Gaurav Bhatti, winner of the first Dr. Sunil Kothari Award for Emerging Artist, says the honour has strengthened his belief in the art
Dry leaves blow in through the window and the dancer swirls, portraying the moods of autumn, even as the camera captures his intricate footwork and expressions. ‘Khidki se… Hemant’ is the latest work by Gaurav Bhatti, the first recipient of the Dr. Sunil Kothari Award for Emerging Artist-2021. A Kathak dancer with the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company – The Drishtikon Foundation, Bhatti has traversed artistic spaces in Canada and India to deepen his dance explorations.
“When I started working on the piece, I was thinking about the dried leaves and changing colours during the fall in Canada and the autumn in Delhi. Everything was uncertain during the pandemic. The images of the dead translated into a metaphor for the dried, dead leaves,” says Gaurav, talking about his award-winning work. The meaning of the work shifted as he worked through the text, with his experiences, and observing the grim situation around him.
“Through the pandemic we were looking at the world through our windows, locked in our homes, and we were also seeing the world through the window of our phones. For me, the entire world turned upside down. For many, there wasn’t even the possibility of seeing their loved ones and saying a final goodbye.”
Dealing with his own personal loss, with his grandfather passing away, Bhatti interpreted the piece on the season ‘autumn’ as the cycle of breath, life, death and renewal. He was mentored by eminent dancer Gauri Diwakar and the poetry for the composition was penned by Rachna Yadav.
Brought up in Punjab and Canada, Kathak was never an easy choice for the emerging artiste. For a long time as a teenager and young adult, Bhatti struggled to share his dance aspirations with his family. “I belong to a conventional family and I was afraid my parents would find it very hard to accept that their son—a Punjabi boy, wanted to take up classical dance as a profession.” While his parents wanted him to study science, he found a middle path by opting for a visual arts course.
His tryst with Kathak began by chance. Besotted by the dance form while observing a class in progress, his female friends dragged him to try it out with them. “The class had people who had been training for over 10-12 years, and just for fun I was asked to try out the routines and I was astonished by how engrossed and complete I felt while dancing.” The youngster began to learn secretly twice a week.
Emerging as a finalist in a talent reality show on television in Canada in 2013-14 catapulted him from the shadows to a serious journey in dance. “My parents finally started realising that even though this may be a career where stability is a challenge, I should be allowed to pursue my true passion.”
He learnt from Saveeta Sharma in Ottawa, and travelled to India, learning with gurus Lata Bakalkar in Mumbai and Aditi Mangaldas in Delhi, where he settled into the rigour of riyaaz and immersive training and performance.
Innovating with Kathak
The award, instituted by the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company—The Drishtikon Foundation, in the memory of dance scholar and critic, Dr. Sunil Kothari, is Bhatti’s first major classical dance accolade. The young dancer remembers meeting Dr. Kothari at the young artiste baithaks in Delhi and found inspiration from his suggestions to experiment. “I remember him smiling and full of energy, he always inspired young artistes to explore and bring freshness to dance, to be bold and creative. I have tried to do that with my work, and I wish I could have had the chance to share this with him.”
The award has been instituted at a crucial juncture, when young artistes, in the absence of physical performances and personal training, have been trying hard to keep up their spirit and practise. Such initiatives will help them find their own space in the digital medium and continue with their creative pursuits.
Bhatti believes it is important to think deeply about the form, continue training rigorously, and attempt one’s own interpretations to shape your journey. His next work revisits an earlier production on Sufi saint Bulleh Shah’s verses. “I was born and raised in Punjab and relate deeply with his work,” says Bhatti. “I want to re-interpret and add layers to my earlier work and dance in his garden of spirituality.”
Bhatti believes that evolving with the dance form to find your own artistic voice is truly important. “My gurus have inspired me to keep questioning, find new ways of expressing creativity. People might love it or hate it, but one must have the courage to dance your own dance, to express your truth.”
The author is a Delhi-based arts researcher and writer.