- Ashish Mohan Khokar, Bangalore
Based on archival materials from The Mohan Khokar Dance Collection
January 28, 2010
The Haffkine Institute, at Parel, Mumbai, was once the official residence of the Governor of Bombay. It is now a well-known research laboratory for vaccines, serums, lotions and potions pertaining to medicinal research. It is not a place for art or dance but behind it, in the director's little bungalow lived a lovely lady called Leela Sokhey, nee "Madame Menaka."
(G Venkatachalam, Dance in India)
Born Leela and married to Col. Sokhey, the couple had no children. Her interest in dance led her to devote a lifetime to dance and thus, thanks to her, Kathak got entrenched in Bombay. Lots of gurus, including Mohanrao Kalyanpurkar among others, got a foothold to teach Kathak to Bombay girls, largely due to the space and patronage afforded by Madame Menaka, in Bombay and later at Khandala.
Madame Menaka is credited with starting and shaping "Indian ballet." Loosely, this form meant dance-dramas with little or no dialogues and an over-riding emphasis on mythological themes. In the pre-independence clime of India, this was logical as lots of Indian traditions had been lost or diluted or submerged. To revive our traditions, the early dancers and gurus revived lots of Indian themes from our epics or puranas. Thus, many "ballets" came about in that period and Madame Menaka contributed her own bit.
Owing to her social position, she was widely travelled, as wife of a medical researcher. She had met Anna Pavlova and both had formed a mutual admiration and trust. Menaka thus created short productions that could travel to Europe and America, items like Usha (dawn); Naga-Kanya (snake-goddess); Moghul Serenade; Dance of Devotion etc.
Those days, short items worked especially with audiences abroad, not much exposed to themes and things Indian. She proved as big a success as Uday Shankar himself. A Berlin critic, who saw her show, commented, "Does a flower have to exert itself to give us joy?" With such critics as fans, she needed little encouragement!
Back in India, she created a fine school in the hills of Khandala and it is here she ran a resident school. The Sokheys' maid's daughter Damayanti became part of family and was groomed by Madame Menaka as their own. It is from Menaka that Damayanti Joshi got her initial training and professional grooming.
Menaka had poise, class and beauty. Her productions remained an important link to India's glorious past and helped restructure some of the cultural ethos of the era gone by. In her Kathak, the flowery appeal and beauty of form came through and in her costumes, the frescoes of Ajanta were recreated. She came at a time when India needed cultural ambassadors who could stand shoulder to shoulder with foreigners and speak an Indian cultural tongue that was on par with alien rulers or powers. In that, Madame Menaka did both herself and her country proud.
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.