London-based Padmashri Pandit Pratap Pawar recently won the prestigious MBE award from the British Government for his outstanding and unique contribution in placing Kathak on the international platform.
Pawar migrated overseas in the 1970s at the invitation of the External Affairs Ministry to set up cultural centres in Fiji and Guyana, on an experimental basis as there were many Indians and a male dancer was considered most appropriate.
Ever since he has come a long way as a performer and teacher in Guyana, Trinidad and New York and finally settled down in London.
The 77-year-old Padmashri Pratap Pawar is the first "ganda band Shagird" of Pt Birju Maharaj and among the foremost and senior most disciples of the legendary mentor who has several disciples all over the world.
Pawar says, “While I started learning Kathak I was very young and there was hardly any difference between my teacher and me, moreover I had already learnt Bharatanatyam.
In all honesty, his art, his dance and his persona is so deeply etched in my mind that at times I truly think ‘What is this stuff that I call dance?’ Even now when he is on stage, he can still create something that is so amazing that when I think of my dance, I feel it is nothing.”
It is this modesty that has taken Pawar so far, as he is among the most respected exponents in the world, with complete dedication to his art and to his several students; many of whom have become professionals too.
Saint poet Kabir said, “Guru Govind dou Khade Kaake laagun paae, Balihari guru aapne Govind dou Bataae” (this verse describes the dilemma of the student as he visualises both God and his mentor and is confused as to whose feet he should touch first.
He realises that his mentor comes first - without the guidance of the mentor, one can never reach God. This aptly describes the unique relationship of the student and the mentor.
Pawar says, "After several years of performing and teaching, I am still scared to perform in his presence, as I feel nervous and I might falter. That is why I am scared to invite him for my performance, I still feel like a child in his presence.”
Pandit Pratap has several firsts in his life, which is unique and may seem eccentric too. He proudly says, “I am the first male child of my family to have survived, I am the first child in the family to have taken to the arts, I am the only dancer from the Indore Christian College to have made a name for myself at the national and international level (the only other alumnus of the college was playback singer Kishore Kumar), I am the first student of Narayan Vidya Mandir, Dewas, who took to dance, I am the very first disciple of Pt Birju Maharaj (ganda band shagird), I was the first student of Kathak Kendra to be employed as staff artiste, when my scholarship came to an end, I was the first dancer to be sent abroad by ICCR for a period of three years to teach Indian dance to foreigners, I was the first dancer to be given a contract by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan to live and teach Kathak in London, I was the first to introduce the concept of East meets West in dance, I was also the first classical dancer to dance live on stage with vocal support rendered by Asha Bhosle, also the first to merge Odissi with Kathak in jugalbandi performance, and the first to dance with Afro-Caribbean dancers in Trinidad.”
Pratap further says, “There was a time when, like most dancers, I used to think that speed and the circular movements are the mainstay of Kathak, but over the years I realised the aesthetic quality blending well with spiritual fervour forms the highlight of classical dance.
Akram Khan and Devesh Mirchandani are among the most devoted disciples of mine. Devesh is a handsome boy with an aptitude to learning more and more, which is quite encouraging and is a fine natured boy too. I am looking forward to his performance and to dance with him on January 11 in Mumbai.”