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Ashish Mohan Khokar: Too many awards mean less quality
- Lalitha Venkat

December 14, 2008

Reputed dance historian and critic Ashish Mohan Khokar is one of his generation today, with credible outreach and output (over 20 books plus attendance - the yearbook on dance) and continues to serve the cause of dance heritage. He teaches, lectures, presents, conducts dance and its history classes for universities and special interest groups (journalists, NGOs, art schools) in India and abroad. He remains devoted to the dance art, gifted to him by his parents, the pioneering Mohan Khokar and M K Saroja. He is Bangalore based.

What is the role of Ramayana in the performing arts?
Indian arts, especially traditional dance forms, are based on and borne out of divinity and mythology. Thus, the two epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata) play an integral part to its depiction. Just as Mahabharata is fodder for Kathakali, Ramayana has a prime place of importance in Kathak and Bharatanatyam, especially after saint-composers like Tulsidas and Tygaraja composed and sang several poems in praise of Rama and other Ramayana characters. When we were growing up in north India, as part of our Hindu discourse and cultural upbringing, few children would go to bed without listening to some tale from either of the two epics, though the Ramayana was easier to recall and remember as Mahabharata had too many characters! Our spiritual guru daily recited two chaupies from Goswami Tulsidas' Ramayana and thus we learnt a lot about dharma and karma through such tales and scriptures. In dance, the bhakti rasa -- which very few dancers are sincerely capable of these days -- comes through more effectively in Ramayana.

You attend many seminars and conferences all the time. Do you think anything useful has come out of these?
I used to earlier, not so many of late as my books take a lot of time and require focus and thus I cannot afford to travel and break the continuity when a book is underway. I am also rather selective now. Seminars can be useful if well prepared and delivered. Seminars and conferences, can throw some new light or voice or direction. Such seminars also become a refresher course for serious dance observers and historians who can view the same subject in a new light. Seminars depend on the content and composition and how far speakers stick to topic.

I was at the first NKC when Padma Subrahmanyam conducted with finesse. Her guru, vadyar Ramaiah Pillai arrived with much aplomb and was almost mobbed! Such was the star appeal of star gurus. Those were the glorious years of Indian dance discourse.
Another landmark year at NKC was when Leela Samson conducted it. The entire proceedings had class and content and she did it with discernment and distinction. Anita Ratnam too was in charge one year and extended the scope somewhat by including parallel events.

At some seminars, gurus are asked to speak. Sometimes, good or great gurus are not necessarily good speakers. Soon dance seminars will become a meeting point for socializing only.

The importance of conferences like the Natya Kala Conference...
NKC is unique and it remains an important event in the annual calendar of dance and has largely done justice to the proceedings. Over the years, its selection of conveners has become younger and they are showing their mettle. Look at this year's topic and overall get-up! Dynamic dancer Ananda Shankar Jayant, who has worked very hard to reach where she has professionally, with no godfathers and sugar daddys, brings in an eclectic assemblage. On the whole, the event looks to be a handsome effort. 'Retired' dancers (is there any such breed?) - Zohra Segal, Ritha Devi, Maya Rao, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Yog Sunder or senior-scholarly ones like Kanak Rele, Kumudini Lakhia, Birju Maharaj are worthy examples - with atleast 50 years of practical experience, or senior gurus, should be asked to conduct in order we learn something more than trivia.

What do you think of the umpteen awards that are being given every December season? Are not such awards losing significance because of there being too many?
You have answered the question! Awards, like reputations, have to be earned, in order to have value or meaning. Today, with a plethora of avenues and awards, the relevance (of awards) is lost. Too many awards mean less quality. And what use are these titles? Except for major ones, we don't even recall some. Even the Padma awards have become suspect and lost sheen, so what of these local, seasonal awards?

Your comment on the Chennai December season.
Quantity over quality. For the general public, new entrant and the NRIs, it' a feast! It is like going to a mithai shop and not knowing what to buy and what to eat! But can one eat mithai or wedding food 12 hours a day for 30 days without suffering acidity, diarrhea or indigestion? Normal human beings may find it too much of a good thing and stay away for most parts and partake only what can be digested. But it is an amazing spread and for the month and half now, Madras is all decked up and dancing! Enjoy.


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