchipudi village in Andhra Pradesh’s Krishna district, Yeleswarapu Srinivasulu was also born to a life in dance, albeit in a different manner. He learnt Kuchipudi from Vempati Peddasatyam, Vempati Chinna Satyam, V. Satyanarayana Sarma, Vedantam Radheshyam and M. Sriramulu Sarma. His great-grandfather and grandfather both played Rakshasa roles. He claims his grandfather looked the part because he was over six feet tall! He would hang around the elders, imitating what they taught their students. When he was in the third standard, he began his formal training in Kuchipudi. He specialises in the female roles and has previously received a Sangeet Natak Akademi scholarship to further his study of female Kuchipudi characters. “I don’t have to make special efforts to get into character. With the female aharya, the abhinaya and rasa follows,” he explains.
Absorbed into performance at an early age, Srinivasulu has performed widely. He is happy about the award, not least because it brings Kuchipudi Yakshagana into the limelight. He also finds that it has encouraged him to teach and propagate the form. At the award ceremony, Srinivasulu wowed the audience with his versatility, performing a Balagopala tarangam and quickly changing character to play Hiranyakashipu.
The Yuva Puraskar also gives a voice to dance musicians, who are usually seen as figures in between, looked down upon by the music fraternity because they play for dance, and inadequately represented within dance. This year, the Yuva Puraskar for music in dance was awarded to Yogesh Gangani, who plays the tabla for Kathak. He is the brother of Pt. Rajendra Gangani. “I began my training in Kathak, but I had been fascinated by the tabla since childhood, and at some point I started giving it serious thought. I found that there were ways of correlating tala to the moods of the dance. When I first decided I would play the tabla, my family was very upset. They didn’t see why a boy from the gharana who had every chance of being a successful dancer would want to play the tabla out of choice,” he reminisces.
Gangani has been encouraged by dancers of all styles. He recalls playing for Odissi and Bharatanatyam in rehearsal, and says that it is just a matter of understanding the patterns of music and dance — percussion cannot be learnt by rote. He is full of awe for the gurus of Kathak Kendra, where he works. He says, “I have seen how dedicated they are; they say there are relationships one can only form through learning, not through blood — these gurus have done that. It is up to the student to stay open-minded and accept their
criticism. When I was young, we were often taunted rudely; today, no one can say the same things to their students! Even now, if one of the gurus I am playing with has a suggestion for me, I happily listen to them and learn from it.”
On being asked whether the Puraskar has changed his life, he laughs, “Earlier, people nodded to me. Now they nod and congratulate me!”

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