Promoting culture through Kathak

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Sanchita Abrol did not foray into dancing by chance but she admits ‘Kathak found her and she found Kathak’ one afternoon when she was very young. There has been no looking back since. After being trained under renowned gurus in India such as Padma Shri (India’s fourth highest civilian award) winner Shovana Narayan, Abrol has performed in many international platforms. In 2014, Abrol came to study her Master’s in Public Policy and Management from the University of Melbourne. The Melbourne connect was immediate, the city felt like home and today she works as a public policy consultant here while, at the same time, being fully immersed in propagating the Indian classical dance form of Kathak teaching all over Australia and in India. As founder and director of Kathakprana Dance Academy in Melbourne, Abrol is a cultural entrepreneur and a thought leader. She tells The Indian Weekly about her Kathak journey and what it means to be a cultural entrepreneur in multicultural Australia.

Where did your interest in Kathak stem from and how did it evolve?
I was about five-years old in Rohtak, Haryana, when I used to accompany my older sister to her dance class, she was learning Odissi then. Watching her sparked a certain interest and I would imitate her movements. But my decision to start Kathak was circumstantial. I was playing with my friend who was learning Kathak and I happened to accompany her. When the teacher saw me, he said ‘why don’t you join in as well?’ The moment I did that I realised I really liked the dance flow. It just felt so natural to me, I felt I didn’t have to do much and I could find myself in that dance. But I couldn’t understand that at that age. Later on, I realised how I love Kathak and how I cannot live without it. So yes, it was by chance and luck that I found Kathak and Kathak found me.

My initial training was under Guru Ved Vyas ji and later with Kathak maestro and Padma Shri awardee Shovana Narayan.

My Kathak journey has been very long and interesting. I started dancing professionally at a very early age, and since then I have performed at many international platforms like Ganges-Danube Cultural Festival of India in Hungary 2016, ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) Festival of India in Italy 2016 and ICCR Festival of India in Morocco 2016 among others. But even though I have represented India in various stages and at various levels, the best memory is the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Representing the host country and being part of the main stage artistes was an emotional but proud experience.

How did the Australia chapter of your life begin?
After I completed my Bachelor of Commerce (Honours) from Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi,
I was working in development projects with Ernst & Young and KPMG when in 2014, I got the opportunity to study a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Management at the University of Melbourne. When I came here, I liked the place, the environment and the people. Even though I have travelled everywhere, Melbourne immediately felt like home. I stayed on to fulfil my academic, dancing and social goals. And I established the Kathakprana Dance Academy here.

How is Kathak received in Australia?
Kathak is not that well known among the population here unlike in Europe or in the UK where it enjoys large popularity. There are many reasons to that, but most probably due to different migration trends. There are very few Kathak schools here but a noticeable trend is that as people are getting interested and asking questions about it. It’s a good time to start expressing what Kathak means.

What sort of initiatives are you taking to maintain the interest of Kathak dance here?
My personal objective is to reimagine our cultural communities through Kathak – something I have been working for a long time now. What I mean by reimagining cultural communities is being aware and bringing on stage these cultural communities through Kathak. We are all global citizens now and we need to explore the depth and beauty of various cultures, their linguistic properties and their elements of history. Because Kathak means story-telling, the benefit is that I can tell these stories to the world through dancing.

As a cultural entrepreneur, how can one combine creativity with business approach?
As a cultural entrepreneur, you are always competing with many to get few of the sponsorships that are available either through government or private opportunities. I always recommend that it is always good to find the job that you like first. It applies to any field, say, as an artiste you can start working as a manager for some senior artistes or you can start dancing in the troupe of some senior artistes so that you have at least some kind of earning. Later on, when you establish yourself and gathered the experience through all the other opportunities you got on the way, you can move on and establish your business if you want to do nothing else. But it is a long journey, it is not easy. I am still struggling and, probably, all my gurus too because even if you reach that stage, you want to do more. The problem is, artistes are never satisfied as they are driven to do more in their field – which is a good thing!

What advice would you give to others who are interested in building an arts-based business?
Don’t think of running one small institute with one or two annual functions. Develop a broader perspective of how you can communicate with other artistes, how you can interact with other art forms and how you can put all of these together. There needs to be creativity not just in your own art forms but also in how you express what you have to tell. The whole journey then becomes easy as you come to know your audience, your capacity and how to progress in that. So, it is very important for artistes to communicate with one another. In Australia we have multiculturalism, but we have to think beyond multicultural opportunities that are available and look at interacting with other artistes on different platforms.

What do you derive out of this commitment to Kathak?
Dancing for me is like a spiritual journey. It’s not just about movement but also dancing in space and dancing in your soul. Whenever I go on stage or dance in my own studio and no matter what I am going through in life, I get a sense of contentment that calms me down. Dance has become a part of my life. The days I don’t dance are the days I am not happy. I feel I was just born to be a dancer and that I am doing my work. I believe I am passing on knowledge with every step that I take or every choreography that I do or every student that I teach. So it’s that satisfaction which is sometimes hard to express in words. I intend to continue my tryst with Kathak for life alongside balancing my academic and social goals.