Saswati Sen was the first, in a long line of doctors and lawyers, in her family to be an artist. She was a couple years into studying for a medical degree in Aligarh, India some 45 years ago, struggling to not faint at the sight of blood when she begged her father yet again to dis-enroll her. “Please let me dance; I will strive to achieve a mastery that’s equivalent to a doctorate!” Her mother advocated for her and her father finally, unhappily, relented.
Sen did pursue and achieve her goal: in the world of kathak, she is known as one of the few pure traditionalists of the artform. The start to being the most prominent disciple has an interesting beginning, involving a small measure of doubt. When she was barely a teen, she had not looked forward to being Maharaj’s student! She would see him with a group of his friends outside the Kathak school in Delhi when she would come and go to her own classes, and wasn’t sure if he would prove to be a worthwhile teacher. It turned out that he was one of the most patient of teachers and the rest is indeed history.
Her journey to being a well-known name all over India began when Satyajit Ray, the award-winning film director cast her in his docudrama Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977). Sen performed the beautifully layered, unforgettable dance to Kanha Main Tose Haari – Watch it here! How this came to be is also interesting.
Ray was a stickler for authenticity and had approached Maharaj to direct a couple of the court dance scenes since the latter is a direct descendant of the royal dancers at the Lucknow court. Ray had originally watched Sen perform at the inaugural ceremonies at the Asian festival and asked for her to be cast as the court dancer. However, Sen wasn’t sure her parents would permit, since there was a stigma associated with the film industry. “Will they know me?” Ray is said to have asked a young Sen, who was dumbstruck at even being in the same room as him. “Who doesn’t know you? All of India does!” was her answer. Ray went over to meet her parents and invited them to the sets to see for themselves how things were run above-par.
“People still talk to me about that movie, saying they remember that dance so well,” says Sen from Kolkata, as I spoke to her on the phone from the Bay Area. Indeed, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, when he approached Birju Maharaj and Saswati Sen to choreograph for his popular movie Devdas (2002) decades later, also alluded to his childhood memory of watching her dance in the film. The choreographed dance from the movie which features the iconic Madhuri Dixit can be watched here. “I had first met Madhuri (Dixit, a heroine in the movie) in San Jose, in one of our workshops. We were expecting airs, but she came in as any other student, dressed in a cotton salwar khameez and took her place alongside others,” remembers Sen. “On the sets, she needed to be forced to rest, she would not be happy unless every single glance and gesture was perfect.”
Sen’s international journey had its beginning in a different emotion, one of stage-fright. It was 1974 and a US tour had been planned across 30+ states. “I was cold like ice in the wings of Carnegie hall. I was forgetting what I had practiced. All I could think of was that I couldn’t possibly share the stage with stalwarts such Kumudini Lakhia (who herself decades later was awarded the Padma Bhushan) and Maharajji!” Also preying on her mind was the thought that she had at first been originally rejected as being too young by the organizer of the tour, the prolific Beate Gordon (women’s rights advocate and director of the Asia Society). But Maharaj encouraged her to just focus on her own strengths and forget that there was anybody else on stage with her.” Her first performance won over Gordon who said that she’d been proven wrong; that the audience had been mesmerized by this mere chit of a girl.
Today, Sen mentors youth looking for guidance in dance, in life. She’s beseeched by parents and teachers to help with teenagers who need help with “connecting to life.” “The need of the times is that we must connect with our soul. Arts and culture – these are important tools to ground yourself,” says Sen. “I draw upon all that I have learned and pass it on.”
Speaking of how much the arts environment has changed, she says that “Nowadays, there are loads of opportunities: there are TV shows, presenters, national and international events. There’s more awareness now, but it comes at the cost of dedication. Dance has its own expression, ek ibadat ka dhang (philosophy behind expression/ discipline). Today everything is about speed. There’s no “thehrao” (gravitas or holding) – to strike the soul of viewer.”
That gravitas can still be seen in her performances today; she turns 65 this year, but continues to dance. Indeed, the common ingredients between the performances alluded to in this article are the delicacy of the interpretations, the depth of the nuance, and the breadth of the expressions. One is afraid to blink while watching them, for fear of losing out on a precious, fleeting, and impactful moment.
Says Nag of the upcoming event on June 8th, “They are artists of such caliber, whatever they perform will be magical. We are so blessed to get the opportunity to witness so many masters on one stage!”
More info on the event here.