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Madam Chairman!

She conquered the world as a dancer. Now she is Chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Yet Sonal Mansingh says she is basically a housewife. ANJANA RAJAN gleans some views.


`I AM Sonal Mansingh,' she has been known to say. It is her way of saying that there is plenty in a name when it comes to hers. It is a name that in the Indian performing arts arena, says it all. It spells knowledge, hard work, success, determination; it spells Bharatanatyam and Odissi, not to mention Chhau; in her heyday it spelt giddy admiration among myriad young girls who aspired to dance like her; all along, it has spelt the jitters for her staff, as well as for the organisers of her programmes, for Madam is known to like things just so and minces no words in expressing her displeasure. It can spell hauteur with a capital H one moment and laughter out of a funfair the next. Now that she is Chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi what does it spell for the country's apex cultural body dealing with dance, music and theatre? Opinions may vary on this count. But Sonal Mansingh, who earlier never made a secret of her unflattering view of the Akademi, is circumspect when it comes to elaborating on whether she is set to give the institution a new direction. "It's not for me to say," she says. "If I set myself to do a job I do it, the results will be for everybody to see."

The Akademi's 50th anniversary celebrations came to an end in December 2003, when the outgoing Chairman Bhupen Hazarika formally passed the baton to Sonal Mansingh. As the financial year gets going, with the new General Council about to be formed, it would seem the Sangeet Natak Akademi is embarking on a new innings.

In the meantime, though, says "Chairman Madam" as she is commonly referred to, "Already people are saying nice things about the Akademi." That should come as good news to those smarting from the complaints generally made about its functioning. Among the nice things are the reactions to gestures like sending invitations a week in advance, and follow-up phone calls, which make people feel "cared for". This personal touch, says Sonal Mansingh, stems from her belief that "small things go a long way". On an all-India scale, artistes, awardees, other associates of the Akademi have under her instructions begun receiving invitations cards on a regular basis for all Akademi programmes and events, regardless of which city they are being organised in. In an era when Government bodies are forever being told to tighten the belt, this might be considered an extravagant form of politeness.

Chairman Sahiba laughs off the suggestion. "For a few extra rupees you keep up your connections. In life everything is about connecting," she points out, adding that her own NGO, the Centre for Indian Classical Dances, runs on the same principles. So home turf has only grown a bit, and she intensifies the feeling when she describes herself as "basically a housewife" and insists that "costing is now being done as astutely as a housewife" and that "unless the benefits really outstrip the cost," a project is not undertaken.

As for extra costs, the SNA has taken to employing a public relations agency to liase with the press and deliver invitations, press releases etc. While pointing out that the practice began before her tenure, Sonal Mansingh defends the decision on the grounds that "performing arts by their very nature envisage an audience," and that "if there are events that require greater outreach it is justifiable that they engage a PR agency."

The august mantle of office has not interfered with her performances. This is because, "My work is my work. This is not my paid job. I'm not an employee of the Akademi. I don't take a rupee from them." So whether it is the Natyanjali festival at Chidambaram, a smaller organisation, or for that matter an engineering college festival, she is ready to take the stage.

Besides, she avers, people don't invite her to perform because she is the Chairperson of SNA, but because she is "a damn good dancer". Chairman sahiba has adjourned the case.

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