October 18, 2015 could have been just another day in the life of Shruti Gupta. She had reached Baralacha Pass near Lahaul and Spiti district in Himachal Pradesh to attempt something that could be special. The pass is at the Zanskar range, part of the western trans-Himalayas. As a trained Kathak dancer, she wanted to convey her message to the countrymen through her performing art form.

Everything about the idea appeared picture perfect. The location could not have been more beautiful. With the majestic Himalayan range in the backdrop, she wanted to add a dash of her colour to the white of the snow-clad contours of peaks behind her. The pass is at 16,000 feet above sea level and winters had set in. On the all-important day, with temperature around minus four degrees Celsius, Shruti wanted to dance, barefoot, to convey her gratitude to the Indian Army. Barring the silk sari, there was no warm clothing either. The challenge was extreme and her endeavour nothing short of audacious.

As she commenced at 10:30 am, the passion of her art and the commitment to the cause got her going. The attempt at getting her bare feet dancing in the biting cold, lasted seven minutes. But it was enough to grab the attention of the newspapers and the Limca Book of Records, who documented her feat.

“The performance and the adulation I got gave me a huge boost. I wanted to tell more and more people about the beauty of India’s classical dances. I also wanted to express my gratitude, on behalf of Indians, to the Indian Army since they have always protected the nation and never attacked any country,” Shruti says.

But dancing barefoot in sub-zero temperatures at over 17,000 feet above the sea level for Shruti was just the first step.

Bold next step

A year later, Shruti had reached Khardungla Pass, which is over 18,000 feet above the sea. She wanted to repeat her dance performance and chose the theme – Ek Muhim Atankwaad ke Khilaaf (A Campaign Against Terrorism). It was a logical theme since India had just announced its surgical strikes against the Pakistan and there was rising mood against terrorism across the country. She joined hand with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP).

As she reached Khardungla Pass, she had always known that breathing normally is tough at that height. Those who are not used to living in such unpredictable terrain must take medicines to get their body to adjust to the climate. But she had made up her mind to raise the bar against her previous performance.

On October 27, 2016 Shruti reached Khardungla Pass. Barefoot, without any warm clothes on her, she mesmerised the audience with her dance performance. The temperature was minus 24 degrees Celsius but there was not stopping her. As her feet moved for 20 minutes, the ITBP jawans were excited and were chanting ‘Vande Mataram.’ For the uniform-clad jawans stationed at 18,000 feet above sea level, it was just the encouragement that was perhaps needed. The jawans could identify with someone who was willing to experience the extreme temperatures to stand up for their cause.

Her message reached the right quarters as Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited her to meet him. She was felicitated on February 6, 2017.

Talking about the recognition and the adulation she has received, she said over a call from her home at Solan, Himachal Pradesh, “Till I reach the Everest, I want to do something each year.”

On 15 June 2018, she was back to the mountains. Shruti chose to perform her dance at five different passes. ‘Save nature’ was her theme as she travelled from one pass to another to draw attention to the need for taking care of nature. On the first day, she danced at Rohtang Pass, which is over 13,000 feet above the sea. Next day, she performed at Baralacha Pass, Nakeela Pass, Lachungla Pass and Tanglangla Pass. At Tanglangla Pass, the final destination for the campaign, she gave a tribute to the armed forces. When she danced on the occasion, the notes for the performance was specially composed by musician Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

Nursing Himalayan dreams

Shruti grew up in Solan and often travelled to Kullu Manali to meet her family members who are spread all over Himachal Pradesh. As she would spend her holidays there, she would never miss an opportunity to dance in the hills, and sing aloud with her cousins. It is during those holidays and carefree days as a kid that she nursed a dream.

“I always wanted to reach the highest peak in the world. As a little kid I had no idea which one of them was the highest, but I would tell my cousins that I wanted to scale the highest peak,” she now recalls.

No one in her family is connected to any profession that has anything to do with art and culture. Growing up, she had to chart her own course.

As she completed her schooling from Solan Government Girls School and her college education from Degree College, Solan, her love for the classical dance form continued and took her to her guru, Rajendra Gangani in Delhi. As she learnt the Kathak over an extended period, she earned a postgraduate degree in Indian instrumental music as well as Indian classical dance.

Kathak is one of the eight classical dance forms in India. The dance form encourages deft foot movement and with the ghungroo strapped to the feet of the dancer, creates a magical accompaniment to the music to which the dancer is performing. The dancers tell stories with their graceful hand and foot movements while the facial expressions add to them.

After she got married to Arun Kumar in 2010, Shruti says he has been able shape her career with his ideas on what she should do. It was his idea of reach out to Limca Book of Records with the effort made in 2015. “I want to thank Limca Book of Records since it has given me international recognition,” she says.

The effects of the attention and adulation have also begun to show. She is easily the most well-known person in the remote, hilly state. According to the 2011 census, Dagshai town has a population of 2751 people. The nearest town, Solan, is 10 kilometres away. At the Army Public School in the sleepy town, considered one of the best in the country, Shruti teaches dance to the children.

“I always wanted to do something, directly or indirectly, for the Army. Teaching the kids is my way of doing something,” a proud Shruti, who celebrates her birthday on August 15, says.