Kul Bhushan writes about Ma Prem Bhagwati’s journey to become a Kathak dance devotee.
“Now dance is a meditation for me,” says Ma Prem Bhagwati (Anshu Jaggi), who has devoted her entire life to learning and teaching Kathak¹ dance.
With the right music, Bhagwati says, she gradually slides deeper into the steps, the moves and the rhythm, and then feels she is just an energy. She is no more in her body, but just a flowing, gliding, flying, soaring energy. The physical boundaries of her body no longer limit her. The dancer has become the dance. She dissolves and merges with the universe.
As an eleven-year-old child, while watching TV one day, Anshu was entranced by the performance of the great maestro, Pandit Birju Maharaj, dancing with incredible ease and elegance. She decided there and then to learn dancing from him. She started following his steps at that early age as she felt a deep connection with him and told everyone that he is her Guruji.
Initially, Anshu started her Kathak training with Prakash Ganganiji of the Jaipur Gharana. Later, she got impressed with another school, the Lucknow Gharana, especially with its finesse, and switched over to this system, learning the steps from one of India’s best gurus of Kathak, Guru Munna Shukla, in 1992.
When she finally approached Pandit Birju Maharaj to become his student, he declined saying he had too many students and was anyway travelling most of the time. Yet she persisted, and after a few years contacted him again to be accepted as his student. She went to see him with a music recording and performed ‘Guru Vandana’ (obeisance to the Master) for him.
“While I was waiting to dance, I was shaking with fear,” she recalls. “When I started to dance, I let go. After it was over, he was ecstatic and said, ‘Where were you all this time?’”
“Finally, I was accepted as a student at his institute, Kalash Ram, in 1999 and studied until 2005. During that time, I learned Kathak with both my gurus. Later, until 2014, I studied solely with Maharaj ji (as he is popularly known) yet my studies with him were interrupted a couple of times. But in reality, it is a continuous journey; I am still learning from him. I think if I say it’s an unstoppable journey, it would be correct,” she says.
“Despite being a great artiste honoured by the Indian government with the title of Padma Bhushan, Maharaj ji has no ego. He becomes a child when he is with children and establishes a connection with every one he teaches. Many times, electricity failed during our lessons, but he did not bother, not minding the heat. Full of laughter, high energy and love, he is willing to learn new things every day and then shares them,” she says. “Nowadays he teaches online as well. He has inspired me a lot. Whenever I feel low, I call him and as we talk and laugh, I feel recharged.”
Under Birju Maharaj’s banner, she performed at many major occasions including his official events: Kala Ashram and Vasantotsava; Krishna Leela at Vrindavan temple; World Dance Day organised by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR); Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in 2010; Ashta-Nayika (collective name for eight types of performers or heroines described in ancient scripture on dance, called Natya Shastra); as well as many other memorable performances and events throughout the country.
In 2001, she set up her dance academy, ‘Nitrya Sadhna’, and attracted over 100 students. Gradually, she discovered three types of students: first, the natural born dancers who want to learn as much as they can; second, show-off students who want to learn to perform for appreciation; and third, go-getters who want to obtain recognised diplomas to increase their chances to obtain a university seat.
“Gradually, I stopped accepting the show-offs who just wanted a CD of their performance with a diploma as they have no respect for dance,” she recalls. “Since there is a big demand for performers and go-getters, I introduced semi-classical dance steps to go with popular songs so that the students can perform at parties and other events. Some of my students became the best dancers in their schools and even in universities.
“My gurus taught me with love and I do the same for my students. When I identify natural talent and special expression, I go all the way to help develop these qualities.”
Moving on from ‘Nitrya Sadhna’, she single-handedly launched another academy, ‘Dance Divine’ ten years ago. Despite plenty of tough challenges, she managed so well that within a couple of years, she had enrolled more than 150 students and moved the academy to a prime location, employing three trainers, one of them a former student. During that time, she noticed another development. After dropping off their daughters at her academy, the mothers would sit in the back to watch the dancers and gossiped. As this became a disturbance, she persuaded them to start learning dance for exercise and their figures. And several in fact joined to create a ‘mom-dancers’ group. These ladies performed separately as a group at the annual functions of the ‘Dance Divine’ academy.
A student, Kritika Garg, said, “Great place to learn and have fun while learning with supportive instructors.” Vivek Verma, another student, commented, “Great teacher and friendly environment.” The academy’s annual functions for parents and guests became a glittering event with non-stop performances by students and teachers.
Her journey from a student to a teacher took another turn in 2008 when she attended an Osho meditation camp during which she was so entranced by Osho so much so that she became his disciple as Ma Prem Bhagwati. “On becoming an Osho sannyasin, I appreciated dance more than ever,” she says. “After Sannyas, I started to dance for myself, not to please others. Now dance is a meditation for me.”
She attended a number of Osho dance meditation camps at Oshodham, New Delhi, and experienced the ecstasy. Here, the music is not selected for classical dancing but free movement; the aim is to dance like a child. The body just moves with music and so people go deeper into themselves.
With this music, Bhagwati says, she gradually slides deeper into unknown moves and then feels she is just an energy. She is no longer in her body, but just a flowing, gliding, flying, soaring energy. The physical boundaries of her body no longer limit her. The dancer has become the dance. She dissolves and merges with existence.
“Before Osho, I attained happiness from dance; after reading Osho and doing his dance meditations, I reached deeper inside myself. Now I feel where it all comes from, what my connection with the universe is. I go deeper and get totally lost inside as if I am still learning. Then I am connected with myself, with this new depth, the real me. Now I am alone. My aim now is to share this experience with my students so they too can connect with themselves at another level.”
After living in New Delhi all her life, she moved to the USA in 2018 and began to teach Kathak. Yet her devotion to dance and her gurus continues. Whenever Birju Maharaj visits the USA, she makes it a point to meet him and get his blessings. And with Osho, she meditates with her dance to ecstasy.
On many nights, she dances by herself. After putting on a costume and starting the music, she begins her dancing meditation: “Gradually, I get into the groove, the deeper rhythm when I become total with the dance. Dancing becomes effortless. I express my inner being as it is so spontaneous – beyond my body, my mind, into the unknown.”
“That is what Bauls say: when you dance and you become a whirlwind and, by and by, you are completely lost in your dancing, it happens. Something breaks down inside you. The barriers are lost. You become one unity. A great orgasm spreads all over your being. You are in tune with existence in those moments.”
The Beloved, Vol 1, Ch 1
¹ Kathak is one of the eight major forms of Indian classical dance. The origin of Kathak is traditionally attributed to the traveling bards of ancient northern India known as Kathakars or storytellers.
More by Osho on ‘Dance’
- Spiritual guidance should not be direct – Osho replies to a question by Gayan: “To guide a person without his being at all aware that he is being guided… it is just like when you smell perfume in the garden and you start moving towards it.”
- Dance for dancing’s sake – A Cup of Tea (109)
- “When the dancer disappears – Nijinsky was a dancer, and perhaps the best dancer the world has ever known; his dance was almost magic. He was born to dance.”