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Watch dance, it will give you joy: Dr. Sunil Kothari's life in dance
- Shveta Arora
Photos: Dr. Kothari's archives

September 22, 2018

Photo: Anoop Arora

Dr. Sunil Kothari received the Sangeet Natak Akademi fellowship from the President in January this year, but his is a name that has been associated with dance since the 1950s. This intellectual personage, frail, with greying hair and an affable smile, is a well-known figure in dance circles. A dance scholar, critic and author, he has travelled extensively in India and abroad for his work and penned many books. The story of how he came to be associated with dance and the people who have enabled him on this journey is told in most part by Dr.Kothari himself, and some information taken from others who have chronicled it.

Sunilbhai, as many in the dance community call him, was born on 20 December 1933, in Mumbai in a "middle-class bania Gujarati family" (in his own words) to Dahiben and Manilal Kothari. He was the youngest boy among 10 siblings - 7 boys and 3 girls. The family were Vaishnavas, and that is how he ended up spending ten months of his childhood living in Nathdwara, where there is a major temple dedicated to Shrinathji and Yamuna Maharani.

"When I was four years old, my parents took me with them to Shri Nathdwara near Udaipur, Rajasthan, where we stayed for some ten months in a dharamshala near the big temple. My mother taught me the Yamunashtakam in Sanskrit by giving me one copper paisa with a hole per shloka (that was recited correctly), and I thought I was richer by 8 paisa! Mother used to laugh and say, 'Being a bania, he thinks of money, but does not know that Sanskrit will stand by him for life.'

With my parents, I saw all the rituals - the Ashta Ayam Darshan in the temple, the celebrations of hindola, palana, Annakuta, rath - and learnt the seasonal songs by Ashtachaap Sakha poet Surdas and others in Brajbhasha. Besides, I learnt by heart more Sanskrit shlokas and developed a love for Sanskrit language and literature. Mother used to dress me up and I used to dance, throwing around my limbs in every direction. I responded to the pakhavaj played in the temple and loved the Brajbhasha kirtanas rendered there. I think these early responses led me to learning dance later, when my eldest brother engaged a Kathak teacher to teach me dance," Sunilbhai says. Till date, he can recite the entire Yamunashtakam.

Dr. Sunil Kothari with his
Guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai (March 2016)

After SSC, the young Sunil completed his matriculation in 1950. He joined Wilson College in then Bombay for a BA in Arts. His dance education continued alongside, and in college, he would perform Kathak on stage. But his cultural interests were wide-ranging and went beyond dance - he was very fond of Gujarati and English literature. Kalidasa would attract him particularly. Clearly, a literary bent was apparent right from the beginning. He did his MA in Gujarati and Sanskrit, and then completed his CA, which was what he chose as his profession - or so he thought.

The journey in dance
His first brush with dance was in his childhood, at the Nathdwara temple, where he gravitated to music and sahitya. Later, as a college-going student, he studied classical dance. "When I saw Bharatanatyam dancers Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini - otherwise known as the Travancore Sisters - I fell for it and decided to learn it from traditional Guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai, son of Kuppaiah Pillai, whose institution Rajarajeshwari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir at Matunga, was well-known," Sunilbhai recounts about his college years.

His interest in Kathak was aroused after seeing Sitara Devi dance, and he learnt it at Deodhar's music and dance classes at Opera House. This also exposed him to the fact that a solo dancer can play multiple roles. His interest in dance only grew during the time he was doing his CA. It was through his reading of Marg magazine and Mohan Khokar's articles that he learnt of other dance forms.

In her article 'Bridging the gap between artists and the common man' (Asian Age, April 3, 2018), Odissi guru Sharon Lowen writes, "The ethereal vision of Manipuri Ras on Kartik Purnima seen in Imphal made Sunil resolve to give up what felt like a useless life as a Nariman Point chartered accountant. The 1959 or 1960 scholarship to travel to the Northeast to document Manipuri, Sattriya and other forms was the beginning of his full time commitment to his life as a dance critic and scholar."

He has met many stalwarts of dance in his long career, making him a living encyclopaedia of their styles and stature, but a few of them stand out.

Mulk Raj Anand

Prof Krishnamurthy, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Dr. Sunil Kothari and Dr. Mulk Raj Anand.
In March 1980 at India International Centre, Delhi, when Marg book on Bharatanatyam edited by Dr.Kothari was released.

The eminent writer Mulk Raj Anand became one of Sunilbhai's greatest influences. He was among the first and most prominent Indian writers writing in English, chronicling the lives of Indians in a new way accessible to the west. He was also the founder of Marg magazine, and encouraged the young Sunil in his writing on dance. The Marg magazine was founded in 1946, with a focus on the arts and civilizations. Sunilbhai called Anand 'Mulk Uncle', and did features on classical dances for his magazine. Anand was a great source of encouragement to Sunilbhai, even as his family insisted that he pursue a career in chartered accountancy and earn a handsome living.

Recounting these details in her article (quoted above), Lowen writes that it became a part of the young man's routine to read everything on dance that he could find at the Bombay Library before going to work. "In Beryl D. Zoete's 1953 book 'The Other Mind: A Study of Dance in South India', he came across the analogy in a Buddhist story of the joy of watching a fish jump in the water, making the philosophical comparison that writing about dance can approach the joy of having seen it for readers," she writes. He had a part-time job as an accounting lecturer/professor, so he could devote more time to dance (in this article, she chronicles many more aspects of his professional journey in dance).

Rukmini Devi Arundale
"The first time I met Rukmini Devi in Mumbai was at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in 1957, and seeing her Sita Swayamvaram, I was bowled over," Sunilbhai recounts. "I had never seen such an aesthetic dance production, classical Carnatic music, wonderful costumes and young Dhananjayan, Balagopal, Adyar K. Lakshman and others from Kalakshetra. I met her personally in 1958 at the All-India Dance Seminar in Delhi, and visited Kalakshetra in 1959 on behalf of Sur Singar Samsad to bring their dance dramas to Mumbai. She used to visit Mumbai and stay with Maganbhai Vyas, principal of the New Era School, as Maganbhai was a Theosophist, like Rukmini Devi. She invited me to join Kalakshetra also, but I was to complete my CA (in Lowen's article, it is suggested that Sunilbhai's mother disapproved of his decision to go, and he still regrets not taking that opportunity).

"She corresponded with me, writing letters in her own beautiful handwriting. I read a lot about her and whenever I could, I met her and if she was free, spent time with her watching rehearsals at Kalakshetra. Over the years, I won her confidence. She helped me with my PhD in dance, inviting me to stay in Kalakshetra. Interacting with her, I learnt a lot about Indian aesthetics, good taste, and the quality of dance literature and mythology. She took to me kindly. She liked my books on Bharatanatyam, Chhau, Kathak and other dances. She encouraged me to do my field work and meet great gurus. Besides my biological mother, she was another mother figure, as was Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya."

Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya
"The Jhaveri Sisters introduced me to Kamala Devi when I attended the All-India Dance Seminar in 1958. We often met in Mumbai, with Navin Khandwalla of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for Natya Sangh. Her life was amazing and I was most impressed knowing that she did not want any ministerial position when Nehru offered her one. She encouraged me to write more research books and admired my passion for dance. She took me into her inner circle and I used to look after her. She was Chairman of SNA, and I had joined as Assistant Director for Dance. During her tenure, I travelled with her a lot. Her care and worry about puppeteers and artists was touching. Her understanding of handicrafts was phenomenal. When I travelled with her to Masulipattanam, she showed me how kalamkari and block printing are done. Through an association with her, one came to know the textiles of our country, handwoven saris and what have you. She treated me like a son and spoke often about the women in Andhra who were not allowed to put on chappals (footwear). She wrote to Mahatma Gandhi about this injustice and saw to it that the upper caste did not harass women. She too had high aesthetic taste and dressed well; she always put a red rose or a flower in her hair. Her conversations were more about social evils, even then, and today, it is fashionable to speak about feminism. She was a feminist without waving a flag. I have been lucky in my life to have two such mothers."

Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan
In a talk given at the Natya Vriksha World Dance Day celebrations a few years ago, Sunilbhai said that he was very fortunate that at the age of 22-23, as a clapper boy for Mohan Khokar, he got to meet Kapila Vatsyayan. He said he still feels thankful to Mohan Khokar and Mulk Raj Anand to have taken him along to the festival where he met her. It was a great time, he said, and in the night, they would sit to watch Odissi, Sattriya, Mohiniattam and other dance forms.

With Dr.Kapila Vatsyayan (April 2016)

Vatsyayan had done a wonderful article on Bharatanatyam in a magazine called Two Worlds, and he had translated her work from English to Gujarati. When he met her, her personality impressed him a lot. She wore a white sari and was talking very vivaciously to Mrinalini Sarabhai in Gujarati. Vatsyayan was doing a paper on dance and sculpture at the time. Eventually, he says, she also became like a mother figure to him, as did Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay.

"They saw the potential in me," he said. "All my borrowed books were from them, and they blessed me for my good work. Kapilaji used to work so much at that time that it was amazing, and I would feel very small. Now that she praises my work, it is a great blessing. She had a great bond with Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi. They all shared love and respect for each other. Insights for many of the books that I wrote came from Kapilaji. She would take my paper for PhD and throw it away. She would even make corrections and cross-references, like Ladli was corrected to Ladli Sharan, who is a famous rasdhari. 'You can't make a mistake about references,' she told me."

"Balamma was a rare human being and a great dancer. It was Chandralekha who introduced me to her. They were great friends as their nattuvangam was done by Ellappa Pillaii. Balamma was kind and indulged me. She allowed Dasharath Patel to take several photos for me for my book on Bharatanatyam. I had written articles on her which she had liked. When I learnt that she liked dolls, I always brought them from many countries I visited, and she carefully kept them in a cupboard, which we can see in Satyajit Ray's film 'Bala'."

A rare photo of Guru Ramayya Pillai and Balasaraswati being honoured by Dr.Mulk Raj Anand at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai, during release of Dr.Kothari's book on Bharatanatyam (1979)

There's a very interesting anecdote that he relates about her. At a festival that he attended with Mohan Khokar, in the evening, Balasaraswati was supposed to perform. But Bala was adamant that she did not want a picture of hers taken. In fact, she stopped and told them to go away, since she wanted to concentrate on her work. He narrates her fierce insistence on practising her art without the distractions of modern dance presentations. He was totally taken in by Bala doing the sanchari bhava in Krishna nee begane baro, and Shambhu Maharaj's solo, at this festival.

"Many years later, she readily agreed to sing for my paper presentation on 'Dance of Shiva' when her daughter Lakshmi danced at the International Dance Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii. I consider that as one of the most memorable moments in my life. International scholar Joseph Campbell, who has translated Zimmer's volumes on Indian art and sculptures, was there, as were others like Faubion Bowers, Kapila Vatsyayan and Mohan Khokar. I was grateful to Balamma for agreeing to sing for me. Whenever I visited Chennai, I used to call on her, and request her to sing, and she would readily sing. What more can one ask for in life? She always explained the subtle nuances of abhinaya whenever I asked her. These are memories that one can never forget. To win the affection of such legendary artists is great luck and one has learnt a lot from them."

Avinash Pasricha

The two friends featured in same month in a calendar

"For the Kuchipudi, Odissi and Kathak books on dance, Avinash Pasricha partnered with me for the photography. Avinash would travel and click pictures for me. Initially, we would fight over what the best picture would be - Avinash would want a good picture, and I would want a picture appropriate for the dance. Gradually, however, as we worked together, we began to admire each other's profession," is what Sunilbhai said at the World Dance Day talk about the fellow SNA awardee and old friend.

When asked what about his work has given him the most satisfaction, and what message he would like to give young dancers, writers and critics, he says: "If you are fortunate to identify what interests you most and will give you satisfaction in your work, go and pursue it. Whatever difficulties you face, you will get the energy to overcome them. Your friends and well-wishers will support you. Put your best into what you want to do. There are no shortcuts to excellence. Aim high and you will, with perseverance, reach the goal. But after reaching the goal, do not be complacent. Continue your work and interest like a musician or a dancer would do riyaz. Remain in company of artists, writers, scholars, and as a dance critic, continue to watch dance, as it will give you joy. If there is no space in print media, write for online portals on dance, create our own blog, share with like-minded persons. Do not ever be vindictive or settle scores with dancers through your criticism. Cultivate a healthy attitude.

I have received so much affection and love from artists, and honours came my way without seeking them, as good work is noticed by the powers that be. You must have abiding faith in what you do. Whatever they might say, moksha is in your work, and you can achieve nirvana. Be happy, avoid jealousy. Be happy that you are doing your job as sincerely as possible. People around you understand it and admire it. Through your books and writings, serve the cause of your chosen art field."

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