Odissi: In Conversation with Kiren Segal
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Odissi: In Conversation with Kiren Segal

in Video
Published on: 24 September 2020

Madhur Gupta

Madhur Gupta is one of the leading Odissi dance exponents of his generation. He is also an author and columnist widely featured in national and international publications for his sensitive writings in the field of arts and culture. Apart from extensively performing and writing, Madhur also teaches Odissi at Sangeet Vidya Niketan, New Delhi.

Kiren Segal in conversation with Madhur Gupta

A leading Odissi dancer, Kiren Segal learned dance under eminent guru Mayadhar Raut. Segal’s parents, the eminent actress and dancer Zohra Segal and dancer and painter Kameshwar Segal, were members of Uday Shankar’s dance ensemble and later, were apart of the Prithvi Theatres in Bombay. Kiren Segal’s initiation into dance and stage began at Prithvi Theatres, where she used to be a child artiste. She trained in Bharatanatyam at first but was nudged into taking up Odissi by Zohra Segal. Kiren Segal has enriched Odissi with her acclaimed choreographies like Ramayan, Agni, Whispering Moods, Panchakshara Stotram, etc. She was conferred the Padma Shri in 2002. Based in New Delhi, she continues to teach, perform, and choreograph.

Following is an edited transcript of the conversation with Kiren Segal conducted by Madhur Gupta in Delhi, 2018.

Madhur Gupta (MG): You had a very interesting childhood. Your mother (Zohra Sehgal) was an actress. Your father (Kamaleshwar Segal) was an art director. You lived next to the Anand (Chetan Anand) family. Tell us about your childhood. 

Kiren Segal (KS): The Anand family lived upstairs in our rented house in Mumbai. We were close to the Kapoors because of theatre. My mother worked in the Prithvi Theatre. She started as a dance director. My father was a painter, and he met my mother at Uday Shankar’s dance school in Almora, fell in love with her, married her and finally settled in Bombay. So, he was painter as well as a dancer. He also gave art direction in films but that was off and on. Ma was a regular at Prithvi Theatre. So, my childhood was spent in theatre and dance. Music too, because of the dance that was a part of our lives and, of course, films. We had the Anand family living upstairs. The house where we were living was old and was built in wood by the British. It was on a hill and had a very interesting architecture. From one side of the hill it appeared that we lived on the ground floor and the first floor, the Anands lived on the second floor, and the landlord was at the top. But when we rounded the hill and came to the other side, the second floor would become the ground floor, and our floors would be below the ground level. The house still stands there, you know. I have written a lot about it.

Because of our closeness to the Anands, my mother was involved in dance direction in their films. My father did their art direction. In fact, Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar, which was a flop here in India, won an award at the Cannes Film Festival (1946). In that film, my mother had done the dance direction, and my father, the art direction. My connection with dance also started in my house because my mother used to conduct rehearsals at home, a lot of girls used to come and dance, and I grew up watching them. So, dance was a part and parcel of my life then itself. And theatre too. I was taken to the theatre every time I had a holiday, much to my resentment. I didn’t like it, you know. I was a little girl, and I wanted to stay at home and play with my friends. But my mother did not want to leave me alone because I was a girl. I understand her concern now. But then, I resented going to the theatre. The rehearsals of Prithvi Theatre used to take place at the Opera house. Then in the evenings, on the days allocated to them, they had their shows there. So, there I had my very first training being on stage.     

MG: After your father passed away, your family moved to Delhi.

KS: Yes, my mother didn’t want to stay on in Mumbai. She had her younger sister there, but as she told Papaaji (Prithviji... we called him Pappaji), after her husband’s death, she didn’t want to live in Mumbai. I was sent to Aligarh for a couple of years. My mother’s cousin, who was a doctor, was there. I was put in a boarding school, and every weekend I would go and stay with my aunt. I had so much fun there. Meanwhile my mother had moved to Delhi.  

MG: What made Zohraji leave Delhi and move to England?

KS: Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay was my mother’s dear friend. For me, she was quite an awe-inspiring lady. She advised Ma to open an academy at the Bharatiya Natya Sangh in Sharker Market. So, Ma did that. The academy gave courses in voice production, acting, dance, etc. Around that time, Yamini (Yamini Krishnamoorthy) had come to Delhi with her father to give a lecture demo. Yamini was very young then. I was so mesmerised by her performance. I had never seen anything like it before. So, Ma established the academy, and people like Sushma Seth came to teach there. Ma also used to write for the magazine Link. By then, I too had left Aligarh and moved to Delhi. We stayed at the government quarters in North Avenue with Ma’s elder sister. Her husband was an MP in Lok Sabha then. My mother and I stayed in a small barsati on the terrace. My brother was away then. We were very happy there in spite of the small accommodation and the limitations that came with it.   

Then, I imagine, Ma must have had some conversation with her sister and her brother-in-law about her future, and it was decided that she should go on some lecture tours abroad—lectures on theatre and dance. By then I had joined LSR college. Ma went to Russia first and from there decided to go to England. While in England, she decided to study further and joined a course. In the meantime, China attacked India. It was the year 1962. By then my uncle had become an MLA in Lucknow Assembly, and the family had to move there. My mother had a panic attack, thinking that China would take away her children! So, my brother and I too left India to go to England. I was very sad to leave all my friends and my country.

Madhur, I can never forget the moment we landed in London. I was never more depressed in all my life. It was January, everything was so bleak and cold. London was like a painting done with various tones of grey, black and brown. No one was smiling. That was England for me.

I was doing my second year degree course in LSR when I moved to England. After matriculation, I did my pre-university course in the college as was the practice then. I stood 14th in the final exam. I am still very proud of that. Then I took up history in LSR. In London, I first did a course in sketching and drawing at Saint Martin’s School of Art. Later I did a two-year ground course in art; it included the history of architecture as well. Later I did another course in Display and Design in another college. Side by side, I continued with my dance classes too. Ma was perpetually choreographing, composing and giving lectures demos using me and another boy from India. We also worked in Ram Gopal’s troupe and performed at Queen’s Theatre. So, these Bharatanatyam classes went on. A teacher from MumbaiSunita Golwalataught me a little bit of everythingBharatanatyam, Kathakali, Manipuri and Kathak.

Then I got married to a Swiss gentleman—a very lovely person.

MG: Then you decided to come back to India.

KS: I saw Yamini performing in London and, again, I was mesmerised. The I realised what made me really happy—it was only dance. Connected with that there was a yearning in me to come back to India.

MG: What was the trigger that made you take that decision?

KS: That was Yamini. I thought that I would go to India, learn and work in a troupe for a couple of months, and then come back. In fact, I did that. But once back in London, I began to feel very constricted. I tried to persuade my husband to come to India. That did not happen. And so, we separated, and I returned to India with my young daughter. Ma told me about this wonderful guru in Delhi. Guruji (Mayadhar Raut) had composed Geet Govind.[S1]  Ma had watched the performance at Kamani Auditorium, and was very impressed by it. I was pursuing Bharatanatyam then, but then I went to Guruji to start training in Odissi.

MG: Did he have a lot of students then?

KS: Yes, he did. He held group classes in the evenings and individual classes in the mornings till the lunch hour. At the time I was learning Bharatanatyam at Triveni, from there I would rush to Bharatiya Kala Kendra. Then, ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) sent me to South America on a tour. I had to perform both the stylesBharatanatyam and Odissi. Both the gurusGovindarajan Pillai and Mayadhar Raut—accompanied me. First, I performed Bharatanatym and then I quickly changed my costume and hairdo and went on the stage to perform Odissi. There was a series of performances, but I had to cancel a couple of them because I was completely exhausted. Gradually I started feeling a friction within myself because of this sudden shift from one style to another. You dance in one style, change the costume, the hairdo, the music and everything, but inside you, you cannot change.     

MG: The intrinsic qualities of both the dances are so different.

KS: Exactly. I used to feel that friction, and I was very uncomfortable. Also, initially I had faced some criticism that some of my Odissi movements had imprints of Bharatanatyam on them. Because of my training in Uday Shankar’s style of dance, which teaches you to understand each part of your body coupled with an innate understanding of the coordination between mind and body, I understood what was needed and was able to rectify it. After the tour was over, I took the decision to leave Bharatanatyam and continue with Odissi. 

MG:  When you look at Odissi now, how much do you think it has changed in intention and technique over the years?

KS: Guruji was very clear about the chowk (a basic stance in Odissi) pose. He used to insist on keeping the lalitya (grace) intact. He used to say, it is not that there is no tandav (masculine, forceful movements) in Odissi. There is, but the dance is dominated by feminine grace. Performers now dilute some of the traditional moves and poses. This happens especially in group works where twenty dancers are lined up and are performing. Visually it will be a treat, of course, but if none of them are staying true to the typical Odissi style, how can we call it Odissi? 

MG: How have you created your own choreographies? You have done productions like Ramayan, Agni, on Tagore’s poetry, etc. How far have you been influenced by your guru’s choreography—Rautji used a lot of sancharis (elaboration of emotions)—and how have you evolved yours?

KS: One thing, I never believed in a lot of sancharis. It has nothing to do with Guruji. This is a very personal thing. I have seen other gurus also taking up abhinaya and doing sanchari, sometime they go overboard in performing sanchari and make us wonder what the point of the dance was. That happens when you are trying to show off your knowledge or your ability to do abhinaya—-this is my personal thinking and not a criticism of any guru or choreographer or performer.

I don’t use any outside influence in my choreographies. Sometimes the idea comes to me. Then I work it out with my dancers. Sometimes it just continues to come and then it stops. And I am not sure when whether it will come again or even if it will ever come again. When I try it out with my dancers, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes the dancers are good, and it works beautifully, and sometimes the dancers are good, but my work is not good, so I have to reconstruct. At times, while working it out, it evolves by itself and becomes a beautiful composition. When this happens, I feel very happy. I don’t like it to be forced. Because of my Uday Shankar background, I have incorporated creative dance movements as well, movements that are different from those of Odissi and Bharatanatyam.

MG: Have you been criticised or applauded for these experiments?

KS:  I don’t know. But I am very happy.

MG: You said that you whole life is about dance. Has dance been like a jealous spouse who demands your entire existence? I am asking this because there are so many dancers… they either are unmarried, or if married, choose not to have kids or are divorced. Do the demands of dance take a toll on your personal life?   

KS: I don’t know about others. But for me, dance was and is everything. I think I would not have survived if I didn’t have dance in my life.  It is not that I am thinking only of dance. I love cooking, I love jewellery, I go for good movies and theatre. Where my daughter is concerned, I think, I neglected her a little when she was young. Maybe it is my guilt as a mother speaking. When I came back to Delhi from London, I was entirely on my own, and I had no help at home—I had to do all the household chores and look after the child alone. I never had enough money to take even an auto, I used to travel by DTC buses, it was very difficult what with the stamping and all and trying to safeguard yourself, your equipment and your kid. When I went on tours, I used to leave her with my friends or her schoolteacher or someone. When it was holidays for her, I used to take her with me to my classes where she was supposed to sit very quietly. How could a small child do that? I would get angry with her, and Guruji would scold me for that. So, I feel that I neglected her a bit. She never experienced that calm, restful atmosphere of a home.

MG: But that was the case with you too, right? Zohraji was always working.

KS: Yes, but at home my father and our servants were around. I could experience the atmosphere of a normal household to an extent. Here, there were many times when I would rush back home and see my daughter waiting for me at the doorstep. Then I would rush to the kitchen to cook something for her. Then the times of sickness… all these would play on me. Now I feel very bad about it.  

MG: What do you have to say when I say that classical dance is an art form for the elite?

KS: All our organisations have pampered the audience. We all expect to get free entry to the auditorium to watch a dance or a music programme. If it were a ticketed event, we would ask: Arre, invitation nahin hein? But if it was a drama or a theatrical programme, we would gladly pay for tickets. All our organisations in the field of culture, whether it is ICCR or Sangeet Natak Akademi or whatever, they constantly organise programmes of fairly good calibre performers. All these events are free.

To learn dance also you need money. The poor guru also has to survive. Now we don’t have royal sponsors like in the olden days. Then the artistes were given land and houses by the kings. I say this in almost all the interviews. The government should give houses to all the Akademi awardees. My mothershe was honoured with Padma Vibhushan, she never applied for a house, she was too dignified for that. But when she couldn’t walk without assistance because of old age, I wanted a ground floor flat for her as it would be easier for us to wheel her out. I applied to the government many times but in vain.  

MG: So, my final question is, why is dance so important to you? Why do you dance?     

KS: I can’t really say why.  I dance because it is in my genes. Dance is everything for me. I can’t think of doing anything else other than dance.