Monday, June 20, 2011

The Guru

Malti Shyam
Malti Ji laughs when I tell her she is one of the main reasons the girls and I hung on in Delhi. I remember when Aqseer was filling up an application form towards an internship she was keen on; there was a column that asked the applicants to name two people who had influenced them the most. She wrote, “My Kathak Guru, Malti Shyam and my mother.”

I met Malti Ji at the Kathak Kendra New Delhi, during auditions for the First Year of their Diploma program. I was bemused that the institute expected some familiarity with the dance form from the applicants, even before they had joined the First Year. I had to remind myself of the parallel situation during Kindergarten admissions in schools, where the incoming pre-schoolers are expected to be current with the alphabet and numbers, as also with colours and fruits! Having cleared the audition nonetheless, Aqseer and Asawari entered India’s national institute of Kathak under the tutelage of Malti Shyam of the Lucknow gharana; herself a disciple of Pandit Birju Maharaj and the late Reba Vidyarthi. It was to be the start of a long and intense association.

Malti Ji is known for the “lyrical grace and technical precision” of her dance. The sincerity and integrity of her stage effort invariably uplifted the audience. I remember being moved to tears during her rendition of ‘Shyamrang’. Asawari was up on her chair and threatening to bring the house down during another. Performer, choreographer and teacher, it was the last role that was to have an abiding influence on the girls.

Their good fortune: with Maharaj Ji and Malti Shyam
In their decade old association with her, I have to say that Malti Shyam has proved to be a guru par excellence. Herself, what is often known as a “non-gharana” dancer, she guided her students around and out of pitfalls that she herself struggled with. She taught a whole deal more than just Kathak. There was an entire world view, a philosophy, an ethic and one complete moral perspective that she gave her children. It is rare in India’s classical art forms, this good fortune to be learning from a teacher as generous as Malti Shyam. She gave without reservations to those who wanted to learn and grow.

It was proof of her openness and maturity that she accepted, even encouraged Asawari’s parallel training in Ballet. She in fact, took time out to attend her performances. One memorable evening, as I approached her class room to pick up the girls, what do I find:  Aqseer is fast asleep on the floor besides her guru, nice and cosy under her black shawl! “She was tired,” Malti Ji explained smilingly as the rest of the class spun to the vigorous beats of the tabla. In the initial years, it was quite an event to be visiting her at home for some rehearsal or the other. She liked to feed her students and I would whisper to myself, “Kalyug, kalyug…the guru is cooking for the shagirds!”

On Maharaj Ji's Birthday, 2010

Devoid of any affectations, committed and dedicated to her own gurus and the art form, more than happy to go the extra mile for her students, keeper of the remarkably affirmative tradition of the guru shishya tradition: that is for you, performer, choreographer, teacher and an inspiration, Malti Shyam.

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