Umesh Shetty, director of the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA), ponders on what his father Gopal Shetty would have said about Rohini Shetty’s upcoming dance performance, Sadhana – The Grace Through Kathak in Kuala Lumpur this month.
Rohini, Gopal’s granddaughter and Umesh’s eldest child, recently graduated with an arts (dance) degree from Australia and will soon make her debut solo performance, fittingly on Malaysian soil.
Local dance aficionados and followers of Umesh’s own journey are excited about the prospect of seeing the third generation Shetty on stage, and have been sharing news of the performance on social media in joyous anticipation.
For those who may not be well acquainted with local Indian classical dance, Umesh, 51, has been making waves with his inter-cultural and intra-cultural works for the past 25 years. Trained in bharatanatyam, odissi, kathakali and folk dance, Umesh was taught by his father Gopal, a pioneer of Indian classical dance in Malaysia, as well as TFA founder Swami Shantanand Saraswathi.
“My father would have been very, very proud,” says Umesh without hesitation.
“He laid the seed for what is happening today. I remember when I was 20 and went to Pune, India to learn from the venerable Padma Vibhushan Pandit Birju Maharaj, Maharaj Ji (as he is reverently called) kept asking us why we were mixing genres in Malaysia. During my father’s time, it was unheard of to ‘mix styles’. If you learnt bharatanatyam then you just stuck to that, you wouldn’t also learn odissi or kathak. But my father had started training us differently,” he explains.
Gopal Shetty pushed the envelope, and Umesh went a step further by embracing Malaysian and other dance styles too.
Umesh explains however, that as time passed, the late kathak maestro Maharaj Ji would invite Malaysian dancers to India and extol how they had embraced and excelled at different styles of dance.
“My father would have been so happy to see that. During his time people were against doing this, but today the gurus not only sanction it, but give their wholehearted approval too.”
With that in mind, Umesh says it would have been very fulfilling for his father Gopal to watch his daughter Rohini perform because it would be like seeing the seeds he once planted blossoming, and coming to full fruition.
Rohini, 21, has always been dancing, as far back as her family and friends can remember.
“She has always had a double dose of dance,” says her kathak dance teacher Dr Dhanya Thurairajah.
“She grew up here, at TFA, and was always surrounded by dance and culture. But there was also her family – her mother Shuba was a dancer (and doctor), and her dad is Umesh Shetty, the person for TFA! Rohini’s aunty Sukhi Shetty is an amazing dancer as well as the Vice Chancellor of TFA in Australia, and her uncle Ravi Shetty is also a phenomenon in the arts; though he is more into lighting these days, back in the day he used to dance as well! The arts, dance and culture just enveloped Rohini throughout her life.”
Dhanya remembers Rohini as “a baby watching us dance”, she says.
As part of TFA’s Inner Space Dance Company, Dhanya was always at TFA rehearsing with other dancers such as Nadina Krishnan, N. Shree Vidya.
“Then all of sudden, she was no longer observing us, but dancing next to us,” Dhanya shares how in 2017, Rohini, at 16, joined the ensemble of dancers in Inner Space Dance Conversations. “Of course, I have a lot of pride seeing her dance today. It’s been beautiful to watch her grow."
Rohini started to learn dance when she was just three years old. There’s a story (and a video!) of TFA’s Swami Shantanand asking her to dance on stage, blessing her and decreeing that performance as her “graduation”, even going so far as to give her a certificate and, perhaps, seal her fate as a dancer.
Rohini remembers learning bharatanatyam from her grandmother Radha Shetty, and taking contemporary classes at TFA, under her father’s tutelage; as well as ballet at the Seri Wilayah Ballet Centre under Lee Yupin, and a bit of gymnastics too.
Rohini began her formal training in kathak at six with Dr Dhanya and is one of the pioneer children who has received direct guidance under the legendary kathak maestros, Pandit Birju Maharaj and Saswati Sen.
As a performer, Rohini has worked with TFA Inner Space Dance Company performing locally and abroad. Earlier this year she graduated from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), Edith Cowan University, Australia, the same university her father went to 25 years ago.
“It was like deja vu when I took her there,” Umesh says. “ Some of my teachers are still there!”
Her father reveals unabashedly that Rohini has always had a natural flair for dance.
“It was very easy for her to pick up things. And she is very fortunate to be here now. Back in the day, we didn’t have a space like this. We were at the old Temple of Fine Arts, and there were no studios. Everybody practised all over the place. Today, TFA has studios and offers classes like contemporary, kathak and ballet. When I was young, I had to go to India to learn something new!” Having been exposed to and being able to embody so many different styles at a very young age has given Rohini a “different kind of body movement”, something that truly intrigues Umesh.
“When Rohini does kathak, you see a lot of other body awareness hidden behind that form because of the sort of exposure she has. This is similar to the Aswara dancers who are exposed to so many intercultural dance forms,” says Umesh, who is a full-time lecturer at Aswara, the National Academy of Arts Culture & Heritage.
It is that kind of embodiment that Umesh would have liked to have had when he was growing up.
“We just never had this sort of exposure back then,” he laments. “It was so difficult to go for a performance or even watch a video of (Rudolf) Nureyev dancing!”
Nonetheless, Umesh is delighted to witness his daughter’s journey.
But what comes next is even more important, he says.
“It has been a very nice progression – from my father, and his idea of breaking through that tradition of learning only one style. He was able to view dance through a new lens – to be free, and go beyond the restrictions of the forms. Now we must see how Rohini will pass on what she has experienced to the next generation ...”
With her solo debut right around the corner, Rohini is a little stressed out, but at the same time super excited as well.
“I have been practising every day, sometimes twice a day,” she says, sounding more enthusiastic than nervous.
“I came back to Malaysia from Australia in February and then joined the ASK Dance Company (ADC) for a three-month internship, doing classes and performing with them. Later I decided to apply for the Kakiseni grant and I got it, which meant I had a show to put on!”
In June, Boh Cameronian Grants for New Productions were awarded by Kakiseni to 20 performing arts ventures for performances to be presented before June 15, 2023, and “Inner Space Dance for Sadhana – The Grace Through Kathak” was one of the recipients.
Umesh already had in mind a series of Sadhana performances for Rohini to perform, each featuring different dance genres including kathak, bharatanatyam, contemporary and odissi.
“The expectations can sometimes be overwhelming,” admits Rohini, about the huge shoes she has to fill. “But they can be good too because they push me beyond my limits.”
Rohini shares that when she was younger she would pretty much rely on her talent to get her through, but that has changed over the years.
“My dad keeps telling me how important practice is. And that’s really what the title of the show is all about – ‘Sadhana’ is Sanskrit for disciplined and dedicated practice.”
Rohini shares how her mum always encouraged her younger brother Karthik and her to involve themselves in the arts.
“My mother wanted us to do everything in the arts because she says it’s very good for us – music, dance and the like. When I was younger I always enjoyed watching dance, but at one point I thought I might become a doctor instead (like my mother and teacher Dhanya)!”
When she turned 14, Rohini began to be homeschooled so she would have more time to devote to dance, and that’s when she decided that dance would be the path to follow.
In Sadhana – The Grace Through Kathak, Rohini will present dance compositions of Paramita Maitra and Pandit Birju Maharaj, encompassing both Nritya (pure dance) and Abhinaya (expressive dance) that fit into different rhythmic cycles, set at various tempos.
Live music for the performance will be presented by Vick Ramakrishnan on tabla, Kumar Karthigesu on sitar, Hariraam Tingyuan Lam on violin; while Paramita and Dr Dhanya will recite the bols. Kathak is one of the main genres of ancient Indian classical dance and is traditionally regarded to have originated from the travelling bards of North India referred as Kathakars or storytellers.
According to Umesh and Dhanya, in kathak, the dancer is in full control and has a dialogue with the musicians; she sets the pace and holds court. They assure that the 70-minute show is sure to be exciting, even for those who know little about the dance form.
Umesh says: “It’s a bit like flamenco ... even if you know nothing about rhythm you will still be entertained by the choreographic patterns of the dance. It’s going to be very entertaining!”
'Sadhana – The Grace Through Kathak' takes place on Oct 13 and 14 at 8pm at the Shantanand Auditorium, Temple of Fine Arts in Kuala Lumpur. More info here.