Simran Godhwani: In Conversation with Navin Sinha

Photo Credit: Sarika Gangwal

Of the six prominent schools of spiritual philosophy in ancient India, three of them were what would be referred to in today’s parlance as “atheistic.”

Yoga, one of the famous “atheistic” schools, does say that “worship of God is a great tool to facilitate the union between individual and universal consciousness,” but does not need an anthropomorphic form of God as a necessary requirement of a spiritual path.

The Supreme Universal Consciousness is beyond all forms and attributes. The Indian sages—Rishis—were aware that this concept is intangible to the average human mind. You cannot connect to what you cannot conceive. To make it relatable, they identified forms of the manifest consciousness and energies as “gods” and “goddesses,” giving them tangible shapes, forms, names, attributes, and distinct personalities.

For example, when one looks at the personified form of “wealth and prosperity” as Goddess Lakshmi, with an iconography replete with richness, splendour, grandeur, and an endless shower of gold, it evokes a natural reverence for wealth and a spontaneous sense of sacredness, sanctity, and ethics to creating, sustaining, and spending wealth.

The pursuit of knowledge, learning, wisdom, art, and creativity is equivalent to worshipping Goddess Saraswati.

Every King in ancient India considered himself a representative of Lord Rama. This caused the King to perceive his royalty as a responsibility to serve his people rather than an entitlement to waywardness and brutality.

The tradition of thousands of gods and goddesses played an important role in interweaving spirituality with the everyday aspects of our lives. 

Moreover, it vastly enriched the Indian spiritual tradition and formed the basis of much of its cultural heritage. 

Krishna—the ultimate blend of the “Divine” and the “Human”

Krishna portrayed in a Kathak performance by Simran

One of the foremost icons in the pantheon of Hindu gods is Krishna

Krishna forms the subject of the bulk of Indian art and literature. Portrayed as an adorable child, a hyper-active teen, a romantic hero, the wise strategist, the ultimate mentor, annihilator of evil, the Supreme yogi, the Supreme God—the persona of Krishna is all-inclusive, versatile, and covers the entire spectrum of human existence. 

He is most well-known for extolling the importance of one’s duties and responsibilities and championing an active engagement and involvement with the world.

Krishna made it very clear that you cannot use spirituality and morality as an excuse to circumvent your commitments, nor can you pick up the path of God to abdicate your responsibilities or resort to sublime philosophies to avoid confrontations.

You cannot shut your eyes to evil, play neutral, and let the evil take center stage.

The lore of Krishna forms the most enchanting stories ever told. He plays pranks, sings, plays the flute, dances, romances, advises, mentors, fights, strategizes and wins wars, and shares the most profound spiritual insights.

This leads to compelling stories and portrayals that find a place in art, literature, music, dance, plays, movies, and all other forms of popular culture.

One such art form that has Krishna as its soul is the classical dance form, Kathak.

The sublime art of Story Telling

Photo Credit: Andy Ghosh

The word Kathak literally translates to Story Telling. Though, it does have the distinction between pure dance movements, called Nritta, and expressive story telling, called Natya

It involves elaborate role-plays, where dancers dress themselves in the costume of the character being portrayed and use props ostentatiously. 

True story telling is beyond a reporting of events. It uses events merely to trigger an interplay of emotions. 

Story telling is predominantly an unfolding of emotions rather than a delineation of events.

The references to “Once upon a time …” are a stimulation of one’s curiosity. The narration of events is used to create an experience of a melange of emotions in real time, and to create a sense of intrigue about the sequence of events that could follow. You feel totally immersed in the emotions of the protagonist, and begin to wonder about all the possibilities that could follow next.

Intrigue is a far more subtle and sublime emotion compared to suspense. Intrigue doesn’t get destroyed on revelation of the course of events. There are no “spoilers” in authentic story telling. A sublime form of story telling is the one where you could experience the same story over and over again, and go through an increasingly deeper emotional journey without a sense of staleness, discovering new layers of feelings and insights every time you revisit the story.

Unlike a utilitarian experience of drinking a glass of water to quench your thirst, great story-telling provides you the experience of drinking from a fountain, where you do not need to take in everything that is presented to you all at once, but continue to relish the joy of drinking in short spurts for an elongated period of time over and over again, depending on your ability to receive. The fountain itself never falls short of its ability to satiate you. 

The Story Telling of Kathak

The story telling of Kathak is a perfect example of the interplay of “rasa” (emotions) and “anubhuti” (experience). 

A statement, “she was waiting for her beloved,” is merely a reporting of a fact. The statement alone doesn’t convey that “waiting” may constitute a wide spectrum of emotions – longing, yearning, looking forward, anticipation, patience, impatience, surprise, shock, alertness, numbness, frustration, hope, hopelessness, being valued, being ignored, rejection, fear, worry, anxiety, etc.

A Kathak performance often picks up a small snippet of a story and portrays the intricacies of emotions involved in the unfolding of the story. A performance about a character “waiting” for her beloved may take you through the entire roller-coaster of emotions that constitute “waiting.”

Since not everyone “waits” the same way, every dancer who portrays “waiting for her beloved” may do so in her own unique and inimitable way. That makes every Kathak act unique to the performer and to the performance.

Just as Bharatnatyam has its roots in the depiction of Shiva, Kathak owes its evolution to stories from lives of Krishna. Thus, many Kathak performances manage to impart deep philosophical, spiritual, and social messages weaved in the form of story telling.

The story telling of Kathak is not a tell-tale narration of stories. A tale of a god or goddess slaying a demon, for example, is not a show of valour or pride or martial might, e.g., the story of Krishna slaying the snake-demon Kalia, where Krishna performs an exquisite dance on the head of the cobra before bringing it down, is a symbolism of Krishna making the snake aware of its own poison and poisonous acts, and eventually leading it to liberation through that awareness.

This, in turn, illustrates how the light of the divine can bring us face to face with our own shadow selves and take us beyond our own inner darkness.

A Kathak performance enacting this story would be replete with this symbolism of the annihilation of evil when the grace of the divine shines in our lives.

A Kathak performance by Simran’s troupe portraying Krishna slaying the snake demon Kalia.

A Kathak performance presents a wide gamut of emotions, but all emotions are portrayed in the overall context of a pursuit of ecstasy. The purpose of expressing and portraying an emotion of pain and agony is to transcend pain. 

A Kathak performance aims to provide momentary glimpses of the ultimate spiritual ecstasy – a sort of an experiential satori.

The artists in the Indian classical dance forms, especially Kathak, exude a degree of presence, gracefulness, and elegance, which is highly infectious. The deep immersive portrayal of emotions by a Kathak artist acts like a magnet that induces magnetism even in ordinary iron bars, creates an identical immersive experience for the audience.

A Kathak artist rides through her roller-coaster of emotions with such intensity and vividness that viewers find themselves experiencing the twists, turns, thrills, and spills of being in the same roller-coaster with her.

Through resonance, a Kathak artist influences, inspires, and transforms more effectively than anyone from any pulpit ever could.

The Beloved of the Divine

Photo Credit: Sarika Gangwal

Indian spirituality is more inclined to being “God-loving” rather than being “God-fearing.”

There is no prescribed form of the love for Divine. The love for Divine need not necessarily be parental in nature. One is free to relate to the Divine in any form of human relationships, including relating to the Divine as a “beloved.”

The tradition of gods and goddesses makes this easy and spontaneous. It is not easy to fall in love with the formless. The adorable persona of the gods and goddesses make it easy to create a personal connect. Since every god and goddess has a unique set of attributes that make them stand out, one could choose the personal deity (“ishta devta”) that one most resonates with, connects with, and falls in love with. 

A devotee falls in love with his beloved deity as one would fall in love with another human being. However, this love transcends all wants and needs. This is a love where the beloved feels complete in the relishing of her surrender to her object of love.

A beloved of the divine is not a powerless, hapless devotee trying hard to appease God in hope that one day the divine will be kind and cast a glance at her and make her day.

A beloved of the divine feels being one with the Divine every single moment of her life. She does not only worship her love, she demands, commands, admonishes, rebukes, feels annoyed, as much as one would with a human lover. She knows that love is a two-way street.

You are not the only one seeking God – God is seeking you, too. 

You are not the only one in love with God. God is madly in love with you, too. 

You are not the only one remembering God. God is remembering you, too. 

You are not the only one seeking God’s attention. God is perpetually whispering to you to catch your attention.

The story telling of Kathak is infused with this spirit of love and devotion for the divine. 

In this edition, we will speak to the Kathak icon, Simran Godhwani, who is a perfect embodiment of the spirit of the “Beloved of the Divine.

When she dances as a devotee, you can feel that God would have no choice but to give in to her love. 

When she enacts the role of a God, e.g., Krishna, she evokes awe and reverence.

In her performances, she appears so deeply immersed in love and devotion that one just cannot help but fall in love with her persona and the characters she portrays.

Up and Close with Simran Godhwani 

Photo Credit: Andy Ghosh

Simran was always fascinated by Krishna since her childhood. Inspired by stories of Krishna that she grew up listening to, and charmed by the carvings on temple walls narrating his stories, Simran’s love for Krishna and his enchanted life inspired her to take up Kathak.

Simran with the Kathak icon Pandit Birju Maharaj and her teacher Shri Murari Sharan

She started learning the dance form as a child, and was moulded into excellence by her mentors, Shri Murari Sharan, and the ultimate icon of Kathak, Pandit Birju Maharaj.

The striking aspect of Simran’s dance is the effortlessness in her movements

Her body moves on its own, driven by its own intelligence, inspired by a source beyond her conscious control or any individual “efforting.” 

Elegance is often described as achieving maximum impact with minimum effort, a goal that is often considered elusive but finds itself embodied in Simran’s dance steps in totality. The grace of her ineffable movements is not just awe-evoking in its own sphere, but leaves an equally beautiful impression on the viewers’ minds, just as the graceful movement of swan in water leaves an impression on the surface water that is equally beautiful to look at, long after the movements of the swan have ceased.         

Lost in a state of rapture while dancing, she takes you to a world where time doesn’t exist anymore. Her peace and stillness instil an equivalent peace and stillness in the minds of the audience. The movements, the pauses, the twirls, the expressions transport the viewers to a different realm in space and time. 

It is a presence that makes the audience forget all concreteness, solidity, and rough edges of their everyday experience and step into a zone of transcendence.

She has played the role of Radha, the divine consort of Krishna in many of her performances. She impersonates Krishna with equal ease. She has also portrayed historical characters, the most prominent one being Amrapali, a courtesan in ancient India who later became an ardent devotee of the Buddha.

Her natural grace and elegance led her to win the Miss Lady Star Universe beauty pageant in 2018. The pageant was also a testimony to her spirit of committing to something and going for it with an unstoppable attitude. It also showcased her ability to carry off diverse and versatile roles, makeovers, and costumes with splendid ease – something she does effectively well in her dance and life, too.

What brings this otherworldly charm and flair to her expressions, her movements, her performances, her productions, her persona, and her life?

NS: What inspired you to choose Kathak from the many Indian classical dance forms?

SG: The first aspect that attracted me to this dance form was the subtlety in which every abhinaya (role-playing) piece had to be portrayed. It had to be real, life like, as if one was living that scene/technique or emotion or that character that one was depicting. It cannot be magnified or amplified. It had to be presented as is – without any masks – as if one was the pivot of that scene, emotion, or character in real life. To arrive at that state, one has to completely immerse in that composition and render in the most natural yet in a poetic way of dance.

The other aspect that I like about this dance form, and is very unique to this dance form, is the constant interaction with the audience in a live music setting. The dancer narrates whatever she or he is going to do, then recites the bols (verbalization of the beats) in a particular rhythm cycle, and then presents it. 

So, the audience is aware and is involved in the dance as much as the dancer, one performing and the other observing how the bols are translated into the footwork patterns, expressions, and emotions. Then, in compositions like ladi, jugalbandi, upaj, etc… the audience gets an opportunity to be an active participant by either keeping the time cycle or following the clap patterns etc… The audience can applaud when a composition has concluded at the perfect beat of the time-cycle or whenever the performance touches them or excites them.  

So, there is a beautiful exchange of energy between the dancer and the audience. This allows both the dancer and the audience to be cognizant of the anubhava (experience) of the rasa (emotion) of the composition that is being presented. A divine synergy is what I would call it between the performer and the audience throughout the performance. 

NS: I have known you for over 17 years as a dancer, and I find you one of the most graceful, elegant, and aesthetic dancers that I have seen. 

Yet, if I look on social media, I find very little of you. You never post about your concerts. You never speak about yourself.

You steer away from all the adoration and adulation that is yours for the taking, if you chose to.

What drives you to give yourself entirely to an art form, dedicate your life to it, and not seek anything in return?

SG: Most of my presentations revolve around stories from the Bhagvad Gita and various ancient epics. The joy that I receive by translating these works into performances, choreographies and teaching is so colossal that I don’t feel the need to do anything more. 

Social media and other modes of publicity is distracting and takes you away from the path of complete surrender. 

The bliss, the joy, the pain, the angst, the confidence… and more I have received so much from this dance form, every day I learn a new aspect of the dance form, a new story, a new dimension within me, the workings of the divine….an entire lifetime is not enough to master this one dance form… 

I feel what more than this can I seek, what more can I ask for other than to dedicate myself entirely to this art form! The joy that I experience while dancing is immeasurable.

In all these years of trying to perfect my dance, my yearning was also to be able to completely immerse in the various compositions by not being just performance-oriented but also being aware of what was happening to me internally. With that as my goal, I surrendered completely to the divine. And with that focused awareness engulfing me, I started experiencing bliss, it started becoming more than being just an artist showcasing a piece to an audience for them to enjoy it. 

Once you surrender to the divine and experience that bliss, that joy, that pain through your art, then everything else seems very insignificant. So, I don’t feel the need to keep promoting my work, my concerts or performances through social media or any other over the top marketing techniques. These forms were done as a prayer and not as an exhibition. 

The divine will open doors and HE always has. I do not want to get preoccupied with promoting myself. All I want to do is keep performing, keep teaching, and sharing whatever knowledge of this dance form my Gurus have shared with me to the future generation with as much purity, sincerity, and humility as I can.

NS: What do “dancing” and “dance performances” mean to you?

SG: When I dance, I completely surrender to my God, My Krishna. It is a prayer, my sadhana that I offer to him in utmost humility, unconditionally devoid of any ego. A devotee offering her skill as a prayer.  When I am dancing, I am extremely joyous and immersed in every aspect of performance like my technique, character, emotion and expression. When I dance I feel I become one with myself, every element of me, within me and the being that created me.

Every Indian classical dancer has a very paramount role. Indian Classical Dance is not just about entertainment. We are not just dancers and actors narrating a story or dancing to a composition or a song. We are messengers whose duty through our performances is to share the stories from our historical epics from different texts, languages, and cultures and ensure that our rich history, tradition and culture are passed down in the most appropriate and correct manner to the future generations. Our performances do influence the minds of our audience and they do take back the stories and narratives of our dances with them. 

So, for me every presentation that I create, perform, and teach is a responsibility that I undertake to share some very valuable treasures of our country, our culture, beliefs, values, and tradition to my audience and to the future generation. The dance performances are a very powerful process which consists of a spiritual, emotional, and cultural legacy that if not treasured and passed down through the arts our culture will cease to exist. 

Photo Credit: Sarika Gangwal

NS: You have transformed every moment of your involvement with dance – practice or performance – as a prayer. That makes your entire life a process of unbroken devotion.

In your dance performances, you have played the roles of a devotee, you have played the role of Radha, Krishna, divine Goddesses (Devi), and forms of the divine. You have also played historical characters like Amrapali.

What is your state of consciousness and mindset with each of these roles? 

How do you prepare differently for each role, and what difference do you feel in each of these expressions?

SG: Every role or character essayed requires the dancer to completely immerse themselves into it. When a dancer after years of Sadhana does a character, we become one with that character and are able to imbibe the most subtle elements of that character into our performance. That is a very subconscious thing that happens. Practice helps one to perfect that. 

Every character, be it Radha, Krishna or Amrapali, requires an equal amount of dedication, practice, and involvement. However, playing a Krishna or any male character is more challenging for me as consciously I have to keep the masculinity of the characters in my mind, as a woman dancer. I have to mask the feminine nature of the body’s poise and other features. 

Nevertheless, that is where the costumes breathe in that energy to me. Once we wear the costume of a Krishna or Shiva or any other character then it becomes very easy for a performer to then slip into that character. It gives us the impetus to get into the right posture and movement as per the requirement. So, costumes are a very powerful aesthetic when we are performing dances based on characters. 

NS: The performances in your dance form, Kathak, including your own performances, have a very surreal element in them, and abound in grace, elegance, and aesthetics, that seems to be far removed from our daily lives.

Is your dance form an escape from reality?

SG: It is not an escape from reality. It is a subtle portrayal of the true nature of the character. Even while portraying a Demon, our intention is for the audience to understand the story and the moral of the story, so an unwarranted over the top portrayal is not the idea. The beauty of Kathak is to weave the stories in a dance performance as is. The visual depiction should be accurate, pleasing, entertaining, yet meaningful to the audience. The message underlying the portrayal while understanding the relevance of the character in  character-based compositions is the most critical component in a Kathak dance performance.

There are a lot of performances where we do showcase performances that showcase various aspects of our present-day life, e.g., performances based on how gadgets have dominated our lives or how social media has influenced the society to become more insecure than ever. 

I feel every story when performed with an objective of raising awareness in the minds of audiences set to an interesting narrative, music, and compilation definitely adds value to the society as they do reflect on it and sometimes influence them to make some positive amendments. 

Simran with the Kathak icon Pandit Birju Maharaj.

NS: You are associated with the Lucknow Gharana of Kathak, and you have had the privilege of learning from one of the most iconic artists of the last century, Pandit Birju Maharaj, who was no lesser a Rishi (sage) of our modern times.

How did he help shape you to become the artist that you are today?

SG: I am so grateful to God and my Guru Murari Ji due to whom I was blessed to have such close association with (Birju) Maharaj Ji and learn so much from him and be a part of his productions.

I have to share this incident: There was a dance recital where Maharaj Ji had to perform, due to some reason the organisers had not marketed the event well and as a result only around 50 members were present as an audience in a 500-seat auditorium. I was expecting that maybe Maharaj Ji may not perform or call off the event or just have his students perform. So, I went up to him and said we barely have an audience what do we do? He gave me the most beautiful answer that I can never forget till this date…. He said “Whether there are 5 or 500 I am always dancing for my Lord; then how does it matter” – and what a beautiful performance he gave that day I still cannot forget.

The man he was, the humility he had, and the way he approached dance – I have felt and experienced that he has never let the Lord go away from him even for a second. He was always composing or dancing for the Lord – even till the age of 84, I wonder, maybe even the Lord did not want to leave him. He was always able to remain in a state of consciousness and bliss throughout. 

That has been my learning to be humble, to never let the sacred fire extinguish, and to remain in the consciousness plane at all times.

NS: In addition to being an extraordinary performer and choreographer, you are a well-known Kathak guru in your own right, and you run a school of dance called Krshala.

How would you describe the “Style” of the Krshala school of dance?

What factors do you emphasize while working with your protégées? What values do you try to instil in them?  

SG: Krshala – the word itself has been derived from the spiritual words ‘Kriya – meaning movement and Shaala – meaning space’ I have created this Gurukul for my students. I tell them it’s their space where they can come and do their sadhana as and when they like not just during class timings. I am not only their teacher; I encourage them to share different aspects of their life with me. Many students who began their learning with me from when they are five are now in their early twenties, some are married but most of them have gone on to become performers, choreographers, and dance teachers. I feel very overwhelmed that this beautiful association has continued over the years and that many budding dancers are being groomed every day at my Gurukul into this beautiful art form.  

I teach the Lucknow Gharana of Kathak. And just like how my Gurus have taught me I follow the Guru Shishya Parampara. The methodology is pretty much what has been passed down to me from them. However, one of the unique aspects that I am trying to develop is the Bhakti-based Rasa of the Kathak dance form. That is more in tune to devotional and spiritual aspects that one can derive from this dance form. I believe to enjoy the beauty and bliss of this dance form one has to move toward the realm of one’s inner consciousness, spiritual seeking, and awakening of our primordial instincts of love, peace, and joy.