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`I am because I dance'

At a dazzling 61, Sonal Mansingh has her enthusiasm and concerns intact

— Photo: K. Gopinathan



Sonal Mansingh: `If you know on which street your house is located, you can go out and come back. The new generation has become homeless.'

"I'LL TELL you a story I've told a thousand times, but it's a story which has merited every telling," assures Sonal Mansingh. The lucid storyteller in the dancer instinctively emerging to shape images in my mind.

The stunning 61-year-old nimble dancer numbs you with her doe-eyed look and stark sindoori tika, glowing skin, and most importantly, bubbling energy. Who would believe she's been a master in both Odissi and Bharatanatyam for over 40 years now, and still is, when most Indian women her age can't walk from arthritis or osteoporosis? She was in the city hoping to melt a few hearts for a cause.

We are midway into our talk and just embarked on a conversation on talent hunts for `item bombs' when Sonal Mansingh bestows on me a stark expression of disapproval on the phrase I used and launches into the story in response.

Life breath

With a body language and oratory skill as engaging as her performances, she says: "It was 1961 and I was preparing for my arangetram in Bangalore; I was all of 16." She was working hard, practising her naayika bhaava, where she had to physically express the dialogue between the soul and God, asking to be rescued from viraha (separation). "Today at 11, young girls are very knowledgeable about life, but I was a bewakoof then. I wouldn't get the emotions and expressions right at all, and my guruji, U.S. Krishna Rao, was annoyed during one rehearsal." He decided to cancel the arangetram. At that moment, there was a knock on the door. It was a madaari with his drum and monkey. Her guru asked her: "What is this?" She said what she saw: a monkey dancing. "He then asked: `Show me the difference between the monkey and you.' That's when I understood what he meant."

Concluding her outrage against item numbers: "The word nritya has so many dimensions, I don't think the English equivalent `dance' conveys it all. When you know the rules, you can break them. The jhatkas, matkas, and sexuality of these item numbers are an invitation that says `look at me, my boobs, and butt'. Beyond that there's nothing."

The woman, who credits her very existence to dance, "I am because I dance", was in the city to promote the Bangalore International Art Festival that also celebrates the Roerich Centenary. Sonal Mansingh gave a dance presentation choreographed on the theme HIV/AIDS.


Known to keep up with the times and not just be caught in a glorious past, Sonal has already caught up with Pamela Rooks' film, Dance Like A Man, based on Mahesh Dattani's play. "I liked the movie in parts... I've also seen the play. But the dancing is weak in parts," she proffers. She has her reservations about scenes where the protagonists' child is fed opium. Like a character in the film says, is dance still a woman's world? Odissi and Bharatanatyam have seen a predominance of women dancers because they have largely been associated with the devadasi system and the style is structured in such a way that it suits a woman's body better.

"I wonder what the message is in totality, but I'm happy at least there's a movie on dance!" And slips into nostalgia again as she recalls days when dancers danced in films— Roshan Kumari in Ray's Jalsaghar, Birju Mahraj's choreography for Shatranj Ke Khiladi . "Today what we see is a big joke. It's sacrilege. We deserve better."

She's not against change. In fact she's very much in agreement with Bharata's Natyashastra, which says dance changes `desha kaalaanusara' (in keeping with place and time), she tells me. "Art always develops and reinvents itself according to time and place, or it becomes stagnant and dies. The core remains the same, the interpretation reshapes itself, much like a kaleidoscope. But there are certain maryadas in every art tradition, and knowing the limits and propriety of presentation is crucial."

`Bring back dance'

Sonal Mansingh longs to bring classical dance and music and our cultural ethos back into our education system. "I'm branded a communalist with a saffron agenda when I say this. In my Gujarati-medium school, such subjects were compulsory. Why do we have to look up to the `great ideal' of the West? We are always so apologetic about our culture... I don't understand it." She believes that at least in school, children must have a sense of identity and their own culture. "If you know on which street your house is, you can go out and come back. The new generation has become beghar (homeless)."

BHUMIKA K.

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