International Dance Day: Kathak danseuse Sharvari Jamenis Shares her Story

This dancer is known to steal hearts with her graceful moves on stage. Her Bindhaast acting skills have already wooed the audience all over. Meet Sharvari Jamenis, a renowned Kathak dancer and an artist par excellence who has won her share of accolades in India and abroad. She has always held her ground without swaying to the ever-changing weather of stardom showing that grit and talent is here to stay.

She’s bubbly, vivacious, and so full of passion! A conversation with Ms. Sharvari Jamenis on the occasion of World Dance Day set me thinking about how women in India have definitely proven their mettle despite all odds. Hailing from my favourite city of Pune, Sharvari has carved her own path in the world of Kathak. As a Kathak student who began at the age of 7, Ms. Jamenis soon became an accomplished dancer and choreographer, dance instructor, aerobic instructor, and has been one of the most sought-after actors in Marathi and Hindi Cinema. The audience has adored her dearly as the vibrant and carefree ‘Vaiju’ in Bindhaast which skyrocketed her career as an actor. What followed were her range roles in Hindi cinema, and television serials. Kathak, however, has been her prime focus.

I’m blessed to have connected with Ms. Sharvari Jamenis on the occasion of World Dance Day 2019. Join our conversation.

Kashmira: Who is your inspiration?

Sharvari Jamenis: Undoubtedly my Teacher, Late Guru Pandita Dr. Rohini Bhate. I cannot imagine my life without her guidance. I began learning Kathak as this was my mother’s dream. Noticing my interest in taking some spins every time a song was played, my mother immediately enrolled me in a dance school. I remember my friends would run off to play, but I skipped along to the dance class. Late Guru Pandita Dr. Rohini Bhate, or Baby Tai (sister) as we fondly called her, used to conduct classes for senior batches then. It was in my 3rd year of class that I could witness her grace, poise, dedication, and astonishing capabilities. I always hoped my auto rickshaw would get delayed to pick me up so that I could watch her for a couple of minutes longer. By then, I knew Kathak is what I wanted to pursue. It was Rohiniji who suggested I study BA in Dance when she was on the panel at the Lalit Kala Kendra Academy. Baby Tai inspired me with her grace and personality and this made me choose Music as a subject for my 11th and 12th at SNDT, Pune. I had the burning desire to make a mark in this field by watching her very moves. I could have chosen any other field as I was a good student but Baby Tai had already touched a chord with me and I’ve found her to be the biggest inspiration as she put me on this path.

2) Kashmira: What does dance mean to you?
Sharvari Jamenis (Smiles): I’m not sure I can entirely answer this question as it has a lot of depth. But, I can share a poem I have written that expresses this.

Dance is a symphony of body and soul.

It’s a prayer of harmony with a creative goal.

Sometimes, it’s breeze, sometimes, it’s thunder,

It gives me peace, it creates wonder.

Dance is my expression, dance is my joy,

It’s a flight full of energy towards an enlightening sky.

3) Kashmira: How well is India set to promote women in dance?

Sharvari Jamenis (Contemplative): At the moment, India is poised well enough to encourage women in dance. Personally, I feel parents are more encouraging towards the daughters instead of their sons pursuing this form of art. The finesse and dedication required in classical Indian dance needs a sound support system for finances. My father always told me, “Follow your passion, but make sure you do it wholeheartedly. Give it your 100% and excel in your chosen field. Make a mark for the world to know” This resonates with my belief. In India, I would like to see more avenues that support talent giving them the space to spread their wings and fly.

I also feel we have plenty of festivals for music and vocals but not too many aimed for Indian classical dance. I hope to witness a change here.

4) Kashmira: What is the one thing you’d like to say for women taking up dance as a profession?

Sharvari Jamenis (Eyes light up): Girls, and the women of today have the power of technology. Use it! We never had the kind of platforms to share our art forms. Today, a woman has to decide whether she wants to be:

  1. A performer and only a performer (Dance should be her sole aim)
  2. Someone who is wanting to be a performer and also earn a living

Budding talents must realize that being a performer does not always ensure returns. If it does, it can happen a little late. You require tremendous patience to sharpen your skills and perform globally and you must be willing to work hard without a care for the returns.

On the other hand, women who are also looking to make monetary gains can look for other avenues in this field. She can be someone who specializes as a dance instructor, lighting specialist, set designer, costume designer, videographer, or a dance critic. This ensures you are connected to the art form and also secures your earning.

To summarize it, I would say:

  • Know your goal (Performer or someone who wants a steady income)
  • Pursue what you want from the heart.
  • Have tremendous patience (do not get swayed by what you see on reality dance shows and feel low that you are not ‘there’ yet.)
  • Take the legacy of your Guru’s teachings ahead and combine it with your own thoughts

5) Kashmira: Are women truly empowered in our society? Can they choose dance as a career?

Sharvari Jamenis: I feel times have indeed changed. There was a phase when I would mention my degree in dance as my field of specialization, and I would still be asked, “Which other degree do you have?” (Eye roll*) Being an Indian Classical dancer earns you tremendous respect. Society is slowly improving in their way of looking at dance as a career path. Its popularity has risen with technology playing an important role. Women are more than willing to take it up as a career. Dance will definitely sustain among all the changes that are happening in different industries. (I perform to thumri compositions that are over 200 years old. The fear of survival is never there.) The only problem I see is that dance often gets sidelined towards a student’s 10th as well as 12th std. I can understand the inhibitions parents may have. I can only say this to the women that pursue dance if you can answer these questions honestly-

  1. Why do you want to dance? Is this your life?
  2. Are you looking to dance and gain financial benefits?

The answers to these questions decide your path. A classical dancer may not always earn the desired amount. It takes years of riyaaz and dedication and a good number of years to be known as an Expert in this field and win awards. Choose dance as a career only if you are willing to go that extra mile. Even if you get offers from the glamour world, you must hold your ground. If you can make this choice, you are truly empowering yourself.

6) Kashmira: Which was the moment you felt most empowered with self?

Sharvari Jamenis: There were many, but one I remember the most. In 2011, I received news and was elated that I had a Kathak dance tour to Australia for the year, 2013. However, towards 2013, I also received another good news that I was soon to be a mother! I calculated and realized if I continued with the tour, my then to-be-born child would be 4 months old, if I had I to perform. It did not deter me. Post a C-section, and with the support of my mother and gynaecologist, I began riyaaz in the 2nd month post delivery. This was for a 90 minute solo performance (3 performances with live musicians) at the Sydney Opera House. It was indeed a tough goal to get back the stamina post an operation. But, I forged ahead. As a practice, I also spoke to my little baby and recited my todas and tukdas to him as a form of play combined with riyaaz. I’ll never forget the standing ovation I received at the Opera House – it was a moment of pride, with tears of joy flowing down my cheeks. I was proud to be here as the *third Indian to have performed there.

(*Prior to Sharvari, A.R. Rahman and Singer Asha Bhonsle have performed here.)

7) Kashmira: If you would not be a dancer, who would you be?

Sharvari Jamenis: The complexity of the human mind intrigues me. I was inclined towards psychology and wanted to pursue studies in behavioral psychology apart from dance. But, Baby Tai showed me the right path and my life changed forever.

8) Kashmira: Name a dancer you admire the most!

Sharvari Jamenis: I sincerely admire the style and grace of Pandit Rajendra Gangani. He is a Kathak Maestro and is pioneering in his work. I also admire Aditi Mangaldas as she is a force to reckon with. She not only epitomizes the style of classical Indian dance form of Kathak, she brings a fine amalgamation of innovation and design to her performances. Her dance style stands out from her concepts to the lighting, the costume detailing and so many other aspects that lend a unique approach to her creative thinking.

9) Kashmira: As this being a fashion and women empowerment blog, I’d now like to know your take on your personal style. What’s your style staple?

Sharvari Jamenis: I feel trends are fine but best not to be followed if you want to develop your own style. Comfort is a must and I know how to dress by highlighting my strengths. I’d always opt for a white chickan kurta on days where I want to be comfortable with a touch of grace. White, with its intricate chickan work, gives me the versatility to combine any dupatta (colour, texture) while attending a function or a day at work. Otherwise, I can’t do without my basic blue jeans and white T-shirt.

10) Kashmira (smiles): You’ve been an amazing person to converse with. I’d like you to say a few words about your Guru, Pandita Dr. Rohini Bhate.

Late Guru Pandita Dr. Rohini Bhate. Image from Alchetron

Sharvari Jamenis: I am what I am only because of her. I think that best summarizes what I feel. She taught me more than Kathak as a dance form. She touched my soul while always reminding me to be a good human being. She also brought my attention to knowing music, various art forms, literature, and other aspects that are important to form a vision. It’s actually she who gave me the vision to look at anything and everything in life. The development of self to have this vision was a major life-altering moment for me. It is through her that I know it is not important to focus only on learning compositions and having a goal on numbers. What matters is, “Can you look at this composition and make more out of these with your own vision?” She also highlighted the importance of having a fine balance between unsaid words while allowing the dance to explicitly portray the things you want to convey. (It should not be limited to words only). I developed the knowledge to choose the right raagas and understand my compositions better by developing an eye for detail.

Most importantly, she instilled the values of politeness, gentleness, dedication, devotion, and punctuality. She reminded us never to dilute our art for the satisfaction of others. She was at the forefront for women empowerment when these subjects were rarely talked about. She faced criticism when on her way to her institute astride a cycle when she started her class in 1947 when not a single class existed in Pune or rest of Maharashtra. Onlookers were quick to pull her down for her path-breaking ways. She worked hard to spread the knowledge that Kathak is not meant for entertainment – it is full of depth, filled with spirituality and knowledge. She took the step ahead to motivate every student to join dance when in those days, learning dance was difficult for women. She set trends for the women of today, where none existed in her time.  

What an inspiring conversation this has been. Thank you, Sharvari! I am truly honoured to have the Bindhaast woman, Sharvari Jamenis, who has shown that women can learn and excel about every field they want to if they have the will. This International Dance Day, I salute the spirit of all dancers who spend endless hours in their pursuit of developing and refining this art and presenting it to the world. We wish her good luck and success and may she fetch many more awards in the years to come.

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