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Premature adieu by Prabal Gupta
- Leela Venkataraman

November 21, 2023

A Bengali settled in Bangalore practicing Kathakali stree vesham - nothing about dancer Prabal Gupta seemed to fall into one inevitable connect! Much in the same vein was his sudden passing away in the prime of health, just as his career seemed to be taking an upward curve with promise of more performance opportunities.

Prabal Gupta

Kathakali was not a natural choice for a Calcuttan, and I recollect asking Prabal casually, as to how he got attracted to this form. His mention about having watched Sadanam Balakrishnan dancing in Calcutta's (Kolkata) Victoria Memorial Hall in 1995 that really floored him was a strange coincidence. It was on that very day, that late Shanta Serbjeet Singh and I as special invitees, happened to be seated on the grounds of Victoria Memorial watching Gita Govindam being presented - with top dancers from all dance styles participating - and with Krishna's role played by two senior most gurus, Pandit Birju Maharaj, the Kathak maestro and Sadanam Balakrishnan, the Kathakali expert! I recollect Arshiya Sethi as the compere for the show. The performance space comprised the large verandah of Victoria Memorial and the steps coming down to the lawn also became part of the stage as the dancers posed at various levels, while performing some of the Ashtapadis. And barring the bhadralok exposed to some Kathakali in Santiniketan, it was Birju Maharaj as Krishna that the larger part of the audience seemed to relate to- though Sadanam really excelled as Krishna - the epitome of sringar.

Prabal, at that time, was in the know of some Odissi, and I am not sure of when exactly he started learning Kathakali from Govindan Kutty, but he was now hooked by a passion, which would not be denied, not even when it meant being ostracized by his zamindari family, which did not take kindly to a son of the house, after graduation, taking to dance as a profession - and Kathakali at that!

Prabal Gupta
Photo: Supartha Mustaphi

It was not an easy life settling in Bangalore with a casual job, sufficient to keep body and soul together, making trips to Ernakulam to learn from Fact Padmanabhan. It was much later that he joined Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan's classes in Chennai. Not sparing himself, the trips to Kerala to learn from Sadanam, even after the Guru had left Chennai and settled in his home in Kerala, continued till the end. Prabal also tried writing and wrote reviews for some dailies, but discovered that to occupy two spaces - one in which you judge and other in which you present yourself to be judged - posed contradictions jeopardizing both occupations. And decided on just being a performer.

In an all-male tradition studded with some of the greatest of performers, a person not belonging to Kerala, would have been totally inconsequential. Prabal's choice of stree vesham gave him some space, and in a dance-drama tradition, he settled for solo presentations based on well-known characters from literature, providing him with themes like Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, which did not offer comparison by references to previous portrayals. And here his grasp over English and Bengali literature proved of great help. And he chose the right persons for preparing the script - like Dr. Shankar Rajaram for preparing the script with lyrics in Sanskrit suiting Kathakali.

Prabal Gupta

He reached out to unusual sources for themes, resulting in original ideas like a jugalbandi in Kailash between Shiva and Shakti based on Iraiyaman Thampi's Dakshayagam, pitting two unlikely forms Kathakali and Purulia Chhau together! He was inspired by a Bengali folk Patachitra (Manasa Chitram) painting on snakes, with Arundhati Swamiji composing the Sanskrit. Music where instruments like Timila provided rhythm and experimenting with Koodiyattam talas were also tried. In his very latest production Kshatrabala in 2021, on the story of a woman losing her husband in the Kargil war and taking the tragedy with a courage becoming a warrior herself, it was Arjun Bharadwaj who provided the lyrics in Sanskrit. Above all this, was an unerring costume sense which enabled him to look the part he was playing. In the years he has been under Sadanam Balakrishnan, it is the Guru who while giving him the freedom, has helped with the final touches. When Prabal's book on Stree Vesham was released, the Guru, not given to praise, spoke applauding the unstinting passion and willingness to persevere with Kathakali in one not a native of Kerala.

It is for this trait of investing a whole life in following his passion for an art form, that Prabal Gupta has to be remembered.

And a word of praise for the close knit dance community of Bangalore which together took charge of arranging a dignified funeral for one from the artist fold.

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

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