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Oceans and mountains of dance
- Ashish Mohan Khokar

October 29, 2014

Indian dance is not just indoors any more but by the ocean and up in the mountains and dales. Dance history is being made in small, odd spaces. Metro India is saturated with festivals and fairs, tamashas and tantrums. Quaint places and countries, colleges in nooks and crannies of a bygone colonial setting, are now the new places for Indian dance. It's not Bombay or Boston, Chennai or China but Mauritius and Fiji where Indian diaspora has come of age. Such countries have centuries of history, not recent settlers. No wonder the PM is taking time off (one day) to visit Fiji from Australia trip and the FM as in Foreign and not Finance, is headed for Mauritius!

MGI sounds like some French fusion group and it is. Mauritius is half French, half Indian. Mahatma Gandhi Institute is one of the top learning centres created by India in Mauritius. Indira Gandhi inaugurated it in 1976! Successive Indian governments have added to its lustre and enhanced its facilities. MGI is located in Moka, bang in the centre of the country that is few hundred km long. Imagine, a whole country that can be covered north to south, east to west in 2 hours of a beautiful drive! Imagine, crystal clear aqua turquoise waters, green fields of sugarcane and happy, sweet people who drive sensibly and live life peacefully. This is closest to paradise. Dr. Putanjani Mungur Purgus, Vandana to Indians, doctor of dance (Khairagarh University and Baroda) and the current head of school of performing arts has read all past issues of attendance, so she invites me as a Visiting Professor, to one of Mauritius navratnas of academia, the MGI, for a two week workshop/teaching of Indian Dance History, Aesthetics and Documentation.

A horrible (next seat fellow vomits all though the flight) over-full flight with knicker-wearing holiday makers and honeymooners from Bangalore and Chennai deposits me in the most soothing airport I've ever been to. Mauritius. Green plants, waterfall and most welcoming immigration officers seek anyone speaking Hindi. I'm the sole lot in this group of 'Madrasi flight' who does so, hence they take me out of line, give me tea and talk of home! I feel I've arrived while all other holiday makers look sullenly at me for getting this special treatment. Not wearing knickers and tee shirt helps. Nehru jackets always look smart and professional. Roshini Behari, Kathakar from MSU Baroda, is sent to fetch me and her sweet smile puts me at ease with her chaste Hindi spoken better than Indians. Her Hindi is so respectful and cultured. What a change from India. Her husband Sooraj Behary is a fine singer who is also building the first Dasmahavidya temple in Mauritius.

Day one is my father's 16 death anniversary (17 Sept) but like a good artiste, I'm on show and have to meet many and start classes on time, for a 6 hours day. The subject I've been asked to address and train and orient staff in is Aesthetics. That nearly covers everything. The subject is complex - aesthetics - which even Indian dancers don't easily understand much about. Most dancers I talked to mistook it for aharya! Some seniors even refused to be recorded saying they had to read before they talked to me. And these are people who head serious national institutions; this is their level of awareness and knowledge. Of course, senior and serious gurus like Padma Subrahmanyam spoke at length to me and recorded her thoughts, as did C.V. Chandrasekhar, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Birju Maharaj and many more who know their marbles. Add Pappu Venugopal Rao in music.

So day one of 15 is spent in deciphering meaning of Indian words like rasa and alankara. Day two goes in understanding ang and upaj. No English words can match these very specific cultural words so I'm not going to make it easy for anyone reading this! Day 3 goes on aspects of music, both the main schools. Add dhruvpad or dhrupad as it is loosely called. There is one white-haired smart looking Girish in class, who has learnt at feet of masters like Didi Premalata Sharma of BHU. The class, by the way, comprises of all grownups! Yes, I was sharing my paltry knowledge with staff of MGI's School of Performing Arts, not its students.

The average age in my class was 50 years old, the youngest in the class being me, since my birthday comes once in 4 years. Yes, Rukmini Devi was born the same day as was PM Morarji Desai. The class is sincere, serious and studious. Daily notes are taken and homework given and slowly I see layers of people yearning about things Indian. Most have been to India, as students at Baroda University (MSU) or Benaras (BHU) or if they could not get university admission then, Kalakshetra (this diploma/degree is useless, as no one can be employed with that even in India! It is not recognized. Would all the mover shakers of Madras and Kalakshetra do something about it being recognized?).

The class comprises of teachers - Dr. Anita Seewoogoolam, Sandhya Mungur for BN, (being the senior most in age and experience in dance - 40 years); sitarist D. Ramkalawon, head of the music dept (strings). Then there was the most interesting Carnatic vocalist Deven Ayacooty - a dynamic artiste who makes annual pilgrimage to Chidambaram and Madras in Dec season; Kistnah Rammah and his acolyte Arvind Bhujun, in sitar and flute dept; Shyam Matandin in Ecourse construction and Dr. Hangrez with lot of empathy for Course Development, as also a dedicated guru Premila Uppamah for Kuchipudi and Roshini Beehary for Kathak. Add Poornima Luchman, Sheilana and Atmanarsiah and one had a full class. Even retired head attended: the senior most, 70 year old Indurduth Deerpaul (married to Assamese talent), attended all classes. He was the first to come daily and last to leave. No wonder he was the first scholarship holder from Mauritius to India in 1967 and the first head of the Dept for long. His nephew Pramod, a clean cut boy, was the quiet presence daily. Navin daily set up the systems and seats, even placing water bottles for me!

Dr. Putanjani M. Purgus,
current Head of SPA

School of Performing Arts building with bust of Tagore,
donated by West Bengal govt

Diwali festivities include: The Culture Minister,
The Indian High Commissioner, DG, Director and Head-SPA

High Commissioner of India Mr. Mudgal pays respects
to Mahatma Gandhi at Mahatma Gandhi Institute, Mauritius.

Dr. Putanjani Purgus is the proverbial master choreographer. She is also the current Big Boss of the whole School, that's seven sections under one head. She is hard working, sincere and brooks no nonsense. She is driven by commitment. No wonder, the Culture Ministry asks her to help organise massive feats like Diwali show featuring 50 dancers and the Gandhi Jayanti do. All Indian holidays are sacred. I've never seen Durga Puja being celebrated so seriously in any country abroad, like in Mauritius.

In the next two weeks, we cover subjects that would ordinarily take 3 months. We wade through nearly all the aspects of rasa theory, aharya, alankar shastra, Natya Shastra, dance history and heritage, backed by rare films from the Mohan Khokar Collection/archives, painfully saved and compiled and now very handy for me to illustrate with. Few have seen Bala or Ram Gopal. Fewer are privy to Kamala's art or Saroja's. Or Shambhu Maharaj on film. Or dance in films. Or what's choreography. Purush ang. Last few years, the Bangalore Dance DISCourses have forced me to cut and compile many short films that speak on most subjects well and sits well. Dance being a visual medium, films help. Also, many teachers and students even in India have never seen dance archives of Sangeet Natak in Delhi. Or Doordarshan dance films. So I'm happy I could share many gems.

Even on 2 weekends that are off, MGI organises tours for me and that is about temples and ghats! I do get to see some amazing seascapes, volcanic soils of seven hues and vortex the energy spot (there are only 7 on earth and one is in this cute, palm-sized country!). I see Tukkey-ma temple, the first Tamil temple built 200 years ago by indentured labour. It was fun to learn that once the currency notes had to be trashed because Tamil was not the first language printed on the note! These temples are now performing avenues where Deven and team (Ramesh ji, Arvind, Bideshi) perform. So, in Mauritius, in a most natural way, in absence of sabhas and abundant audiences, Indian performing arts is naturally returning to temples and not at forced festivals, as in Chidambaram in India. I see Port Louis the capital, a miniature town and meet the High Commissioner Mr. Mudgal on several occasions (no relation of Madhavi, Madhup or Shubha, he says!). I see the Indira Gandhi Cultural Centre, which is lavishly built but dead as a dodo. Yes, dodo is the national bird of Mauritius, now extinct. This ICCR run centre needs activation. Library is closed at 3 in the afternoon, the director one Sanjay something of ICCR, is not to be found anywhere and no one to show us around. Tax payers' monies down the drain. Besides, the centre has resident Kathak and sitar teacher, but that's duplicating MGI's work!

MGI is a lighthouse in darkness of the Indian Ocean. Its dynamic head is Dr. B. Madhou and Chairman is R. Dwarka. Team of Dr. V.D. Koonjal and others run the centre seamlessly. It's a huge campus of many open spaces, art schools, best auditoria where many functions are held. I get to see the PM and President of Mauritius twice and Culture Minister thrice in my 15 day stay. Mauritians love India. Mauritius is called Chhotta Bharat, (small India). RTI is not what we in India think it is - Right To Info - but Rabindranath Tagore Institute, a sister setup far away from MGI. I end my 2 week teaching visit and all are rather sentimental! Mauritians are clear souls, like the deep oceans that surround this island paradise.


The return flight is not as bad though routed via Delhi (the travel dept. of MGI is its worst attribute) wasting half a day. I return to repack and go to the Nilgiris mountains to be part of Sahrdaya's 4 day camp in Kotagiri, Coonoor at Riverside. From ocean to mountains. More beauty and what delightful company of over 60 eager dancers there to learn from assorted team headed by veteran guru C.V. Chandrasekhar, yours truly, Sheejith Krishna, his wife Jyotishmati, dancers Anjana and literary critic Akhila Ramnarayan. Four days of condensed bonding with many under 40 dance fiends. Long days but not tiring as it was so inspirational to be with young India. Some are budding architects like Sneha, others sincere dancers like Manasvini, all there for partaking the feast mounted by Sahrdaya, a new foundation for art appreciation. Sheejith is a soft spoken, multi talented artiste, equally good in dance and music. The camp showed the process of music and dance making, that we critics-historians-editors sometimes take for granted. Riverside owned by trustees of a tea estate under Suresh Belliraj, was a perfect spot and host. Our universities may be dead (Baroda, Bangalore, Bombay) where dance teaching is reduced to routine teaching with zero sincerity of pursuit of art but schools and colleges like MGI and Riverside show how Indian dance and music still have spots of meaningful existence and some excellence.

From ocean and mountains, now to the desert sandy cities: Delhi-Ahmedabad-Baroda! More on this next month.

Ashish Mohan Khokar is a reputed dance historian, biographer, critic and author of many published articles and over 40 books on Indian arts and culture. He served govt. bodies in many capacities and also teaches Indian dance history and aesthetics for university faculties. He is the curator of the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection and chairs the Dance History Society which hosts an annual convention and dance discourses that afford many talents a platform. He has mentored many and instituted five awards through attendance, the dance yearbook he edits and publishes.

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