Meenal Sajwan: Just the Way She Moves

Mar/24/2021 / by Alpana Varma
Meenal Sajwan dancing
Meenal Sajwan

Last July Meenal Sajwan completed a three-and-a-half year stay in Mexico. She was on assignment by the Indian Council for Cultural Affairs to teach Kathak dance at the Indian Culture Center in Mexico City, and to perform at cultural events the Indian embassy organized throughout that country. 

For Sajwan, that was the culmination of a journey lined with hurdles and huge demands for courage. But all the forces in the universe conspire with those with determination.

Growing up in the small town of Haldwani, at the foothills of the Himalayas, Sajwan’s family was quite orthodox, Girls like her were brought up to follow the rules, with little say in their own lives.

Sajwan says she had no exposure to Kathak in her childhood. In fact, there was so little awareness of any of the classical performing arts that her town did not even have an auditorium. She would watch Bollywood movies and imitate what she saw with her friends. She also got to dance at weddings in the neighborhood. But, sometimes, in the movies, she also got a glimpse of classical dance, by Hema Malini or Sridevi. That piqued her curiosity.

When Sajwan graduated from college, in the time she was expected to take up a small job in preparation for a traditional marriage, she happened upon a dance teacher and began taking lessons without informing her family, knowing well that they would not approve. In her parents’ mind, dancing was associated with misgivings, that it would lead her astray, on the path of prostitution, make her prone to exploitation and so on. 

The dance classes changed her life.  Sajwan told her teacher, she would like to professionally pursue Kathak dance. Her teacher told her she would have to audition at the Kathak Kendra in Delhi if she hoped to gain admission.

All hell broke lose at home when she told the family of her plans. Finally, after Sajwan went on a hunger strike, her parents relented, convincing themselves she would not pass the audition. At the Kathak Kendra, she confessed that she had learned Kathak only for six months instead of the stipulated two years needed for her application to be eligible. The gurus informed her that at her age most students had years of training and were quite advanced in the art form. She burst into tears and explained the many hurdles she had crossed to get to this stage 

Sajwan returned home dejected but got a call letter a couple of weeks later – to her joy and her parents’ dismay. After another bout of arguments, she received permission to go to Kathak Kendra for a year, relying on a limited financial support of Rs 1,500 per month. This was 18 years ago.

The metropolis that is Delhi intimidated her, and the wide streets were too daunting to cross, but she found a home in the Kathak Kendra hostel, and she put in her 10-12 hours of daily practice. Being a late starter, Sajwan felt the need to put in extra effort and she immersed herself wholeheartedly in what she saw as her calling. She considered herself fortunate to have trained under Guru Jaikishan Maharaj, son of the legendary Birju Maharaj of the Lucknow gharana.

By now, dance had acquired spiritual meaning. It is a ‘puja’ (ritual), a ‘sadhna’ (discipline) a devotion and a disciplined and methodical pursuit to attain something,” she says, “You need to take a lot of pains to achieve a certain level. Just as a ‘diya’ (oil lamp) needs to burn to emit light, we need to endure a lot of physical strain and hardship. Only then can we reach our full potential. In dance, this enables us to put up a performance that will have a deep impact on the audience.”

Sajwan feels she can reach divinity – the supreme self – through dance. It helps to find that she feels. So it distresses her to see dance being viewed as mere entertainment, a form of titillation. Although Kathak has its derivatives, such as ‘mujra,’ which is indeed meant to entertain, much as Bollywood dance also do, she says classical art forms go deeper and should not be viewed in the same light. So she declines to perform at places that dance is not seen as art, and proper decorum is not maintained. She asks all event organizers to never ask a classical artist to perform at places where, for example, food and drinks are being served or the audience moves around casually or is not silently attentive. 

At the end of her first year at dance school, Sajwan’s hard work bore fruit: she received a scholarship for the rest of her six-year training at Kathak Kendra. She had barely begun her second year of training when her parents began arranging her marriage. She imposed the condition that she would only marry someone who would support her devotion to dance. After rejecting several proposals, during which tensions simmered at home, she met Ganesh, a software engineer working in Gurgaon, through a classmate from her college in Haldwani. The caste was right and Ganesh was pleased to meet someone who had dreams of her own. He pledged his support. Things fell into place and the wedding was solemnized before Sajwan’s 23rd birthday.

By the time Sajwan completed her remaining four years of training and received her diploma, she had a baby, too. 

She set up Satrang Kala Foundation, a dance academy in which she taught Kathak, but had other teachers for Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi. She says she was not daunted by the challenges of managing a staff, students, keeping the parents of her pupils happy, and the administrative and creative work involved, all while also taking care of an infant. In fact, her supportive husband egged her to do more. 

She applied, auditioned and was accepted for a for an Indian Council for Cultural Affairs position to go abroad. But it was 10 months before she learned she would be sent to Mexico.

The news was met with alarm and distress in her family. 

“Mexico?! It’s so far! It will be a new language! It’s so dangerous!” 

It was admittedly with some trepidation that she set foot on Mexican soil, along with her daughter, with her husband accompanying her for a couple of weeks to help her settle down. But she was ready.

“My education and knowledge gave me the wings and I was ready to fly,” she says.

Everyone she met in Mexico had a lofty image that India was the land of spirituality. Sajwan concluded that she had to go out of India to connect deeply with her own roots. The love of her students and the applause of the audiences stirred her soul. Despite not knowing Spanish, she felt she could connect with people who understood everything she had to convey. 

This is what art does, she says: it builds bridges.

At times, Sajwan says she would find people in the audiences who had never had any exposure to anything Indian before come to her at the end totally “bhhav vibhor” (drenched with emotion). The positive energy that she sensed from students and audiences left her suffused with joy and satisfaction.

Sajwan credits the then ambassador of India, Muktesh Pardeshi, for striving tirelessly to promote Indian culture in Mexico. His efforts led to India being designated the guest country for major cultural events such as the Cervantino Festival in Guanajuato, the Book Festival in Guadalajara and the NAO festival in Acapulco. 

“His tenure saw the golden period of India culture in Mexico – and of Indo-Mexican friendship,” Sajwan says. There were numerous occasions, such as the Festival of Friends (where all countries would showcase their food and culture in the heart of Mexico City every year), events at international schools or joining in local folk dances derived from the Spanish flamenco.

Sajwan says she takes pride in representing her country and teaching its art form to foreigners. She feels that every Indian needs to learn at least one of the art forms of their country – and that these need to be taught at schools the way music lessons are mandatory in schools worldwide. 

As she puts it, all Indians need to be made aware of the richness of their culture – and the depth of their roots.