Senior Odissi dancer Ritha Devi, aged 92, passed away at 2.30am on September 12, 2017 at Sancheti Hospital, Pune. A great grand-niece of Tagore, she trained in many dance styles - Manipuri from Howbom Athomba Singh at Kolkata, Bharatanatyam from Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai in Chennai, Mohiniattam from Kalamandalam Lakshmi and Kathakali from Karunakaran Panikkar in Mumbai, Odissi from Pankaj Charan Das in Puri and Kuchipudi from Vempati Chinna Satyam besides learning Kathak and Sattriya. She is however most renowned as a pioneer in the revival and international projection of the Mahari tradition of the Odissi style. She is known for her revival of the ‘Panchakanya’ solo dance-dramas about the tragic lives of Ahalya, Draupadi, Tara, Kunti and Mandodari from the traditional Mahari repertoire, and presenting all five of them in a marathon four-hour performance in Mumbai in August 1971.
She was a contemporary of Yamini Krishnamurthi and Indrani Rehman. She performed extensively in India and abroad and lived in the US for a few years. She received many honours and awards from reputed cultural organizations of Bombay and Orissa, and research grants from the Central Government Sangeet Natak Akademi, which has also video-taped some of her dances, both traditional as well as those choreographed by her, for their archives. Ritha Devi has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from Guru Pankaj Charan Das Odissi Dance Academy (2005) and Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Academy of Dance (2009).
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Mala Gaur, Goa's prime Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher, passed away on the night of 8th September 2017 of cancer.
Veteran art critic, author and scholar, and former vice chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Shanta Serbjeet Singh passed away on August 2, 2017 at New Delhi, after a period of illness. She was 81. She was married to noted artist Serbjeet Singh, and is survived by two sons, a daughter-in-law and a grandson.
Shanta Serbjeet Singh was an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Berkeley, California and earlier did her A.B. from Western College for Women, Oxford, Ohio in Political Science and English Hons from Calcutta University. For twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, Shanta Serbjeet Singh was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi (2001) and Delhi Govt.’s Sahitya Kala Parishad for her contribution to the field of culture (2002). She was the founder-secretary of the World Culture Forum and Chair of the UNESCO created NGO APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network), a position to which she was appointed in 2001. Shanta Serbjeet Singh was on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, the highest body for grading performing artistes, as well as on the apex Accreditation Committee of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
She authored several well-known publications such as ‘Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor’ (published by Ravi Kumar, Paris), ‘The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique’ (Sterling Publishers, to mark India’s fiftieth anniversary of Independence), ‘Nanak, The Guru’ (Oxford University Press) and ‘America and You’ (22 editions).
Kathak dancer Veronique Azan passed away in Bali on 2nd August 2017. She was 53. Born in France, she moved with her parents to Varanasi, India, when she was about 7. She began her training at Varanasi, under the guidance of Guru Alakananda (sister of Sitara Devi), and completed it at the Kathak Kendra in Delhi with Pt Birju Maharaj. She participated in many dance dramas of Kathak Kendra directed by Pt Birju Maharaj and gave many solo performances at prestigious venues, like at the Avignon Festival in France (1995). She was known for her excellent command over tala and laya and subtleties of Kathak.
Alarmel Valli’s mother and patron Uma Muthukumaraswamy, passed away on July 31, 2017 in Chennai. She had been ailing for some time. Her interest in literature, music and dance made her a total supporter of art and artistes. Her understanding of both English and Tamil literature was an invaluable element in Alarmel Valli’s choreographic work and style. She hailed from an important business family and Alarmel Valli is her only child whose 60th birthday she celebrated last September in her classy, understated style. Uma was not only a loving mother, mentor, guide and discerning critic, but also an arts administrator and manager for her daughter’s performances in India and abroad. She single mindedly committed her life to nurturing and shaping her daughter’s spectacular dance career.
Koothu and Koodiyattam artist Painkulam Damodara Chakyar passed away in Bangalore on July 26, 2017. He was 82. After the demise of his uncle and first guru Rama Chakyar, he moved away from Koodiyattam and started performing Chakyar Koothu. Damodara Chakyar was the uncrowned monarch of Prabandha Koothu for over half a century. He received the Kerala Kalamandalam Award (2004), Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi Award (2006) and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award from Government of India (2012).
Prince Braj Bhanu Singh Deo, dancer, patron and promoter of Seraikella Chhau, passed away on June 15, 2017.
Mohiniattam Guru Kalamandalam Leelamma passed away after a prolonged illness on June 15, 2017 at Thrissur. Leelamma learnt Mohiniattam at Kerala Kalamandalam and later became a teacher there. She also trained in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. She held post of chairperson of various examinations of Mohiniattam in various universities and was a member of the syllabus committee for the faculty of fine arts of Sree Sankara Sanskrit University, Kalady and served for two years as Reader in the same University. She was one of the subject experts for the selection of talented youth, who are eligible to get scholarship in Mohiniattam sponsored by cultural department, Govt. of India. She has performed in a documentary ‘Dance d’enchantress’ directed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan and in ‘Nirmalayam’ directed by M.T. Vasudevan Nair. She innovated more than 80 new adavus for Mohiniattam and choreographed around 100 new items, various padams, poems and dance drama for different occasions. She founded her own institution Swathi Chithra in Thrissur District, Kerala. For her senior fellowship from the Cultural Department, Govt. of India, her topic was “New styles in Mohiniattam introducing compositions other than the generally accepted ones”. She was honoured with the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi Award (1990), Kerala Kalamandalam Award (2007) to name a few.
Writer, researcher and policy advisor Naseem Khan, who was known for her historic contribution to the diverse arts and culture policy in the UK, passed away on June 8, 2017. She was at the forefront of Britain’s cultural change as commentator, policy developer and initiator for over thirty years. Her 1980 research paper on ‘The Arts Britain ignores’ ignited the entire funding process for South Asian arts in the U.K. After seven years as Head of Diversity for Arts Council England, she returned to freelance life in 2003 to run her own consultancy, KC. She was a founder-member of the pilot network, ‘Taking up Space,’ a group of practitioners working with the arts at grassroots level. She was one of five Women of the Decade in the Arts in 1993 and was awarded the OBE for her work in 1999.
Thappattam artist Thanjai R. Rengarajan passed away on May 30, 2017. He played a key role of Shiva in the Arangham production Gajaanana choreographed by Anita Ratnam and has led many group thapattam performances all over India. He received the Kalai Sudar Mani award in 2004.
Bharatanatyam guru Muralidhar Rao passed away on May 1, 2017. An eminent exponent of the Pandanallur school, he gave it a new dimension through his research and experiments.
Rani Jayalakshmi Nachiyar, the dancer Pandanallur Jayalakshmi (1930-2017), a star disciple of Guru Meenakshisundaram Pillai, passed away in the second week of March. She was married to the Rajah of Ramanathapuram who proposed to her after seeing her performance at the Rameswaram temple. She was known for her subtle abhinaya, sense of laya, the speed of her footwork and amazing grace.
Born in 1938 in Colombo, Srilanka, Bharatanatyam guru Neila Sathyalingam, founder director of Apsaras Arts, Singapore, passed away on March 9, 2017 in Singapore, in her sleep. She was 79.
At the age of 18, she enrolled in Kalakshetra, Chennai, under the tutelage of its founder Rukmini Devi Arundale, graduating with a first-class honours diploma in Bharatanatyam and she also completed the Post Graduate diploma with honours. Neila was appointed as one of the faculty members for dance at Kalakshetra and was cast in many roles in the six part Ramanyana series choreographed by Rukmini Devi Arundale and toured with Kalakshetra. Her association with Kalakshetra as a student and a faculty member was from 1955 to 1975. Together with her husband S. Sathyalingam, also a Kalakshetra graduate and faculty member in music, she founded Apsaras Arts in Singapore in 1977, for promotion of Indian traditional art forms in multiracial Singapore, with influences from South East Asia.
She worked as a dance instructor and choreographer with the People's Association for decades, choreographing dance segments for 13 consecutive Chingay parades from 1994 to 2007, and also taught at community centres. In 1989, Neila Sathyalingam received the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest arts honour, for her contribution to the arts scene. She was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame in Singapore, and has been acknowledged as the Pioneer of the Arts in Singapore in 2015, in conjunction with the nation’s golden jubilee celebrations. In 2002, Neila and her husband Sathyalingam handed over Apsaras Arts to Aravinth Kumarasamy as their succession plan appointing him as its Artistic Director. Apsaras Arts transformed into a premier professional performing company, employing full-time dancers, focusing on creating new works which are presented at international festivals around the globe.
Veteran exponent of Mohiniattam, Guru Kalamandalam Chandrika passed away in Calicut Medical College Hospital, Kerala, after a brief illness, on January 22, 2017. Kalamandalam founder Vallathol himself was her mentor. She dedicated her life to teaching and produced many dance dramas, serving the cause of Mohiniattam for nearly five decades.
Manipuri dancer Ranjana Jhaveri passed away on January 17, 2017 at Mumbai, aged 87.