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Art as a state of being

CHITRA SWAMINATHAN

It has to be around, extend beyond life and reflect pain and joy, says Sonal Mansingh.


“Being on stage does not mean you are on a pedestal. We need to reach out; spread warmth and cheer.”

Photo: Shaju John

Looking for fresh interpretations: Sonal Mansingh.

Sitting at the breakfast table in Raj Bhavan, Chennai, on a pleasant rainy morning, she looks at the half-eaten slice of bread in her hand and smilingly asks, “Doesn’t it look like a mountain peek?” She has just wrapped up the routi ne discussion with her musicians and rushes into her room for a quick make-up — a dash of bright red lipstick, some kajal and a long red bindi (spiritual reasons). Walking briskly towards the lush green lawns for a photo shoot, she suddenly stops to gaze at the Nagalinga tree in full bloom. “It’s gorgeous,” she exclaims. She requests the gardener for a flower from the tree and poses excitedly with it like a child.

We often hear art is a way of life. But understand what it means only when we meet artistes like Sonal Mansingh. “If you want to dance from the heart and not just with two feet, art has to be a state of being. It has to constantly be there around you, reflect in your behaviour, speech, action and emotion. It also has to extend beyond your life and thinking, absorb and reflect the pain and joy of others,” says Sonal, an acclaimed Bharatanatyam and Odissi artiste.

Choreography or connecting with people, with Sonal you get what you see. There’s no pretence or talking down. “I don’t want people to turn away at the mention of classical arts. It’s there for all to appreciate and enjoy. You create the distance and then crib about lack of audience and awareness. Being on stage does not mean you are on a pedestal. You cannot live in a vacuum. We need to reach out; spread warmth and cheer through art.”

Energetic performances

The senior dancer is known as much for her energetic performances as for her engaging talks, lectures and writings. “I particularly look forward to doing lec-dems in schools and colleges. It’s essential to channel their energy towards aesthetics. There’s also so much to learn from young restless minds. They could open your eyes to fresh interpretations. It’s actually a give and take process,” says Sonal, who made her debut in 1961.

Sonal’s mother Poornima Pakvasa and her grandfather Mangaldas Pakvasa, a freedom fighter and one of the first five Indian Governors recognised her interest in arts and encouraged her to learn Bharatanatayam from Professor U.S.Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi. “I remember political dignitaries and artistes visiting our house.”

Initially she performed only Bharatanatyam. It was after marriage to Lalit Mansingh (her first husband), whose family was based in Orissa that Sonal discovered the beauty of Odissi and trained under Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. “I started concentrating more on Odissi because members of my orchestra for Bharatanatyam disintegrated due to various reasons. It became difficult to get musicians from the South every time.”

Sonal did not stop with Odissi, she learnt several performing traditions of the region such as Chhau and Paala sangeet. “A good understanding of the sampradaya is vital. It helped me choreograph and build my own Odissi repertoire. Dance is after all an amalgam of literary, poetic, historical, architectural and mythological influences. And changes in all these spheres get reflected in dance too.”

Tradition vs modernity

The veteran artiste denies conflict between tradition and modernity. “It’s a myth. We are getting trapped in fancy jargons; a fall-out of globalisation. Artistes today rue they have to resort to new ways to draw the audience. But it’s never been easy to get a full house. I am here today after decades of struggle. You know for five years I was homeless, with two suitcases under a charpoy. Then I met with that nasty accident in Germany and battled hard to get back to the stage. And what about the problems I faced after my appointment as chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi? Some people didn’t like my ways of functioning. May be I am not cut out for the job. I carry no bitterness about the episode. I have lived like a fakir all these years, with no support from anywhere. It’s only my dance that has seen me through all the tears and disappointments.”

Yet Sonal Mansingh never hesitates to laugh. “I love reading joke books and is known as a clown in my friends’ circle. People who cannot laugh have not lived,” she concludes laughing aloud.

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