Subima Shrestha bridges differences in society through art

4 min read
27 Oct 2017
4 min read
1858 words
Kathak dancer Subima Shrestha shares that only with an open attitude can one continue to evolve as an artist and as a person

Subima Shrestha is today regarded as a respected choreographer, a passionate kathak guru, and an outstanding performance artist. On stage, she uses her expressive eyes and graceful movements to narrate fascinating tales; and that's exactly what kathak is meant to do--tell a katha (story). 

Born in Nepal and trained in India, Shrestha considers herself a cultural worker who can bridge differences in society through art. She has performed in numerous shows, and currently runs Nritya Aagan, a dance academy based in Lalitpur, through which she passes on her hard-won knowledge to youngsters. 

And be it by working with hip hop, flamenco or narrative storytelling, Shrestha is not one to shy away from injecting new flair to her craft. Blessed with a fertile imagination and the ability to execute her ideas, Shrestha is always up for innovation. In this interview with Alok Thapa of VMAG, Shrestha shares that only with an open attitude can one continue to evolve as an artist and as a person. 

What is dance for you?
The meaning of dance for me has kept on changing over the years. When I was just beginning to learn kathak, just being able to pull the dance off was like a dream come true; when I went to India and learned the dance form under the guidance of my guru, for eight years, dancing became a mesmerising, yet challenging, form of expression. When I came back to Nepal, however, dance became a vehicle for carving out my own identity. Now, dance has become a means of sustenance for me. But above all, dance has given me happiness.

What made Subima happy as a child?
I come from a very simple background. I grew up in a middle-class family in Mangal Bazaar, Patan, and I'm the oldest of four daughters. Like many other children, we went to school, and returned to help with household chores. It wasn't an uneventful childhood, though, and I had my share of happy moments. If you're thinking about whether I was passionate about dance
from an early age, the answer is no. I found dance fun, but I wasn't really into it until much later.

You come from a Newar family. What sparked your interest in kathak, an Indian classical dance form?
My sister was a talented dancer. She would copy Mithun Chakraborty's dance moves and dance to Bollywood numbers, and we would have a rollicking time watching her. I remember how one time, when I wanted to join her, one of my aunts discouraged me--calling me a bad dancer. That really hurt me, and I decided to learn dancing. Every morning when my father used to play Mithun's hit song 'Disco Dancer', I would practice in my room. I found out about kathak later, when my uncle took me to a dance class. You see, it's all so strange, and you may call it destiny or chance, but somehow, life just brings these different people into your life and a clear path presents itself. I do believe that I was meant to find out about dance, and I embraced it wholeheartedly.

How did your family react to your newfound interest?
My mom has been my biggest ally. She has been my backbone, my cheerleader, and sometimes, the only person who kept pushing me. Even while I was preparing for this interview, my mom was there helping me. 

Father has always been a little cautious with his encouragement; as a parent, he wanted to protect his child and guide me towards a stable life. Dance, in those days, wasn't exactly deemed a viable profession. However, when I got the dance scholarship in India, he was my biggest support--both financially and emotionally.  

Do you feel you could have done better if you had received formal training at an early age?
Classical dance is all about training, and if one starts at an early age, it makes a huge difference in how the dancer turns out in the future. The dance form is all about the right posture. Yes, if I had had that opportunity, I'm sure it would have made a great difference. That said, I'm not disheartened by how my life has unfolded; it's really all about the journey. I've embraced a craft that will always have me striving to become the best. And it's not something that can be mastered in a day, a month, or even a year--perhaps, not even in a lifetime. For me, dance is the story of my life. It gives me purpose, it's my passion, and it puts me in touch with my higher conscience.

Tell us about your journey from Nepal to India.
While attending a dance class in college, one of my teachers told me, "Why don't you apply for a scholarship in India? You have the sensibilities of a good dancer." That really struck me, and put me on a mission to get a scholarship. I used to go to the Indian Embassy's education wing to learn more about the scholarship so often that even the guards knew me. Finally, after two years, I managed to get the scholarship. That represented a pivotal point in my life; it also meant I would be saddled with new challenges.

What were those challenges?
Like I said, kathak is all about the right posture. Starting right from feet alignment to balancing the body weight, there are many things that you need to keep in mind when you practise kathak. For a novice who hadn't had the required training, I found it very intimidating to be in a room full of dancers who had been practicing since they were children. It took me an entire month just to understand what was going on in the classroom. Also, the guru-shishya parampara was something that was totally new to me, and I had to learn to adjust. As for my performance, my guru, surprisingly, placed me in the first level as opposed to the basic level. That was flattering, but knowing my limitations, I requested her to place me in the basic level. Upon my request, she looked at me and said, "You can do it. Just trust me!" I think that was one of the turning points of my life as a dancer. I put away all my insecurities  and kept on practicing.

What has been the biggest lesson youĂ­ve learned from your guru?    
I was a very attentive student, one who never missed a single class. But I never got A grades. When I used to see students who were less dedicated than me getting better grades, I used to get really frustrated. Finally, in my third year, I mustered enough courage to approach my guru about this. And what she told me still resonates with me. "Stop being a Nepali student learning an Indian dance form; learn to be a dancer who is embodying kathak in its entirety," she said. She made me realise that art is not confined by a country's or region's boundaries. See, art is for everyone and that's what I have been doing for the past eight years in Nepal. I am trying to help others, especially children, learn to appreciate dance, so that they can stretch their boundaries and use art as a tool to build bridges between cultures.

What makes kathak different from other dance forms?
Like with any classical dance form, discipline is a must to master kathak. That said, there's also a lot of freedom in it too. Most classical dance forms can be rigid--with many strictures--but kathak is an open-ended dance. Today, we're seeing the adoption of a more improvised, contemporary style of dancing, with brilliant footwork, pirouettes, hand gestures, gait, abhinaya and other nuances. Today, kathak is one of the most popular dance styles, with considerable scope for improvisation. And as a performance artist, that is what keeps me motivated to keep working on my craft. Also, for me, what sets a kathak dancer apart from other dancers is his or her ability to play with rhythm. Yes, all dancers pay attention to their movements, timing and choreography, but there is something special about kathak. If you can harness the sensibilities and emotional aesthetics of rhythm, you can win the world with kathak. You can perform anywhere in the world, to any tune, to any music. Besides kathak, I'm also mesmerised by hip hop dance, especially krumping. It's amazing to see dancers train their brains to push the body beyond its limits.

You're a performer, teacher and choreographer. Which role is most satisfying?
I love to perform. There's nothing that can match the feeling of being on stage. But teaching is also something I am passionate about. It challenges me to put on a persona to inspire and motivate students. It also provides me with an avenue through which I can share my passion for performance with others. It is a career that has allowed me to engage with youngsters and share my knowledge with them. I also continue to develop my own skills as a performer to improve my practice, so I bring my own personal experiences into the classroom. 

What's next for Subima Shrestha?
If things go well and if my financial status is sound, I would like to start a dance-production entity that's unique and quintessentially Nepali. I want to work with the many Nepali folk dances that are waiting to be seen by and appreciated by audiences the world over.

(Photos by Ayush Shrestha)