- Ashish Mohan Khokar, Bangalore
Based on archival materials from The Mohan Khokar Dance Collection
December 31, 2009
Shanta Rao died on 28th Dec 2007, almost unsung, alone in her Malleswaram home in Bangalore. A tribute function will be held on January 27, 2010 by the former Principal Secretary Sardar Chiranjeev Singh and Ashok Chatterjee, Shanta's friend and biographer, in Bangalore.
Shanta was a strange mixture of deep intellect, exuberance, very private life, easily piqued and forever temperamental dancer. G Venkatachalam, who was her fan - more than an objective critic - wrote in his DANCE IN INDIA book, that he met her when she was about six years old in 1931; thereby one may surmise she was born in 1925, though dancers of that era never proved their age conclusively, or liked anyone else to do so!
Shanta "was a tom-boyish character, climbing trees, running around in knickers and mistreating animals. Her tyranny was for all to see…." notes Venkatachalam, in his book. He is more a fan writing rather than a historian or dance critic and thus, all is mostly praiseful.
He writes how he was left to shoulder the responsibility of finding her a good dance guru, once Shanta decided, under his advice not to go to college but to pursue dance. For this, she arrived at Vallathol's Kalamandalam in 1939 and after a hard day's training, played in the river nearby! Sounds like a scene from some cheap Hindi or Tamil or Kannada film! But Shanta, even when old, was rather vain beyond human limits and loved attention, so imagine what she must have done when she was a young maiden?! Venkatachalam notes that, "Shanta was only fifteen but had beauty and genius, a combination to frighten even the stoutest of hearts and wisest of men." He might as well add that he was besotted with her because he promoted Shanta in all his writings and Shanta is the cover-girl of his book.
Shanta learnt Kathakali, the manly dance that sat well on her and suited her well. Later, she learnt Mohiniattam that did not look soft or lyrical on her big-boned frame. But she was in the right social circles and became well-known and somewhat famous and remained so for long. Her teacher Ravunni Menon for Kathakali, was strict and she learnt Mohiniattam from Panikkar. Her Kamatchi Varnam was famous. She danced with much verve and hard-hitting steps, almost laboured.
In the 40s, she went to Sri Lanka and learnt Kandyan dances from Gunaya. He taught her Naga Vannama and Iradi Vannama. She was hailed by the Lankan press as modern day Ambapalli, the Buddhist ascetic dancer.
Although she had learnt many forms, she finally chose Bharatanatyam because by then it had become fashionable for girls from "good families" to do so. Like the herd mentality that prevailed in that decade, she went to Pandanallur, to acquire some Bharatanatyam. She ended up at the popular teacher's doorsteps, ie, Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, who tried to teach her, though noted that as she had learnt Kathakali first, teaching her was difficult as her motions were manly and actions were very dramatic and not subtle. Her debut took place in 1943 in the Madras Museum Theatre, Egmore and she got raving reviews like "the finest flower of Bharata's ancient art."
As her family was close to leaders of the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1931 in Bombay, and their home in Bombay was the meeting point for many, including maverick poets and patriots like Harindranath Chattopadhya, she benefitted by close association with the Congress party when India became independent and earned lavish praises from leaders like Sarojini Naidu who hailed her as the "Springtime dancer from the south…" Whatever that means!! Pt. Nehru said, "Shanta, I never knew Indian dancing could be so beautiful."
Shanta's career was short and sweet once real talents like Kamala, Indrani Rahman, MK Saroja, Vyjayanthimala and Yamini Krishnamurthy came centre-stage in the next two decades. She remained in her ivory tower and became a recluse, promoted only by a few who could flatter her and play up to her. On the whole, it was not easy to access her as it entirely depended on her moods and fancy. This cut her off more so from mainstream performance arena and she remained a past memory all through the seventies and thereafter. Last time anyone saw her perform was at Sangeet Natak Akademi's Swarna Jayanti Mahotsava, celebrating India's 50th year of independence, organized in Delhi, in 1997 and she with Mrinalini Sarabhai and MK Saroja danced on the same evening and to see three of such seniors together, was a momentous occasion. On other days too, one saw last time Damayanti Joshi, Sitara Devi and many other veterans of dance.
When I made Bangalore my home ten years ago, I sought her out and also met her to record her. She did not wish to be filmed in her old age and met me warmly, though, as my father had warned beforehand, she arranged lamps and lights next to her sofa in such a way that I would see her only in soft light! The Karnataka govt. under a benevolent and culturally enlightened rasika CM, RK Hegde had her given her largesse to build a performance space at home and she would let it out only occasionally.
The last time I met "Shanta, the great" was at a seminar organized by local Bangalore dancer-guru Lalitha Srinivasan at Chitra Kala Parishad. Shanta ji had grown amiable to my company, as I had tried to reach her in her end years, when no one really cared for her, partly because she had cut herself off from most and she closed herself in and met no one except few she wanted to or trusted. We were watching a Mohiniattam dancer and she guffawed and exclaimed, "Is this Mohiniattam? Silly people, they don't know what Mohiniattam is!" She got up abruptly and left. Little later, she was gone, forever.
As successor and inheritor of Mohan Khokar's work, Ashish continues to serve dance. Thanks to the wealth of materials left, he has been able to do 35 books and edit-publish 'attendance,' India's only yearbook on dance and its history. He also served the Sahitya Kala Parishad; Festivals of India in France, Sweden, Germany and China and Martand Singh Consultants before becoming a full-time dance writer serving the Times of India as their dance critic for two decades and many magazines and journals, including narthaki.