Home First Stirrings ‘You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching’
First Stirrings

‘You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching’

Shovana Narayan
Kathak maestro Shovana Narayan, recipient of Padma Shri (1992)

FINDING an unusual retired woman civil servant proved to be a challenge. Some have achieved high visibility but I needed a compelling story, not a list of achievements. And then the name of Kathak maestro Shovana Narayan, recipient of Padma Shri (1992) and until 2011 a full-time member of the Indian Audit and Accounts Service, came to mind! And the cherry on my story would be her marriage to Herbert Traxl, an Austrian diplomat. To have fulfilled three pursuits–dancer, officer and diplomat’s wife–concurrently, and without a crinkle of controversy, would certainly make an unusual story.

The questions were obvious: What led her to dance and what drove her to excel? How difficult was it to manage two professional careers as a classical dancer and as a member of the Indian Audit and Accounts Service? Did marriage and long periods of separation affect the couple’s relationship?

Shovana calls herself a “plodder” and attributes her success to two factors—hard work and determination. Looking at her family background, that may not be entirely true. Although she may not have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, she certainly had bells on her toes before, as a toddler, she got shoes!

Shovana was greatly influenced by her mother and the atmosphere in which she grew up. She belonged to an enlightened Bihari zamindar family where two influences were at work. On the one hand, mehfils and kavi-sammelans were a constant feature in the household. On the other, a strong sense of nationalism was infused in the older generation. Shovana’s maternal grandfather, Bapu Shyama Charan, and two of her uncles lost their lives in the freedom struggle. Her grandfather was the first Indian to be jailed as a part of the nationalist movement in Bihar. Her mother was a close associate of Indira Gandhi and connected with the All India Congress Committee.

Shovana Narayan2
Receiving the Padma Shri from President R Venkataraman in 1992

When Shovana had hardly started to walk, her mother—herself a product of the Benares Hindu University and a music-lover—took her to Sadhona Bose, a prominent dancer-actress of the 1950s. Shovana’s initiation into dancing began right then, when the diva held her tiny feet and thumped them to the reverberation of ta thai that tat—sounds that were destined to resonate in Shovana’s ears for the rest of her life. A 1957 black-and-white photograph shows six-year-old Shovana with her little chest bearing an array of medals and an even larger shield alongside.

The government house in Bharti Nagar where her parents lived was visited by famous singers and musicians, including Bhimsen Joshi and Hari Prasad Chaurasia. Once she was a little older, Shovana’s mother took her to the Sangeet Natak Academy and the Bharatiya Kala Kendra for coaching. It was here that the young girl was initiated as a pupil of Birju Maharaj, who accepted his new pupil but did not appear impressed by her studious looks. She was handed over to a senior student who took her under his charge. But even Birju Maharaj could not ignore the girl’s persistence and doggedness. Reluctantly at first, Birjuji became aware of his pupil. The rehearsals were gruelling and became more and more demanding as time went by.

Even as this tutelage continued, Shovana pursued her education. Her good performance in science led her to join Physics Honours at Delhi University. Hardly a winning combination for a dancer, but Shovana was made of sterner stuff. With a Physics Masters under her belt, she secured a CSIR junior research fellowship for solid-state physics, a pursuit which could not be further removed from classical dance!

AS Shovana started accompanying BirjuMaharaj onstage, it gave her extraordinary exposure and high visibility; but a dancer does not emerge into her own until she can command a solo performance accompanied by her own musicians. The first such opportunity arose in 1971 at the Shanmu khananda Hall in Bombay. It was there that she got a chance to test her talent for connecting with the audience and to face the distinction between the theory and practice of dance. As she performed what she had rehearsed so many times before, she sensed that the audience was getting restive. It was a desperate moment for her and one that needed a quick response. In that moment, beset with forebodings about what loomed ahead as a maiden failure, she learnt a universal truth: every performing artiste must inevitably discover the untaught technique of stagecraft—and quite literally dance to the tune of those who care to listen and watch. It became the turning point of her independent dancing career as she whirled round and round, faster and faster, pirouetting to a perfect finish and a resounding applause.

Shovana married Herbert Traxl in 1982
Shovana married Herbert Traxl in 1982

Shovana’s reputation as a gifted danseuse soared from then on. But it was her first tour abroad which actually catapulted her into the international limelight. Performing the role of Kapalkundala, the whirlwind female fiend of mythology, she bared her teeth and spread her nails reminiscent of eagle claws before whirling herself frenziedly across the stage. There was tumultuous applause as the curtain came down. On her return to Delhi, the doors of Rashtrapati Bhavan were opened for the first time—the ultimate State recognition. Thereon, her audience comprised visiting heads of State and foreign dignitaries—Prince Charles, Lord Mountbatten, President Kenneth Kaunda and President Jimmy Carter. Later, in 1982, at Moscow she danced before Indira Gandhi and President Brezhnev. It was here that an infatuated guest broke the security cordon, simply to shower flowers at her feet.

Meanwhile, in 1975, Shovana had appeared for the civil services and had been selected for the Indian Audit and Accounts Services. She proudly recounts how at certain stages of her official career, particularly in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat, she handled double and triple charges to cushion an acute shortage of officers. Throughout a 35-year-long career and thanks to the advice of the doyenne of culture, Kapila Vatsayan, Shovana scrupulously avoided postings which had anything to do with the world of culture. Even so, combining official life with Kathak was like performing a trapeze act day after day. While working hours could be devoted to office, rehearsals and performances had perforce to be fitted into the early mornings and evenings.

SHOVANA realised early enough that she had to be scrupulously punctual as the slightest laxity could jeopardise her dancing career. The prevailing mindset expected 24-hour commitment from an officer and hobbies and extra-curricular pursuits of a serious kind were considered a waste of time. The only way to sustain her dancing schedules was to lead a double life and do it as quietly as possible. Shovana left office on time and drove directly to the auditorium every day—her costume, accessories, ghungroos and musical instruments crammed into the back seat.

Despite following a gruelling schedule, it was abundantly clear that she would not be taken seriously either as a civil servant or a classical dancer, if one world heard of the other. While she crossed the career hoops on schedule, this was often attributed to her prominence as a dancer. Cultural organisations considered non-khandani artistes as interlopers and her other role as a stodgy bureaucrat would not have endeared her to them. Shovana, therefore, had to maintain discretion by never revealing one world to the other. To add to her chagrin, her success as a dancer was often attributed to her European diplomat husband, who was credited with opening doors for his wife! That he lived thousands of miles away from India and had his own career to pursue never stopped tongues wagging.

Indeed, her marriage to Traxl, an Austrian diplomat, is a story in itself. In 1979, a fortune-teller predicted that she would soon be marrying a non-Indian. That December, Shovana met Herbert. What followed was a long-distance courtship and the dilemma of deciding whether to give up the civil service, her dancing career, her family life in Delhi and follow her Austrian husband-to-be around the world. As she puts it, it was Herbert’s sincerity and goodness that vanquished all her doubts and they got married in 1982. Bhupinder Prasad, Shovana’sbatchmate who registered the marriage, recalled the various wedding ceremonies and also recounted a rather tragic story and the courage her dancer friend had shown. Shovana’s father had been killed in a railway accident and it was left to the eldest daughter to single-handedly unearth his mangled body from a mass of corpses.

On the few occasions that Shovana lived with her husband in Europe, she did manage to get a ringside view of Western music and dance. This enabled her to start collaborations, which culminated in an extraordinary repertoire of fusion dance thatblended Kathak with Western ballet, the Spanish flamenco and the American tap dance.

Throughout a 35-year-longcareer and thanks to the advice of the doyenne of culture, KapilaVatsayan, Shovana scrupulously avoided postings which had anything to do withthe world of culture. Even so, combining official lifewith Kathak was like performing a trapeze actday after day

No story would be complete without a word from Shovana’s husband. I skyped Ambassador Traxl in Vienna and asked him how he fell in love with Shovana. He laughed and told me: “Initially I was intrigued by Shovana’s rare talent for dancing, combined with the career of a senior civil servant. What puzzled me even more was that she had a Masters in Physics which made her a unique combination of science, art and civil service. I got to know and admire her more and more, but one thing was clear: Shovana needed her environment in Delhi. If I uprooted her, I would be taking away what made her happy. So we decided to live as we have done. A strong relationship does not depend on physical proximity, it needs trust and understanding.”

IN 1992, Shovana was awarded the Padma Shri for her contribution to dance. Her regret was that her mother who had given her all the opportunities to excel was by then no more. She missed her mother’s presence at the ceremony and the emotional upheaval she experienced engulfed her once more when she received the Sangeet Natak Academy Award a few years later.

All through their courtship and married life and as long as they pursued individual careers, Shovana and Herbert lived on different continents. They bridged the gap by exchanging audio cassettes with each day’s highs and lows, long before Skype became a reality. A five-year posting which brought Herbert as Ambassador to India was a reward for having lived separately for years. Shovana gives full marks to her husband for what she calls his “ego-less friction-less self” without which her marriage and dancing career would have been on the rocks.

Their time together was not without lighter moments. On a visit to Mauritius, Herbert was met on the tarmac by an official from the Protocol Department of the Foreign Ministry. Shovana followed her European ambassador husband, clad in a sari. When the officer noticed Shovana tagging along, he asked her to go back and join others in the arrival hall. It was only then that the Austrian Ambassador informed him, “That’s my wife.” “Are you sure, Sir?” was the response!

AS Shovana puts it, to be married to a diplomat was like being married to a gypsy. Her husband had selected postings as near Delhi as possible, which gave the choice of Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mauritius, South Yemen, Djibouti (Iran) and Thailand, with accreditation to Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Two years after they were married, Shovana became pregnant, which presented a new dilemma—in the world of dance there is great insecurity and an absence to handle maternal responsibilities could have grounded her dancing career, making a comeback far from easy.

Shovana continued to dance till the end of the fifth month when the bulge began to show. Forebodings about abnormalities kept gnawing at her, but no gynaecologist would certify anything. When she was 34 years old, she gave birth to a boy, who grew up sharing nine months of the year with his mother and three months alternating between his Indian and Austrian grandmothers.

In 1992, Shovana was awarded the Padma Shrifor her contribution to dance. Her regret was thather mother who had givenher all the opportunities to excel was by then no more. She missed her mother’s presence at the ceremony and the emotional upheaval she experienced engulfed her once more when she received the Sangeet Natak Academy Award a few years later

As the years passed, complex questions arose: Which language should the boy speak in? Where should he be brought up? Where should his schooling take place? The solution left the little boy in Vienna with a grandmother and two aunts and an Indian maid servant’s son, Chotu, 13 years older than him, as a playmate. What longing and yearning must have visited mother, father and child can only be imagined. I spoke to Ishan, now 28, with two Masters in Economics and Law under his belt. I asked him whether he felt the pangs of separation and whether he hated the pity that must come his way. His answer was measured, but cool: “By the age of 8, I understood very well why my parents stayed in different countries. Once I knew the reason, I accepted it and never felt sorry for myself. No one in Vienna ever pitied me; they were interested in how I was doing, nothing more.”

The proud mother: Shovana with son Ishan
The proud mother: Shovana with son Ishan

In the 1990s, what had sounded like a charmed life, suddenly changed. Shovana noticed that her face was getting very dark and had begun to peel, even bleed. The condition spread to the neck and despite undergoing every conceivable medical treatment, nothing worked. It just got worse. Around the same time, Shovana also suffered a hairline fracture, tedious for anyone but critical for a dancer. And then the final blow came in 2000, when she awoke with the loss of peripheral vision in both eyes, akin to wearing blinkers all the time. At a functional level, her condition forced a dependency on drivers. Far worse than that, Shovana was destined to hide behind layers of make-up to conceal the discolouration. Remarks about her heavily powdered face were hurtful and continue even today.

Reba Som, a music academic and a friend of Shovana’s, told me:

“What Shovana has been through could have sent her into despair and depression. It could have ended her dancing career, to say the least. But the way she has faced up shows her detachment from her outward beauty while her attachment to dance continues. It is a blessing of sadhana. Whenever I think of Shovana, I think of her brilliant smile. It is not a façade behind which she hides. Behind that smile, there is enormous depth that enables her to talk easily about her situation with no rancour or self-pity. It is remarkable.”

The last five years of a 35-year-long career in the civil service gave Shovana the opportunity she needed before retirement—association with the organisation of the Commonwealth Games as Special Director General, directly involved with the delivery of the opening and closing ceremonies.

Indeed, the life of this unusual woman can be summed up with a memorable quote:

“You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching, Love like you’ll never be hurt, Sing like there’s nobody listening, And live like it’s heaven on earth.” William W Purkey.

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