In God's own country
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi

February 1, 2011

Guess where the country's first "national" and "world" dance museum is coming up? Not in Delhi or Mumbai or Calcutta or Chennai. But in God's own country, Kerala, in its capital city, Thiruvananthapuram and that too pretty soon. The building, called Guru Gopinath Natanagramam, has been designed by Larry Baker. The work is proceeding in earnest on three acres of land donated by the family of Kerala's iconic dancer legend, Guru Gopinath. The initiative has been taken by Kerala's odd-sounding but deeply, culturally attuned Minister for Culture, Shri MA Baby. While our very own Ashish Khokar is the Chief Consultant and has generously agreed to donate a portion of the famous Mohan Khokar Dance Collection for the museum, the Creative Director for overseeing the entire work is G Venu, the Kudiyattam expert who has taken his native place, Irinjalakuda and the legacy of his mentor, Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar to international recognition.

In an earlier Base Notes edition I had written about the 2nd APPAN event, "Into the Sacred Waters: Traditions of Body and Mind" that I had organised in the Himalayas back in 2001. The focus of it was a comparative study of India's Kudiyattam and Japan's Noh and we had managed to find and bring to India the great living legend of Noh, Fusao Okamoto to interact with Guru Ammannur and a galaxy of international experts. Luckily, Guruji came for the full 10 days of the residency along with Venu, his talented wife, Nirmala Panikar and Kapila, their daughter who is now a Kudiyattam star and more at NSD and abroad than in Kerala's backwaters! So successful was that experiment between Noh and Kudiyattam that only recently a full-fledged 20 member team of authentic Noh performers came to Kerala for an event organized by Venu-ji, refusing to go anywhere else in India. 2001 was also the year when Kudiyattam was honoured by UNESCO and became the first awardee of the UNESCO Intangible Heritage award. It was also the year when a resident leopard at Banikhet, the venue of the Himalayan meet, sat on his haunches, just outside the circle of the audience, to watch Ammannur Madhava Chakyar aged 84, perform, bare chested, with full makeup, for almost an hour, listening to the mizahvu drums and the sound of the dance. His trance ended when the dance ended and he sauntered back into the forest!

When curtain went up on Natanagramam last week, a number of arts specialists and performers like Padma Subrahmanyam, Lakshmi Vishwanathan, Rustom Bharucha, Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao, Prof. Nandakumar, Dr. KG Paulose, Dr. Sunil Kothari besides Ashish and Venu-ji were on hand in Thiruvananthapuram for an experts' meet. Guru Gopinath's erudite family, his daughter Vinodini (the other, Vilasini is a Secretary level officer in Delhi), Vinodini's husband, another senior IAS officer and several local arts personalities were there to lend a hand to the museum's Secretary, Sudarshan D to shape a worthy institution for both dance and Kerala. The Minister, Shri Baby inaugurated the meeting.

In days to come the Guru Gopinath Museum, I have no doubt, will become a living, breathing, inspiring ode to dance. Like other great museums of the world, the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame in Washington, in so many coubntries around the world, it will no doubt house a growing collection of photographs, videos, artifacts, costumes, biographies and archives comprising a contemporary and retrospective examination on seminal contributions for the general public. It will recogtnise dancers and choreographers from all parts of India but specially from Kerala and it will ensure a great future for dance, not just preserve the past.

Two encounters with Kerala outside the museum's focus made a deep imprint on my psyche. One was a meeting with the erstwhile Maharaja of Travancore, the 86 year old Raja Martand Varma, grand-nephew of Raja Ravi Varma. The other was a visit to Daksha Sheth's home in one of the suburbs of Thiruvananthapuram. I will get back to both in the next edition of Base Notes.

Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, India's most important mainstream English dailies, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture.

She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, India's national television, as well as the selection committees of several prestigious government bodies involved in culture such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Department of Culture. She was a member of the Tenth Five Year Plan Committee for Cultural Policy and of the First National Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Singh has authored several best selling books on Indian arts such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor,' 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique,' 'Nanak, The Guru' and 'America and You' (22 editions).

As elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network) for the past nine years, she has individually organized and helped her team of eminent artistes to organize eight international symposiums and festivals in several Asian countries and in the United States. APPAN, set up in 1999 by UNESCO, has, with the collaboration of UNESCO, pioneered the concept of delivering stress therapy, in particular in disaster-prone situations such as the tsunami and earthquake victims. The pilot project of this series was done under her leadership in four Asian countries after the tsunami of 2005 and another for the cyclone affected of Myanmar in 2008. Singh is the founder-Secretary of The World Culture Forum-India and Director of WCF-India's first Global WCF to be held in New Delhi in 2011.