MEETING MY GURUMA
BY NIKITA THAKRAR
Nikita Thakrar is an inspiring young dancer from Berkshire who is spreading the message of pure Indian arts to young people in the UK through a traditional dance form called Kathak. Here she recalls her experiences of going to meet her Guruma, who later became her role model and guided her through her career in dance. Nikita, now one of the youngest, most successful young artists in the UK she looks back on the first day she went to meet her dream teacher...
I remember going to meet Shila Mehta for the first time, with my mother, on a hot Sunday afternoon. It was the day after I had first arrived in Mumbai and the institute was normally closed on this day, but she made an exception to come and meet us as she knew I was keen. She had asked us to call her when we got close, as she only lived walking distance away. It was a normal hot day in Mumbai, as we drove through the dusty roads and down the bumpy Malad-Kandivali subway. I sat quietly in the three wheeler looking around and thinking that this could be the journey I take for the next four months. I was excited. I was about to meet the woman I had been e-mailing for the last few months. But I was also scared. Scared she would not take me on, not think I was good enough. This meeting was going to be a bit like an audition, where she would see whether or not I was worthy enough to be her student. I was doubtful about whether or not I was at that time.
The rikshaw came to a sudden halt as we pulled up on the road of the institute. It scared me, not just because of the way it stopped but because it hit me that it was all happening. I was about to find out whether or not I was good enough to stay in India and train with her. What if I wasn’t? Would I have to go back home? Questions were running through my head, as we looked for the building.
I had not really imagined what the institute was going to be like. I guess I had been more concerned with whether not I would be accepted. So it was a surprise for me when I saw that the building was big. I had definitely not expected that. I thought it would be similar to Asha Chandra’s acting institute, i.e. a bungalow apartment in a block. But this was a big old white building. It had gates that had a lock on. There was a big sign up outside saying ‘Nupur Zanker academy’ which I recognised was the name from the website.
I looked around, and there wasn’t that much there. Further down there were flats, but the only thing near the institute was a fruit and veg stall and a man selling old magazines. This came in use in my later visits where I could catch up on the previous month’s Femina magazines.
We stood outside in the heat as we waited for Shila Mehta to come, and as we did there were dogs near our legs trying to sniff us. They must have been stray dogs as they were scrounging for food. I didn’t like them coming near me as they were dirty and smelly. To add to the annoyance there were flies whizzing around us as we waited outside the gates.
My mind started to wander when before I knew it, a lady appeared from behind us. She apologised for being late and shook my Mum’s hand. She gave me a warm but questioning smile. She rummaged through her big set of keys until she found the right one to open the big lock.
We went inside and she opened the front door of her institute. She took off her shoes and left them by the door. We followed.The inside was big and empty. It reminded me of an old haunted house that had not been lived in for years.
She walked up some stairs and we followed her. On the right hand side of the first set of stairs there was a big statue of Lord Ganesh. My Mum had always told me that we pray to this particular God when we are about to embark on something big, i.e. taking exams, going to University or buying a car…
For me this was a big day, so I was happy when she stopped and touched the bronze statue’s feet which allowed me to do the same before I carried on walking. She took us into a big wide room with mirrors at the far end and a small platform for a stage. She told us that this was the main hall of the institute where they hold their big classes.
My Mum smiled and politely enquired into how many classes a week they run while meanwhile I was examining the room. It was big and bear, with only a few fans hanging from the ceiling. I started imagining the main room of my future institute, the wooden floor, the big mirrors, the stage and the ambience, when I noticed that they had both left me to go into another room.
I followed them into a much smaller room, which we were told we were going to stay in and talk. She pulled up a chair for my Mum, and I used my initive and sat on the floor. I looked down as both of them talked, as if I had done something wrong and was being sent to boarding school… little did I know that here I was sitting in front of the woman who was to eventually going to become a second mother to me.
She was a very pretty lady, fair in complexion and a well structured face. Her smile was warm and friendly. Her eyes were full of experience and knowledge. She appeared to be someone who was well travelled and knew about the world, unlike many other Kathak teachers I had met. What appealed to me most about her was the dignity she held. Even whilst sitting on the chair she sat in a very well behaved manner, with confidence but not arrogance. She seemed a secure and a happy person.
I liked her, but at the same time I was scared. She was asking my Mum questions about how long I had been learning for and the real reason of why I was there. My Mum looked at me for the answer, as though I could be the only one to answer it. I looked into the dignified lady’s eyes and replied ‘I want to learn Kathak.’ She laughed and replied, ‘but you’ve already been learning it…’ I responded ‘Yes but now I want to learn proper Kathak.’
I think she liked that answer because she immediately started discussing my class structure, timings and fees. I was to begin my lessons the next day.
The following four months with Shila Mehta was like going through childhood again. On the first day she saw how much I knew, or rather how little. She told me a few things that were not correct, such as my posture and balance when doing my spins. I didn’t understand these things until she showed me and I eventually felt the difference.
In my lessons we went back to the basics. Shilaji spent a lot of time with me going through the first things one learns as a dancer. It reminded me of my initial training with Mr Dheer, although this was nothing like that in my feelings towards it. She broke things down so well that I understood, and most importantly felt each movement. Within just a couple of months I had grasped the hands, feet and turns the way she wanted me to. I just needed to practice everything to perfection. She liked my patience, and I enjoyed the initial slow pace. I think I needed this emphasis on the basics in order to make my foundation strong.
Eventually when I started learning tukras, toras and tihais I started to feel challenged. Doing the movements was fine, but doing them the way that Shilaji expected them to be was difficult.
She was a strict teacher with high expectations of her students. I felt a responsibility to fulfil these, almost as a form of repayment for taking me on.
Almost every session I had a tabla player with me while I danced, which I later came to appreciate played a very important role in my understanding of laya and taal (the rhythmic structure of the form).
Every composition was taught thoroughly, and would be explained to me as well as shown. To Shilaji they were more then just a sequence of movements or a rhythmic composition. Each one represented a tradition of art which had been passed down to her by the great Gurus, and most of all they represented values.
Each tukra had a story to it, many of which I am grateful that she shared with me. Many times when she was explaining something to me, I would enquire as to why that was. She would never show that she didn’t know an answer nor would she tell me off for questioning too much. Instead she understood my needs as a student (perhaps a difficult one!) and answered everything I wanted to know in as much depth as she could. Some days we would talk for hours on end, and I later realised that this became a huge part of my training.
By the end of the four months, I had started to get into a routine. Me, her and the tabla player had started to share a connection which I went back home with fond memories of. At the end we recorded everything that I had learnt and she made sure my notes were detailed so that I could refer back to them once I was back home.
I was so grateful to her but it was only later on that I really appreciated how much she had given me in this trip. Not only had she introduced me to the very basics in such a nice way, or given me lots of material to work with but also by developing my love for the art form. On a personal level she had no reservations in inviting me to her home and there was a definite connection there which we never spoke about until my future trips.
The following trips after this one proved to be both educational and memorable. The quality of what I learnt from Shilaji has been priceless, and her belief in me was always encouraging. Even after I formed my company and I started doing Bollywood, she was happy that I was dancing. She was confident that she had given me as much as she could have and it was upto me what I did with it. Neither of us knew that I would keep going back, but my annual trips to train with her became my highlight of my year.
Everytime I went back she would first take time in looking at me, to anaylze and see what I had become. I never showed off or took my videos or photos of my performances in London. I just briefly told her what I had been doing. She never actually said that she was proud but always showed it.
She always encouraged me to do something more, to work on a higher level and to support art. Even when she came to stay with me once in London to do workshops, she never criticised me. She was always positive and supportive, as though I was a young child who had to be told everything in order to understand.
What she made me understand the most was the richness and power of the spiritual dance form. She made me appreciate Kathak as an art form, rather then just a dance style and she encouraged me to explore it in depth.
One of my fondest memories is in one of my trips, where she invited me to her home to do the lesson. She had just moved house and had a big terrace where they had built a beautiful water feature of the statue Natraj. We did the entire lesson on this terrace with Natraj, the Lord of dance behind me. I remember it being a hot day and I had not danced in a while, so I was very worried about my stamina.
The minute I started dancing I felt strength. It was this session that I was taught a popular Thumri ‘Kaahe ruket’ , which was the first Thumri that her Guru had taught her.
As we went through the characters of Radha and Krishna I felt a deep sense of spirituality which I had never experienced since. It felt real, as though as I was actually dancing with or even for the Gods.
This was a real cleansing process as I went back home feeling re-charged and positive. It was after this I decided that Kathak was something I could never let go off. Somewhere it would always be a part of my life. And it was, and thankfully so was Shilaji. She became a not only a teacher but a mentor, role model and Guru for me.
Shila Mehta will be visiting the UK in August to perform and run dance workshops with Nikita’s students. To enquire about watching her perform or to participate in the summer workshops please contact Nikita: firstname.lastname@example.org