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NALA NAJAN (1932-2002)
Ashish Mohan Khokar, dance historian and editor, attendance, pays a tribute
Photos courtesy: The Mohan Khokar Dance Collection

Feb 2002

Talam, malam shalam; alarippu, tippu, mippu;ghatam, matam, patam... this is how he spoke when surcharged, which was most of the time! Nala Najan, alias Robert Rivero was born in Pennsylvania on June 28th 1932. A true Geminian, he had a light step, a bright heart and a great mind, especially for dance.

He saw me before I saw him. That is because my mother (Bharatanatyam doyenne M K Saroja) complains that even on their wedding night (14th Dec 1948, Madras) Nala Najan stayed with them, as he had with her husband Mohan Khokar when before marriage he stayed with Dandayudhapani Pillai in a barsati off Adyar. Nala came to India that year to learn Bharatanatyam from M.K.Saroja's guru Muthukumaran Pillai of Kattutmanar Koil, Chidambaram and actually went and stayed with the vidwan in his humble hut.

Those days, unlike nowadays, gurus sat in the wilderness of their homes and were not interested in students or seminars, where they taught abhinaya or alarippu in 10-day stints.

Nala Najan was a live wire and a man full of impulses and impulsive behaviour. That quality remained unchanged until his end on 7th January 2002 in a New York City hospital, when he breathed his last while Mark Trainor and Janaki Patrik, two dear friends sat by his side holding his hands as life ebbed away. He had succumbed to HIV.

After Bharatanatyam, he learnt Kathak. This happened when Mohan Khokar was appointed, at the young age of 24, as the head of the first university - the M.S. in Baroda - to offer Dance at graduate level. This was in 1949 and Nala went with the bags of the couple and stayed at 53, Alkapuri residence of the Khokars.

One day, he just woke up and had this craving to learn the mask dance of Seraikella, then in Orissa. The Chhau dances attracted him and lo behold! He went to the wilderness of Bihar (by then Seraikella was gifted to Bihar and today lies in Jharkhand!) and met the Maharaja and soon Nala was dancing Seraikella Chhau! Till date, his apartment in New York had 6 or 9 of the best mask specimens of Seraikella, which I have secretly coveted but never asked for, every time I went to meet him when in New York City.

Things went wrong for Nala in personal life and he decided never to come back to India, a promise he kept even when cajoled that all bad old memories could be solved. He did not forget India and did a lot as critic, commentator, dancer, and choreographer. Nala Najan followed in the footsteps of the great dancers of America, the Ted Shawns - Ruth St. Denis, La Meri, Ragini Devi in searching for the new spirit in Indian dance. In fact, these foreigners, helped establish Indian dance forms, when under a long colonial rule they had fallen to disrepute. With fellow dancers - Bhaskar, Raja - Shala and Matteo, he formed the unofficial dance ambassadors of India to USA.

No award of stature or merit came his way but that did not stop his sway with admirers, friends and fans. He had a huge circle of friends, though moody and abrupt, he had on - off relationship sometimes. This season someone was dear, at other times not so near! One had to take Nala with his nine - moods or navarasa! He was a dear, a true soul and a great fun. He could have you in splits imitating divas and diyas! And he told me - his adopted nephew - many a tale of so many that it would make a great book someday.

He gifted a sizable part of his Collection to Mohan Khokar Dance Collection and was upset when IGNCA backed out from displaying it permanently and treated the collector poorly. Nala was a treasure and his work and worth can never be forgotten by dance or dance historians.

He taught items of great beauty and antiquity to dancers like Uttara Asha Coorlawala, Ramaa Bharadvaj, Janaki Patrik and Ritha Devi. All partook from this fountain, only when this fountain was willing to give. Pattabhiraman of Sruti magazine gave him a newly created award last Fall and this was timely. Nala Najan died in Brahma Muhurtam, the most auspicious time when saints and rishis sit in prayers and meditation. He was not saintly but he was close to god and now he has gone to dance with Shiva his tandava. Nala, mala, pala...shala, mala, hala...pala, tala, nala. Amen!

Ashish Mohan Khokar is an author, historian and former critic (Times of India, Firstcity) and an arts administrator (ex-Festivals of India, INTACH, SKP) with over a dozen books on Indian arts and culture to his credit. He is now responsible for India's largest dance archives, The Mohan Khokar Dance Collection.