Born to Dance From Folk to Charya

Features Issue 58 Jul, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai

Their dancing lessons began even before they reached their teens. It was a time when Charya dances were confined to temples, where it was performed in complete secrecy under the watchful eyes of tantric priests. Radhe Shyam and Narayan Devi have spent a lifetime dancing, and their performances have led them through more than twenty countries across Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Gun toting soldiers escorted the troupe and when they went shopping, all other shoppers were asked to vacate the premises. When they arrived in Lahore, hundreds of students lined the streets and they were driven through with sirens blaring. On another visit, a special program of 1½ hours was staged to felicitate them. On this special occasion, with twenty people in attendance, there were only two guests: Radhe Shyam Pradhan and his wife Narayan Devi Pradhan (nee Shrestha). Such was the honor accorded them on their visit to Pakistan in 1980.

Radhe Shyam
Radhe Shyam made a name for himself doing the Charya Nritya or the Charya Dance, an ancient form of dancing. "Charya dance is relatively new to Kathmandu," says Pradhan, "This was a dance that was performed in total secrecy behind closed doors, where Bajracharya and Shakya tantric priests made people do this mudra-based dance for religious purposes. Fearing opposition from the public, these priests maintained secrecy. "Manjushree was the first of these dances introduced to the public," he recalls. The two renowned gurus of the time were Kancha Buddha Bajracharya and Sapta Mani Bajracharya. "But remember, even to this day, there are many places in the valley where these secret tantric rituals are still prevalent," adds Pradhan.

Radhe Shyam had a keen interest in dancing since childhood. Born in Banepa on 10th April 1953, his training began at the tender age of seven. Guided by an inborn desire to learn, he approached the well-known gurus (tutors) of the time for lessons and they happily obliged. He began taking lessons in 1961, and was at first taught to dance as a woman. He remembers three prominent gurus of Banepa: Pushpalal Umang, Asha Narayan Bhochibhoya and Ram Bhakta Shrestha. His first significant role as a hero was in a musical play and rehearsals took place at guru Asha Narayan's house. So deeply dedicated was Radhe Shyam that although his house was barely 3 km. away, he spent all his time at his guru's house immersed in dancing. The preparation was so intense that during the three months of rehearsals, not once did he go home. He trained, ate and slept at his guru's house. "Funny, my parents also didn't bother to ask why I was not coming home," reminisces Pradhan with a laugh.

The young artiste's enthusiasm was not however, restricted to dancing and performances on stage; he would walk all the way to Bhaktapur to watch the plays being performed there. There was no regular public transport then. "I wouldn't have been able to afford the fare anyway," informs Radhe Shyam. At other times, people would find him in Dhulikhel watching plays and lost to the world. The turning point in his life came when he learnt a dance, which became such a big hit, that everybody took notice. So appreciative was the audience that many suggested, "You should go to Kathmandu." As luck would have it, his own cousin, Guru Mrigendra Man Singh invited him to his home in the capital in 1964. The guru had learnt dancing in Bombay (now Mumbai).

An artiste's life is guided by the stars and rarely in his own hands. One day in 1964, Radhe Shyam met Ram Sharan Darnal, an official of the Royal Nepal Academy ( now Nepal Academy) at Jyatha and was asked to pay a visit to the Academy office. He obliged and to his surprise, was asked to sign a paper and then told he was now an employee/member of the prestigious Academy. He had suddenly found a job as an 'A' Class Artiste with a monthly salary of NRs 225/-. "It was a lot then," he laughs, realizing how meager it sounded today, "A cup of tea used to cost 5 paisa," Radhe Shyam adds to put things in perspective. Thus began his long association with the Academy.

Forty- two years later, we were sitting at the office in Kamaladi with Radhe Shyam recalling his life as a dancer. "Classes were from 1:00 to 4:00 pm and we were taught the Bharat Natyam and various other folk dances. The hall at the time was under construction and we would practice in the garage ( now a canteen) that you can see outside." It was during the reign of King Mahendra, a monarch fond of the arts. It was through his persuasion that many singers and artists like Ambar Gurung and Lain Singh Bangdel came and settled in Nepal. Pradhan remembers, "One day a man wearing spectacles came and watched us rehearsing from a distance outside the garage. We did not bother as we didn't recognize him, and he was alone. It was only later that we were told that it was the king himself. He just stood there watching like an ordinary citizen." King Mahendra was a great patron of the arts.

Radhe Shyam finished his training, but there was no work for dancers. Luckily for artistes like him, the Mahendra Police Club organized nationwide tours. He was soon on the road with a troupe of dancers, singers and comedians touring the country for months. One of the singers was Kamala Shrestha and the two comedians, Rajpal Thapa and Dhurba Hada. At the end of the tour they arrived in Birgunj, where another troupe was just embarking on a nationwide tour of their own. Short of a dancer, the troupe invited Radhe Shyam to join them as his own tour was over. So, off he went on a 14-anchal (zone) trip and remembers that one of the members was the famous singer Shanti Thatal.

It was also at the Academy that Pradhan met his life partner. Also a dancer by profession, Narayan Devi Shrestha became Radhe Shyam's dancing partner and later his wife. They embarked on many foreign tours together, traveling across Europe from the U.K. to France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, Portugal,-- and in Asia, they performed in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, South Korea, Japan besides Dubai in the middle East. "We've been many, many times to Japan where we often stayed for six months, performing with a cultural troupe," informs Radhe Shyam. Performing for dignitaries was part of their job and they danced for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at the Academy.

In 1971, when the troupe headed out for an All Nepal tour, there were times when crossing the border into India was the only means to reach remote parts of Nepal. "We've been to places where there were no roads, like in the far west. We once had to follow a river that started swelling dangerously. The path was dusty and we were so completely covered by dust that we could not recognize each other. There was even a moment when we though that one of our colleagues was lost, until one of the men brushed the dirt from his face and said, 'I'm here.' We all burst out laughing. It was strange out there as the people spoke Indian languages and used Indian currency. They even said the Prime Minister's name was Gandhi." When the entourage reached Surkhet, King Birendra, who happened to be visiting at the time, invited all 55 artistes. There, Narayan Gopal sang two songs, and the others danced while the comedians made the Royal couple laugh. "Amazingly, Queen Aishwarya, who was a pretty good dancer, hitched up her sari and danced with us, forgetting her Royal status," recalls the Charya dancer. It was an unforgettable moment for Radhe Shyam and the rest of the troupe.

When asked about the sacred Charya dances, Radhe Shyam reveals, “We do the Manjushree, Natyeshwar, Bhairav-Kali, Sweth Ganesh, Arya Tara, Kumari, Pancha Buddha, Annapurna, Asta Martika, Nava Durga and Bhairav (solo). Guru Kancha Buddha taught me the Prataal, Prabesh, Absara and Aagan, which used to be secretly performed only at temples. The postures and finger positions (mudras) have deep meanings. The general audiences have finally started appreciating the Charya dance and this is also the dance that is popular abroad. Today I teach at my own home, where I have established an institute, ‘Yogini Sanskritic Kendra’.” He maintains a policy of taking only serious students. At this point he recalls a strange incident with one of his gurus long ago, “The show was to be held the next day and my guru insisted I rehearse my solo dance. I was very confident of my dancing, so I refused. This was at the Royal Academy and I was supposed to do the Natraj dance. The next day, it was time for me to perform and the music started playing. I jumped in, but suddenly everything went black. It was absolutely dark; I had blacked out. I couldn’t dance, so I just stood there. I then stepped off the stage, but wanted to try again. I went back several times with the same result; I couldn’t remember a thing. This was a big lesson for me.”

Narayan Devi
Most people who are familiar with Patan will remember the only cinema hall Patanites could boast of— Ashoke Cinema Hall (now a party palace). It was near this famous hall that Narayan Devi Shrestha was born in 1953. At the age of nine, she was already taking dance lessons with her brother who had, luckily for her, opened a “Lalit Kala Kunj” with some of his friends. “It was a time when people wouldn’t send their children to learn dancing, so my brother and his partners persuaded their own siblings to join the organization they had established. Singha Bahadur Moktan and Mangalananda Raj Upadhyaya were the other dance gurus while Hermananda Upadhyaya taught percussions.” It was here at the Kala Kunj that Narayan Devi got her initiation and entered the world of dancing. She has never looked back and watching her dance, one cannot help but notice how much she enjoys dancing.

Narayan Devi joined the Royal Nepal Academy the same year as Radhe Shyam. “The office was at Dharahara when I registered. Our dance teachers were Kamala Buddha Bajracharya, Sapta Mani Bajracharya, Mrigendra Man Pradhan, Millie Holler and K.B. Tandon.” She had so much enthusiasm and a yearning to learn that she took sitar and tabla lessons as well. Shanti Ghimire, Laxmi Rana and Bataju taught her the sitar while Hari Govinda gave her lessons on the tabla. “I started taking sitar and tabla classes from 1964 and went to Allahabad to sit for musical examinations. When we finished training at the academy, the place closed down for a while. The hall was still under construction, so in 1969, I started working at the Naach Ghar in Jamal, where I stayed for a year. There were shows only on Fridays and Saturdays and I was paid NRs. 50/- per show for dancing, which was a handsome salary in those days compared to what others were earning. My contemporaries were Lila Raj Suwal, Gautam Ratna Tuladhar and Laxmi Maharjan,” she reminisces.

While Narayan Devi and her friends were employed at the Naach Ghar, the famous Bal Krishna Sama was the Vice Chancellor at the Academy. He felt that the people they had trained should be employed at their institution. So every now and then, he would send his staff members to lure the dancers and actors back to the Academy. One day, the great man himself arrived to coax them. It worked. Assuring them of added benefits at the Academy, the Vice Chancellor finally brought back Narayan Devi, Gopalnath Yogi, Lila Raj and Nirmala Shrestha with him while the rest opted to stay with Naach Ghar as a trip to Russia was in the offing. However, those who chose to leave could foresee a brighter future with Sama and time has proved them right. Narayan Devi was offered a wholesome salary of NRs 225/-. In the mean time, Radhe Shyam had returned to Banepa after completing his training at the Academy. Coincidentally, soon after Narayan Devi’s return, Radhe Shyam also bumped into an official who brought him back to the Academy four days after her.

By then the Academy hall was almost complete. Narayan Devi recalls, “The whole area was an agricultural field and there were even little hillocks in places, which were later leveled. The hall was finally completed in 1970. We did the Kumari Ballet (Ballet in the Nepali context is a musical) where I played the Kumari. I always played the lead role at the academy. Bijay Bahadur Malla wrote the script and Yogi, the music score. We had many shows after which we went to India. This was in 1972, and we were promised an all-India tour, but on receiving an urgent call from King Birendra who needed us to entertain some of his foreign VIP guests, we quickly forgot about the tour and rushed back to Kathmandu.”

King Mahendra played a major role in promoting the arts. According to Narayan Devi, “He built the Academy hall with his own private funds and invited talented Nepalis from Darjeeling, such as Ambar Gurung who became the Music Director at the academy in 1970 and Lain Singh Bangdel who held the post of Chancellor twice. It was during the latter’s term as Vice Chancellor, that we went to South Korea where we were escorted with sirens blaring, with him riding in a special car in the front. They gave us a resounding welcome as they had great respect for the man.”

In May 1975, Radhe Shyam and Narayan Devi tied the knot and traveled the world as a husband and wife team. Six months later, she was awarded the Indra Rajya Laxmi Pragya Purashkar and was the first woman to receive this prestigious award. King Birendra presented the award, and this was followed by a massive cocktail party attended by the King and Queen. “That’s the way it was then. But after 1990 and the advent of democracy in Nepal, things have not gone well for the arts. Cultural programs have dwindled and we rarely travel abroad,” laments Narayan Devi, “There was a time when Queen Aishwarya would personally inspect our costumes and comment if things didn’t look right.”

The couple has received many awards. In 2004, Radhe Shyam received the Gorkha Dakshin Bahu 4th Class and then the Tri Shakti Patta 4th Class. Narayan Devi feels elated by the fact that now the ‘Arya Tara’ dance and other folk dances are part of the syllabus of Class 9 and 10, which means they are compulsory. To top it all, the schoolbooks have three photographs of Narayan Devi doing the Arya Tara dance, the Dholati (Bhojpuri dance) and the Sohrathi (Gurung dance).  Radhe Shyam took to directing dance sequences for feature films such as “Maala” (Bangladesh-Nepal joint venture), “Aagaath” and the recently completed “Chandalika” about Buddha. Narayan Devi has acted and danced in many films both on the big screen and on television. She acted in films like, “Hijo Aaja Bholi”, “Manko Bandh” “Yaamika”, “Chakan” and telefilms like “Laksmi”, “Swargamila”, “Rajamati”, “Chandralekha”, etc. She also hosted a TV show called “Ko Bhanda Ko Kam”. The couple has stopped counting the gold medals they have won, but they have also received film awards and were given honorary lifetime membership in the Nepal Film Artiste’s National Association. The magazine “Nari” devoted a five-page feature on Narayan Devi in 2003. Besides “Yuwa Munch”, she has also won a place in “101 Nari” a book that lists a hundred and one influential Nepali women.

Early this year, Radhe Shyam retired from the Academy as Dance Director, while Narayan Devi still holds the post of Dance Director. In the forty-two years since joining the prestigious institute, they have performed in more than twenty countries and have entertained Kings, Queens, Presidents and other dignitaries. Devoting their lives to the art, they thrived on the stage and enthralled many a spellbound audience. They were simply born to dance.