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Sonal: Dance no monkey-business

Dancer Sonal Mansingh tells PRIYADARSSHINI SHARMA about the changes in the dance scene.


A FEW hours before she regaled the audience to a thrilling dance performance in the city and an hour after a long drive from Thiruvananthapuram, a visibly tired yet expressive, emotive and gracious Sonal Mansingh, Chairman, Sangeet Natak Akademi, had this to say: As a chairman, she recounted the hurt she felt, earlier this year, with the change of the Government when media reports said that she was an appointee of the previous government. "The reports hurt me a lot. Let me tell you at the height of the Cuban crisis, I danced for Cuba. The same people, the CPI(M), which has brought me here, arranged for my dance then. I danced to Pablo Neruda's poetry. America boycotted the whole thing. Other artistes shied away. And when the first consignment of medicines were sent to Cuba as aid, I was asked to hand it over. I have always performed for causes, always stood for causes, so if I am branded today as saffron, red, blue or green, I just laugh. I am not a politician. This kind of thing was never there earlier in the art field. This toxification of art is not a good sign."

This has left Sonal Mansingh a bit troubled. "Performing arts are like running water. They must keep changing like a kaleidoscope. But the basic values should remain the same. The core." And Odissi in transition she says, throws up a lot to deal with. " People in Orissa are complaining. Glamour, easy money and easy opportunities have changed Odissi into a group dance. When I was learning there was no group dance. Now it has become the norm rather than the exception. They say there is a market demand for this. So, in a group choreography one cannot do `abhinaya' and tell me when abhinaya or the `Jeeva' goes what remains. Remove abhinaya from Kathakali and what remains?"

And she, who has been a part of the change, brought about very prominent changes in classical dance and traditions, is critical of the system. " `Desh kala anusari' (according to the time and place one has to re-interpret). Brahma Muni has clearly suggested that he is carrying forward tradition, re-interpreting it and codifying it. Where was Kathakali 500 years ago? Even Bharatanatyam was not called Bharatanatyam. Rukmini Devi gave it the name."

And then one wonders, what is the protest all about?

No humility

" My Bharatanatyam guru, Prof. U.S. Krishna Rao in 1963, before my arangetram, said, `Show me the difference between a monkey and you?' A monkey can also dance. Today a lot of monkey business is going on in the name of dance. There is a total lack of humility among the young dance performers. I see a lot of arrogance. It stems from this and it is a sign of the times." So is she totally dismayed at the present scenario? "At 61, if I don't grow and mature then I have not lived rightly. I keep telling people that there is a way out. In every field one needs to show the signs. I am full of hope, full of ideas, full of joy, Thousands are dancing and lakhs and crores should be dancing but there should be a sizeable number who are committed and who preserve the core. This group is shrinking."

And what is her tribute to her guru, Kelucharan Mohapatra who passed away recently? She becomes quiet, revealing little of the strain that came between the guru and shisya. "I was one of the shortest tenure students of his, learnt only for five and a half to six years, from '67 to 72', before he literally kicked me out... on my head, when I did namaskar... because I had separated from my Oriya husband. Despite all this a guru remains a guru. It is the value instilled in us. Kelu babu, in my time was only a teacher. Then he blossomed into a performer and now he is a legend."

And back to the present, of her duties as Chairman, she confesses, "We have been terribly late in according the Annual Awards for 2003, but it is now scheduled for October 26. A puppetry exhibition and a musical instruments exhibition are on the cards just as a Young Dancers' festival is. A lot depends on the availability of funds. The post entails a lot of work. A Chairman's vision, guidance must strengthen the Akademi as it has a very large mandate. There is a tendency to become pompous so my constant reminder to my colleagues is that we are facilitators to artists and to everybody who is working towards the same goal, that is excellence and service towards art." And so far how has the journey been? "It has been very fulfilling. It is a challenge and I have always enjoyed challenges in life," she smiles and one immediately harks back to the young Sonal Mansingh who danced back to the stage after a crippling accident off staged her in the prime of her dancing career.

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