Dance Little Lady, Dance
We live in a small village but we don’t live like villagers,” points out Isha Sharvani, daughter of iconoclastic dancer, Daksha Sheth and musician, Devissaro, who have opted out of the rat race and set up home and a dance academy on the shores of Vellayani Lake, near Thiruvananthapuram. “I have been exposed to a much larger world than an average Mumbai girl whose life revolves around academics, coffee shops and discotheques. Though we are far off from the hub of city life, not a week goes by in our house without a musician, dancer, painter or writer visiting us. I gave my first solo performance as a dancer when I was 13 and have danced in 20 countries since then.”
Watching her set up base in the hurly-burly of Mumbai city, after her debut in Subhash Ghai’s opus, Kisna, you wouldn’t think she has spent a major part of her life cocooned in the idyllic environs of a natya ashram. All of 20 years, the petite dancer who is also a student of Mallakhamb – a very demanding form of mind and body coordinated exercise particular to Maharashtra – handles with aplomb real estate brokers and suspicious housing society secretaries who are reluctant to let ‘an actress’ rent a house on their premises.
The confidence to take risks and sail in unknown waters is a trait that runs in her family. Her father, Devissaro, born in a churchgoing, Christian-Australian, business family, dropped out of college to lead an alternate lifestyle, growing his own food, milking cows and building his own home. Then, he gave it all up to become a Buddhist bhikshu in Thailand. His spiritual quests brought him to India where he came into contact with the Dagar brothers. A classical trained pianist himself, he decided to stay on and learn the dhrupad from them. That’s when he met Isha’s mother, a trained, highly proficient Kathak dancer. The two were like soulmates, perennially in search of creativity, always eager to experiment. “If my mother hadn’t met my father I think she would have remained unmarried,” observes Isha. “Only he understands her. For a Gujarati girl, from a business background, to marry in her 30s was pretty late.” In fact, Daksha did, at one point, get engaged to a man her parents had found for her. “The engagement lasted all of 24 hours,” laughs the senior dancer.
Nonconformist as she was, at the peak of her career as a Kathak dancer, offending the sensibilities of her dance fraternity, Daksha left the comforts of her home to relocate to a poverty-stricken village of Orissa to learn the martial art of chhau. Isha was only a year old then. “One of her Kathak gurus, Birju Maharaj, stopped talking to her when she did this,” relates Isha, all admiration for her mother’s guts. “It was such a backward village, she had to make do with just one bucket of water for two days.” Little Isha played with goats and survived on rice and dal while her mother danced. And, undeterred by the hardship, or the flak she got from the purists, the five-feet-nothing twinkle-toes mastered chhau, till then a male-dominated art, and sacrilegiously incorporated it in her productions.
Never half-hearted about anything they do, her parents also spent three years in Vrindavan, researching the Vedas. “I was about six years old when we went there. We lived in a temple complex as my mother did nrityaseva apart from studying under Sanskrit pundits. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life because of the colourful, vibrant way festivals like Holi, Janmashtami and Raas Leela are celebrated there. It was like going back 200 years in time,” recalls Isha. But she rues the fact that Vrindavan was stinkingly filthy. Her enterprising parents did their utmost to clean it up but thanks to bureaucratic apathy couldn’t achieve much. “Later, British friends of my parents continued, for 10 years, the cleaning up process and were able to make some difference. But isn’t it ironical that foreigners should be working so hard to preserve our culture?” Isha asks, incredulously.