PROFILE OF THE WEEK By Dr. Dhanpaul Narine
If Birju Maharaj is the King, then Pratap Pawar has to be Prince! Birju Maharaj is legendary for his exposition of Kathak and for taking the art worldwide. He is in his eighties and shows no signs of retirement. Birju travels widely and gives classes to anyone that is interested in Kathak. His students are to be found in all corners of the world.
In the fifties, a young lad was introduced to the Master. It was the symphony of souls, the appearance of the Guru to signal the readiness of the disciple. Thus began the journey of Guruji Pratap Pawar as he scaled his own crests and brought joy to the heart of his Guru. When India wanted to give cultural aid to the Caribbean Indira Gandhi identified Guyana as the first entry. A cultural center was established and Pratap was chosen as the first resident artist.
It was 1972 and he had to give up a lucrative career to take up this assignment but he did not mind. It turned out to be a great decision; Pratap would go on to create history in Guyana and the Caribbean. It was decided that Pratap would stay for three years in Guyana but this was extended by a year. He did so well that the government of India posted him to Trinidad afterwards which meant that his total assignment in the Caribbean lasted eight years.
During this time Pratap introduced Kathak to a wider audience and had hundreds of students perfect the art. When he arrived in Guyana in 1972 it took him a month to decide whether he should accept the assignment. But Pratap said that once he decided to stay he found the hospitality of Guyanese overwhelming. It was the best decision that he made.
According to Pratap, ‘I am very grateful to Guyana. It gave me a purpose. If I did not teach dance for one day I felt lost. It was my very first teaching assignment and I felt very humbled. India now had 45 cultural centers around the world but Guyana is the first and the oldest.’
Pratap produced many quality students in Guyana and Trinidad. There were Philip McClintock, Muntaz Ali, Devicka Chetram, Malini Shah, formerly Marilyn Bose, and others. Pratap said that he is very proud of all his students. He says that, ‘Malini is a nice human being that is lively and brings inspiration. She is hard working and likes to make others happy.’ Malini is also an amazing dancer in her own right.
Pratap’s contribution is so impressive that he was awarded the ‘Padmashri’ which is India’s highest civilian award. He is the first classical dancer to be so honored and he dedicates this to all of his students. He was described as a cultural ambassador by the President of India. As he reflects on his life Pratap said that he is pleased with the way events have unfolded.
He was born in Dhar in Madhya Pradesh, in a Maratha family. His town was Indore. He was the first in the family to take to dancing and his family was against it. Pratap went on a three-day hunger strike. He was fifteen years old. After the family relented Pratap became the first disciple of the famous Guru Birju Maharaj. This will always be special to Pratap.
The relationship or ganda was for life. It means ‘the artistry of gurus, that whatever the guru knows he will try his best to impart to the student.’ This is what Guru Birju Maharaj did to his young disciple Pratap. The duty of the disciple is to be loyal and respectful to the guru until his last breath. Guruji received a scholarship from the government of India in 1958 to study dancing and he has been dancing since. In fact, he has been dancing Kathak non-stop for the last 60 years.
Pratap is from the Lucknow Gharana. He is proud of his association with his institute the Bhartiya Kela Kendra that is the oldest institute in Delhi to teach Kathak. Pratap visited the United States in 1963 and did shows in 48 States. He was dancing every night.
The Asian community wanted to bring a troupe to America. Kathak was unknown in the country at the time. The troupe had ten persons, including Guruji Birju Maharaj, Amjad Ali Khan who played the sarood, and Pratap. The troupe appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York for four minutes. It seemed as if everyone had seen the show because the reception was great afterwards.
Pratap performed in other parts of the world, including Laos, Thailand, and Hong Kong. He performed to rapturous audiences and the reception was tumultuous. Pratap sometimes wondered what good karma he had done to deserve such a reception.
He was asked many times what got him interested in kathak. He said that he couldn’t explain it. However, he remembers when he was five years old that the image of Nataraja would protect him. He would try to make the pose of Nataraja. He also related how he met a saint in Madhya Pradesh who blessed him and told him that he would dance as long as possible.
How would Pratap describe his Guyana and Trinidad experience? He said that in Guyana his classes had to close early because of the weather and security but this was not the case in Trinidad. He has done a tribute to Trinidad using dance to weave slavery and indentureship. His teaming up with Ms. Noble Douglas was one of the highlights of his stay in Trinidad.
Pratap was always interested in the fusion of cultures. He said that this idea came up in Guyana. This fusion involved Lavinia Williams, and others. Lavinia would attend the Indian Cultural Center (ICC) in Georgetown and would observe the dances. When the Indian foreign minister Mr. Chauhan visited Guyana he was pleased to see the cooperation between the ICC and Lavinia School of Dance.
Pratap went on to marry the talented Priya Pawar, and with their daughter Asavari, they have made a wonderful contribution to Kathak. There is no doubt that Pratap Pawar is a master, the Prince of Kathak. His guru Birju Maharaj is proud of him. Guruji Pratap Pawar continues to perform and to spread happiness wherever he goes. We wish him and his family all the best in the future. His website is www.pratappawar.co.uk and his book ‘My Journey in Dance’ will be launched at the Queens Book Fair and Literary Festival on June 24, 2018.