Climbing up the steps of Uma Sharma Dance School in Delhi’s East of Kailash is like treading through an interesting career path that has had its crests and troughs. The portrait of Ghalib is a reminder to Sharma’s performance of the Urdu poet’s verses, and the awards and framed articles on the other side of the wall represent the accomplishments of the 75-year-old Kathak dancer. Today, at the Shankar Lal Hall, Modern School, Barakhamba, Sharma will take the stage to open the 18th edition of the Swami Haridas Tansen Sangeet Nritya Mahotsav. She will present abhinaya taught to her by her celebrated guru Shambhu Maharaj (Birju Maharaj’s uncle), the doyen of the Lucknow gharana. “It is necessary to present these old pieces before today’s audience. Puraani cheeze gum ho jayengi nahi toh. I still dance because I’m passionate about it. I don’t feel tired ever,” says Sharma.
This year, the festival will feature sarod player Ut Ashish Khan (Ut Ali Akbar Khan’s son), Ut Amjad Ali Khan, Patiala gharana’s torchbearer Kaushiki Chakraborty, Grammy-winning Pt Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, vocalist Shubha Mudgal and sitar player Ut Shujaat Khan, among others. The musicians are regulars not just in the concert circuit, but also this particular festival. “People say I present the regulars on stage. I believe it is necessary. These are the people who know some of the finest older pieces, and have been very close to legendary artistes. Our audiences should be aware of these rare pieces,” says Sharma, who finances the festival herself, apart from some donations and support from her friends. “Very few people come forward to support classical arts. I am fine running from pillar to post if it results in a world-class music and dance conference. It is not a festival,” says Sharma, who talks of her gurus in the same vain as she talks of Lord Krishna.
Growing up in Delhi, near Bengali Market, Sharma’s father was a Sanskrit scholar and everyone in her house communicated in Sanskrit. “My family was always culturally-oriented and did not have issues with their daughters dancing, like several other people in the ’50s did. My sister also learnt dance but only I was keen to pursue it professionally,” says Sharma. She adds how her father reserved one room in the house where girls from the neighbourhood could also learn dance with the sisters. By the time Sharma entered Lady Shri Ram College, iconic gurus like Sundar Prasad of the Jaipur gharana and Shambhu Maharaj had begun to teach in Delhi. Sharma imbibed the style of both. “I didn’t blend them. I took the two techniques — the complex footwork of Jaipur and the beautiful abhinaya of Lucknow, and presented them,” says Sharma. After playing Sita for years in Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra’s Ramayana, Sharma presented a variety of dance dramas. One of her more well-known works is Stree, a one-woman production where she depicted the condition of women through centuries, and the constant search for an independent identity, through Kathak. She also presented Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s Madhushala and Kaifi Azmi’s Saanp as dance dramas.
What received a lot of attention was the revival of Natwari Nritya or Raslila of Vrindavan, wherein lie the origins of Kathak. “I spent a lot of time in Vrindavan to learn the art form,” says Sharma, who was awarded Padma Shri in 1974. “I was only 32. There was a lot of noise. But I didn’t care,” says Sharma. More criticism followed as her dance was called populist, Bollywood-oriented. There were questions raised about her closeness to various government outfits. Sharma disregards what was being said and says she was always presenting to her heart’s content. A Padma Bhushan awardee in 2001, she has performed alongside many legendary musicians world over, including at the Royal Albert Hall. She remembers an instance when her musicians could not accompany her abroad for a concert due to visa issues. “I was quite upset and Pt Ravi Shankar came up to me and said, mera sitar abhi hai (my sitar is still there). He played while I danced,” says Sharma, who will present Anoushka Shankar at the festival next time. Meanwhile, she is also busy working on Indrasabha, a music production that will revive compositions by thumri exponent Naina Devi.