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Yog Sunder: The dancer extraordinary

December 4, 2020

Yog Sunder, a dance phenomenon of this land, is no more, leaving behind an incredibly rich outcrop of dance events. He passed away just a few months short of 100 years of age. This critic came to know him intimately over the last 50 years, even persuaded to be a (quite passive) Vice President for his 'Indian Revival Group' (IRG) for a while. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth in a royal family of Gujarat, he was exposed early in life to the Spartan Gandhian principles - including participation in the Banar Sena (Monkey Brigade) during the Bardouli movement-and he followed these tenets throughout his own life.

The consequence was that he maintained a frugal life-style all along and, in fact, never had a permanent address for his brainchild IRG founded in 1948 -- and gloriously active ever since -- barring a modest flat at Delhi's Vasant Kunj bought in his sunset years. When, after the Asiad Games in 1982, sumptuous twin cottages (with garden space) in the posh Asiad Village were offered to eminent artists (and art-related persons) at hugely concessional terms, he laughed away gentle persuasions from many well-wishers, including this critic, to utilise his considerable political clout and obtain one of them. Similarly, he declined to make discrete efforts to secure allotment of land at the trans-Yamuna Artists' Colony, or elsewhere, to build for IRG "a local habitation and a name", -- preferring to retain his self-effacing manner of living all along.

The trait of 'plain living and high thinking' characterized him throughout his life, even while he would team up, early in life, with fellow artistes and form cooperative ventures for producing innovative dance-dramas. He would faithfully share the profits equally with his partners, but end up owning the losses to be paid from his pockets, with the joint ventures eventually winding up after a few stage shows. At least, this was the scenario for the first few creative years in the 1940s till he stabilised with IRG after a brief stint with the legendary Ram Gopal and began his accomplishing a string of 'firsts' in the dance map of the country.

He was the first to undertake in 1959-60, a remarkably long journey by land route of the Central Asian countries from Afghanistan to Yemen, mostly arriving without prior arrangements, establishing a 'bonhomie' and performing in the terra incognita, ending up in Gaza where he organised shows for the UN troops. In the 1950s, his was the first troupe to perform dance-dramas for the Indian TV. In 1957, his IRG was the first to perform in the Rashtrapati Bhavan for the first President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, and follow it up with a prestigious sequel there for the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri, and the State guest Jaqueline Kennedy. IRG was the first group to be sponsored in 1958 for a highly successful dance tour of the USSR. In later years, IRG was the first to organise a 'Dance Festival of India in the UK'. And this went on, always discovering new territories like Jordan, Lebanon, et al., not to mention multiple trips to UK, USA and other Western countries.

Sitting in the porch of his residence in Delhi's Feroz Shah Road or, later, in North Avenue - where he shared rented accommodation in the MPs' bungalows, having always an acceptability to the political class, thanks to his royal lineage and strong Gandhian streak -- he would relate the anecdotes of IRG's first ever dance trips to the forward areas of Indian Defense, especially in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. "Our dancers would wear snow jackets and army boots", he said laughingly. "We would perform on make-shift stages made of Army trucks flattened up and would arrange our lighting by putting on the headlights of a few other vehicles!"

IRG had a hugely varied repertoire, starting with Dances of India, later transformed into a highly successful Rhythms of India. Over time, he concentrated on the country's rich folkdances making up an extraordinary display of our authentic folk heritage throughout the length and breadth of this sub-continent, and performing even in the countryside, as enjoined by Gandhi. A favourite early theme of his was using Nata and Nati, to string together the entire presentation as Ramala and Ramali inspired by the Bhaona folk form of his state Gujarat. Another landmark composition of his was Life Divine based on Tagore's English poem The Child penned around the theme of Christ. Also, owing to his early association with Shantiniketan, he was quite fond of putting up Tagore's "Shyama" (with this critic doing the commentary) and other oeuvre of Tagore.

Talking about Tagore, he loved to relate his hilarious experience of handling Sadhana Bose, the ace dancer of Bengali screen, famous as the dancer-maid Marjina in the film Alibaba, opposite Abdala by Madhu Bose, her future husband. She was one of Bengal's famous sister-trio, the other two being Naina Devi, the noted Thumri singer, and Sahana Devi, the doyen among Tagore song custodians, who later settled in Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. Sadhana was quite a prima donna despite her halcyon days on the celluloid being over and, hired by IRG, had to be "handled with care". In 1948, Tagore's famous poem Abhisar (the Tryst) was under production by IRG as a dance-drama, where the opening scene had the Buddhist saint Upagupta (Yog Sunder) seen sleeping under the perimeter walls of Mathurapuri, until the city's beauteous courtesan Vasavadatta (Sadhana Bose), out on a secret rendezvous with her lover, stumbled over Upagupta's reclining body and the hermit sat up startled. At that signal, the live music (under orchestration by Timir Baran, the internationally known musician for Uday Shankar) had to stop with a loud bang. Now, it turned out that Sadhana was suddenly disgusted with an involuntary gesture of Yog Sunder shoving his finger inside his nostril and she conspired to teach him a lesson by dancing on and on, without hitting Yog Sunder at all and thus spoiling the entire show! During the actual performance, when the clueless Yog Sunder was lying down, Sadhana kept on whirling past him to dance around, with the live music at her toe. After this happened a few times, Yog Sunder could realise that something was amiss and just sprang up erect when Sadhana came near next. The live orchestra took the cue to stop and the dramatic action could go on. The spectators never had a clue, and a huge embarrassment was saved!

Indian Revival Group

On another occasion, Sadhana found her new costume defective one night while performing and resolved not to continue the sold out show. During intermission, she just discarded her attire outside the green room and walked in to shut herself up without a thread on her body. The opening bell for the second act was about to ring and the theatre staff panicked, lest the audience got a sense of the show suddenly stopping midstream. Somebody very sensibly called her husband Madhu Bose forthwith who, in turn, placated her by promising to call the makers, B Brothers, immediately and definitely set right the costume overnight. Sadhana relented and the show could go on!

Yog Sunder, always cheerful and never self assertive, was a founthead of many such tales - full of wit and sparkling humour -- culled from his long, eventful life. With a record of having put up 5,000 cultural shows and having mounted 250 full-blooded foreign trips for IRG, the iconic dancer received perhaps far less recognition than was his due. With a solitary award from Sangeet Natak Akademi, he literally left this world "unwept, unsung and unhonoured.."

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.

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