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Missing the Guru with a legacy

Losing a mentor leads to a vacuum and for most of the disciples of Padmashree Guru Rani Karnaa, her demise this month came as a sudden loss. Classical Claps talks to three of Karnaa’s senior-most disciples who have independent solo careers of their own now, as to how their Guru had inspired them to become better human beings in their day-to-day lives.

Late Rani Karnaa | PC: Wikimedia Commons

All three of them, revealed through interesting anecdotes, some of the best moments they have shared with her that shifted their perspectives and put their lives on a better track.

Sohini Debnath has been a disciple of Guru Karnaa for the past 14 years. An accomplished Kathak dancer in her own right, Sohini has performed in many prestigious platforms in many countries. “Aunty always wanted us to attend as many shows as possible – be it a Bharatnatyam recital or a Manipuri dance drama or a Sitar concert. The underlying instruction here was to condition ourselves to appreciate all forms of performing arts,” says Sohini with her sublime smile.

Sohini Debnath

“Once, we all ended up with this performance of a certain artist which we didn’t like at all. So on our way back, as we jostled inside the same car with Aunty, we let out our searing barrage of criticisms about the artist. Aunty listened to us patiently and asked us all to quieten down immediately and tell her what we found good about the performance, leaving aside the bad nuances. So we scoured our memories and came up with very bare minimum inputs (we barely had any positive inputs that day!) like the costume, a particular posture, lights etc. As soon as we finished, she quipped, ‘Ok, so those are the only things you liked? Great. Now remember only those, forget the bad ones and MOVE ON!’ From that day, I have applied this in my real life too. I let go of all the bad things in a negative situation, find out the positive aspects even if they are few and move on. It has helped me release all negativity and become a better person.”

Next, we move on to dancer, choreographer, theatre director and performing arts researcher, Vikram Iyengar.

“37 years is a very long association for me to segregate the numerous experiences and anecdotes with Aunty and hold out just one for you,” says Vikram.

Vikram Iyengar

Vikram is one of Karnaa’s students who mastered the classical art form under her tutelage and then moved on tomore experimental forms. “I remember when my production, ‘Those Who Could Not Hear the Music’ was premiered in 2013, after the show was over and the audience had left, Aunty came up to me and said, ‘Beta, God bless you! Explore and go where your heart wants to take you! I can totally see the Kathak in this.’ For me, this was the ultimate validation as an artist as what I did was radically experimental and had many critics’ tongues rolling. But the very fact that my Guru applauded me and encouraged me after watching an experimental form as this only emboldened the conviction I had within me as an artist. I would say, she was the truest teacher I’ve had because of her non-judgemental attitude. She has taught me to retain the mental stamina, conviction and the rigour of perseverance that is needed to become an independent artist. She has never been the least bit imposing as a Guru given the fact that what she was teaching was a purely classical art form,” Vikram reminisces. “Those Who Could Not Hear the Music”, is an experimental ballet based on Beethoven’s music with text from Vikram Seth’s, “An Equal Music”.

Kathak exponent Debashree Bhattacharya‘s journey with Karnaa began 32 years ago. “Aunty wasn’t just teaching me dance, you see. She was teaching me much,much more…things that helped me pull myself out during the darkest hours of my life. There was a time when I had to take up a job in a school. I had to do this for 10 years to sustain myself as an artist and to make ends meet. My Riyaaz came to a standstill and I was overcome with guilt and sorrow. During those days, I remember, whenever I used to weep with guilt, Aunty would say, ‘Beta, can you take out just 10 minutes during the day? Immerse yourself in those 10 minutes; Just practice one bol; That my dear, is Riyaaz!’ If it were not for those words, I would not have bounced back and begun with those ten minutes during the day that ended up with hours. Today, after 10 years if I have had the courage to leave my school job and get back to being a full-time performer, it is because of what she told me,” remembers Debashree with misty eyes..

Debashree, during a cherishing moment with her guru Rani Karnaa

One of the most oft-used words by these artists who were disciples of Rani Karnaa is “generous”. All three, in different interviews conducted in different locations, were unequivocal that Karnaa had a discerning eye for spotting her students’ capabilities and had ended up teaching each of them very rare pieces, thumris and compositions. She dismissed the power hierarchy that came in the mannerisms of Gurus and students in the way they were expected to behave. She was never one for allowing people to touch her feet and discouraged the demonstration of such emotions. She rather insisted her students should focus on their work instead and stood true to her art form and as a teacher as the ideal friend and philosopher. As far as a guide is concerned, well, we guess it just goes without saying with the kind of exemplary honesty and grace she has maintained throughout her life and career.

Studio Photos of Rani Karnaa, shot by renowned photographer Avinash Pasricha in 1982

Rani Karnaa | PC:Avinash Pasricha
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4 thoughts on “Missing the Guru with a legacy”

  1. There aren’t enough words to speak about aunty…how much goodness can a person have within?…being a dancer.. I have witnessed numerous recitals… But for the first time when I watched her composition… What tranquillity… Divinity… I felt within…I feel for not being able to be with you.. In your last days… Can’t forgive myself for that…aunty I speak from my heart…u can see from heaven!!! You were in a haste…it was not fair…I will fight with you when I come….

  2. Rani Karna Ma’am was a legend and is still a legend and will remain a legend forever … Her dance was her Identity 😊 … Being a Dancer , even if I salute 💯 times , it’s less for a dancer like her …Even though I was not personally trained under her but still she will remain my guru and my teacher …..
    By Vishaka Chander

  3. Rani Karnaa ji was always so sweet and graceful, in her dance as well as in her life…it was a delight to see her perform. …but as a person, she was so down to earth that it’d be impossible to remember that she was THE Rani Karnaa. …all the peace in the world for her. ..



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