Mohan Khokar

A Century of Indian Dance & Purusha in USA-Italy
- Ashish Mohan Khokar, Bangalore

September 25, 2011

A Century of Indian Dance was culled, collated and curated to be presented by ICCR as part of the international exposition of Indian dance history and heritage.  The ICCR, under the enlightened patronage of Dr. Karan Singh, its President, and Director General Shri Suresh Goel, platformed India's largest dance collection, the Mohan Khokar collection, at a national curtain-raiser in mid July in Delhi. The Times of India hailed it as the dance exhibition of the century, as never before such treasures had been shown. This event in Delhi's Habitat was a precursor to a 10-city tour of USA and 2 cities in Italy during the last two months. As part of live costume display, 5 dancers were also additionally supported by ICCR to travel with the exhibition. They had performed and showcased the same in Delhi and are among the best of Bangalore's male soloists in each form: Bharatanatyam (Satyanarayana Raju and Seshadri Iyengar), Kathak (Muralimohan Kalva and Tushar Bhatt) and Orissi (Lingaraj Pradhan from Bhubaneswar). Satya could not travel as on the eve of departure, he fractured his ankle and wrist in an accident. Having conducted several Dance DISCourses for Alliance Francaise in Bangalore, yours truly put together the whole show and was also its sutradhara.  The idea of taking the first-ever proper dance history exhibition through the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection not to museums where few people see such shows, but to Indian dance-specific audiences, led to dovetailing Purusha with the exhibition, as both were sponsored by the ICCR.                        

Muralimohan & Tushar Bhatt, Houston  
Lingaraj Pradhan, Houston

Dallas in USA was the first stop, thanks to the vision of senior dance talent and founder of Aarthi School of Indian Dance, Revathi Satyu, who has also been chosen as recipient of the highest Texas honour for dance, a ceremony due on Oct 2. Dallas and Texas has very keyed-in audiences and the 3 cities - Dallas, San Antonio and Houston - proved that. For many decades, three dancers have made it home and contributed significantly to celebration of Indian dances, and these are: Ratna Kumar in Houston, Dr. Rajam Ramamurthy in San Antonio and Revathi Satyu in Dallas. All Bharatanatyam. Kathak remains a poor cousin, with no good dancer in Texas being there to teach properly.  Bollywood is loved not only by Indians but by Hispanics too, as it is loud, boisterous and fun filled. Kuchipudi comes next. Orissi is gaining ground as Oriyas settled in USA are doing a lot to serve and promote the form. Many connoisseurs came to the dinner hosted by Nilanjan Tripathy where Yogini Gandhi and her delightful husband, the music archivist were there to regale with many a story.

Rasikas too in each city did not lag behind, like Shaan-Murali or Shirin-Sri in Dallas (the air-hostess from JFK to St. Fort Worth, Dallas airport insisted I call it as in nasal Daaaalluss!); the Golden Girls (!) of San Antonio (Dr. Rajam, Dr. Malathi Koil and Dr. Madhu Mehta  and Kamala Rao, the 4 laughing, smiling, happy doctor-dancers) and in Houston die-hard fans like Prabha-Bala, showed how Indian dance traditions are being kept alive and in good company. Texas is a happening state. Next week, Gowri Ramnarayan speaks on theatre at the best museum in town and later Anita Ratnam joins others for a symposium on Indian Dance in Global Context, organised by Ratna Kumar, this year SNA's awardee. Leela Samon’s Spanda, that fine work she did many moons ago when in Delhi with her students, will be showcased on the occasion.


Detroit next proved to be the dark horse! Motown (Auto-manufacturing HQ of USA, which Americans also call Mo-Town after Motor Town) has a strong Hindu identity base thanks to work of Swami Dayanand Saraswati and his team of do-gooders like Srini Raman, who was advised by benign Bharatanatyam talent of Bangalore, now settled there, Roopa Shyamsundar, to invite this event to the Detroit region. Irene the hurricane having hit the east coast, 3 cities had to be abandoned (Charleston in South Carolina and two cities in USA's smallest state, Maryland), so the group landed in advance at Roopa Shyamsundar's happy home. She welcomed all and made all feel better than at home! Some Indians settled in the USA, read, especially the cultured south Indians, are very happy to host visiting artistes, and ditto Oriyas like Nilanjan Tripathy in Dallas and Shipra Asantica Mehrotra in Houston. The hall was one of the best in the whole tour, both for exhibition and performance.

The Chicago event was organised by Santosh-Ruth on the worst weekend, Labour Day (long weekend holidays, when most Americans were planning to be in Hawaii not in halls!) but still had divas and audiences turn up. A ten year old, chirpy Tina, with a swinging ponytail and ever smiling nature, wrote a full two page essay in the Visitor's Book! She begins, “Thank you so much for having this show of history and dances. I have never seen half the dances you showed us today. For once in my life I understand what dance means to people..... u people ROCK!!”

Exhibition in Dallas

Strangely, maximum number of native American (as in white! not Native Americans as in Red Indians!) audiences came in Chicago and Dallas. San Antonio, the birth town of La Meri, the pioneer who came to India and also discovered Ram Gopal, had lots of ballerinas and such western dance talents, in attendance. They loved to see the American connections with Indian dance. The Chair of Texas University Dance Dept. was overwhelmed by the exhibition. Dallas-San Antonio-Detroit- Chicago-Houston-Phoenix-Paris-Milan...over 5000 rasikas saw the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection exhibition and Purusha. All want it back again, a sure sign of success.

On the last day in Houston, after our event, there was a Bollywood Blast! Over 15000 strong audiences swayed to popular beats, recycled and represented in story form by able group of dancers, numbering 120! Quick costume changes, excellent lights and spiffy numbers, had all enjoying... it was a mela like event. Phoenix, hosted by senior talent Asha Gopal, was the last event in USA.

Muralimohan Kalva's Guha in Ram Bhajan sung by Ustad Fayaz Khan was a favourite with most audiences, as it was linear, simple depiction and easy to comprehend. Seshadri Iyengar's Kadagola was sung soulfully. Seshadri could emote well and showed he is not about technique alone. Tushar Bhatt just had to stand on stage and be applauded for his handsomeness! He did Shiva Tandava Stotram with aplomb and also supported Muralimohan ably. Lingaraj Pradhan was the clear winner, as his foundation is deep and his dance effortless. With small steps and economy of hand movements, he won hearts for Indian art, all over USA. Each depiction was accompanied by a costume change to showcase costumes as part of this travelling exhibition. If average audiences were 500 in each event, over 5000 people in all saw this exhibition.

Coming to Milan University as the first stop in Italy, was an eye opener, as 7 scholars displayed their command over subjects as varied as dance in films and Natyashastra. They could quote at random and Italians are like Indians, they are noisy and they love to talk! Organised by Dr. Alessandro Vescovi, the first session after the exhibition opened had star speakers like Dr. Bocalli, Head of Indology and Dr. Dontelle Dolcini, Hindi Head and scholar on literature, Cinzia Pieruccini on Nataraja and Sabrina Ciolfi on Bollywood's approach to love! Over 500 students saw the display of Indian dance heritage.

Last stop Bergamo, design and dance HQ of the Lombardy region, where a street-theatre group, the TTB (Teatro Tascabile di Bergamo), has put this little mountain town on world dance map, especially Indian. This happened when its founder-director, Late Dr. Renzo Vescovi, realised that Indian classical forms afforded a complete theatre. As his colleague and now senior most faculty member and a Master of Kathakali learnt over 30 years, Beppe Chierichetti (rechristened Cheruturthy Baapi, as he has integrated with Kerala arts for so long) says, "Where else can one find 24 ways of just looking...glance..." TTB's core competency comes from three forces: Renzo's vision and work, now global; TTB actors’ commitment to the principles of cooperative theatre (each member has ten percent stake and equal amount of responsibility) and focussed learning of 3 principal Indian classical styles - Bharatanatyam, Orissi and Kathakali for last 30 years; and each actor in each generation must learn and specialise in one of these forms to qualify as proficient actor. Imagine, in India do we have theatre companies doing that? Luigia Calcattera and Tiziana Barbeiro are its senior faculty members doing Orissi, now continued by the ever-smiling Naples beauty Antoinetta Fusco and the blue-eyed, jet black haired Silvia Baudin. Reuben Manenti undertook the most fetching Parvati in Kirata-Arjuna performed in the same season, in which Alessandro Rigoletti undertook a pensive Arjuna, easily ignited. All characters - Beppe, Alessandro, Reuben - made one forget one was in Italy!


Exhibition in Italy

GAMec (or Gallerie de Modern and Contemporary Art) under patronage of Maria Cristina Rodeschini and assisted by Clara Manella, hosted the Mohan Khokar Collection. The Martand Singh of design in Italy, Bruno Collavo helped design display and many scholars drove from Milano, 60 km away, to attend the opening. Dancers from Sienne, from Torino, from Rome came to see the opening night, where guest intern P Praveen Kumar (Mohan Khokar Overall Excellence in Dance Awardee 2010) taught the Bharatanatyam group of ace teacher Usha Raghavan and three students - Rosa da Lima Lannone, the sublime, Mauro Danesi, the kind-souled and Caterina Scotti, the senior most in this group, to dance Pushpanjali and Tillana together, while he undertook Shiva Shambho and Chitala.  Simona Zanini showcased her Bharatanatyam and it must be said that in all of Europe, I’ve not seen a better Bharatanatyam dancer. In all departments - deportment, rhythm, bhava, abhinaya, musicality of body, she is unsurpassed. She is a born actress and it struck me, abhinaya needed emotional awareness, not just emoting.

Paris was a brief stopover to attend UNESCO Tagore event where Dr. L Subramaniam and Kavita Subramaniam performed and Aparna Sen was the guest of honour, among other luminaries and meet with important museums for planning next summer's exhibition and dance activities and one was happy to see grand posters announcing ace flautist GS Rajan's show end September. Mohandas Gandhi and his wife Sharmila, the fine Kathak dancer, are helping popularise Indian arts in Paris. Their devotion to dance and music is for all to see. Annette Leday, senior Kathakali pedagogist, dancer-choreographer, is now undertaking a seminal work on translation of Indian playwrights into French. Milena Salvini and daughters Isabella and Maria-Kiran remain fixtures on the art scene. 12 cities in 6 weeks was a heartening experience. To see Indian traditional arts in such settings was fulfilling. Indian diaspora is deeper than what comes to the eye. Everywhere the signs of concerted efforts on the part of many - teachers, dancers, gurus, organisations, institutions and patrons - comes through.

Ashish Mohan Khokar learnt Kathak, Bharatanatyam, western ballet and Orissi before taking to arts administration. He served the govt., in many cultural capacities, including the Delhi State Academy for Arts (1984-85); chief coordinator Festivals of India in Sweden (1986-87); Festival of India in France, Germany and China (1985-90). He was Director of INTACH, under PM Rajiv Gandhi’s Chairmanship. He served the Times of India as Dance Critic in Delhi from 1990-2000 and Bangalore 2000-3. Since then, he edits and publishes India’s only yearbook on dance – attendance - and is Curator of the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection. He has served dance for over 25 years as a reputed critic-historian. He has written over 35 books on Indian arts and culture; is on many boards and committees serving dance (DD, INTACH, IIC, BSM, ICCR, UNESCO-DC). He is currently also the chief consultant to India’s first dance museum shaping up in Kerala. He Chairs the Dance History Society of India and holds special dance DISCourses.

Comments from Visitor’s Book
Chicago, IL

An absolute visual treat. Purusha was a one of a kind show that we witnessed in Chicago that did justice to three major classical disciplines in a long time on the same stage.  Equal time and space with equally justified lyrical music gave each dancer an equal opportunity to showcase both nritta and natya skillfully. And the artistes took full advantage of it and enamoured both the trained and untrained eyes and lifted their minds. They left us wanting more.....can't wait for the next treat. …. Santosh

Most educational treat...exhibition is a national treasure... Hema Rajagoplan
Dancers are so fluid...exhibits so historical… Ann Cowden
Thank you for preserving exquisite traditions...  Shobha & Pratap
I was mystified, mesmerized and very moved... Carol Hall Ipsen
Out of this world!.... Ada Hall Barnes
Made every moment memorable... Nita Kapadia

Dallas, TX
The lobby presentation, which I got to know later as just a fraction of the whole archive, made me wonder how much passion, time and effort had been put into getting the material together. It may seem little and insignificant to plain eyes but holds so much value if one understands the message it conveys. Ashish-ji's multimedia presentation just added a whole other dimension to the exhibit and gave me the same feeling ‘Malgudi Days’ gives me - simple yet rich life and made me be thankful to the pioneers of our Indian dances. 
All male dancers did justice to their dance form by picking balanced dances which showed their individual strengths in pure dance as well as abhinaya.  They were perfectly in sync during the group choreography.  Lingaraj needs special mention for being so integrated into Odissi dance. Couldn't say if the dance looked great because of him or he is a great dancer because of the style he is performing.  Overall, it was a wholesome treat by the ATTENDANCE team led by Ashish Khokar which will be remembered and cherished for a long time...
Sulaga Telagchery

Purusha was a wonderful experience not just as a dance program but also the concept of introducing only male dancers. All the dancers were very strong in their nritta and abhinaya portions and kept the audience engrossed from beginning to end. The exhibit on a Century of Indian Dance- Mohan Khokar Collection, put together by Ashish Khokar was outstanding. It was very educative specially to dancers of my generation who are born and have grown up here in the US. The audio visual presentation enhanced what the photographs and the snippets from the magazines and newspapers conveyed, and Ashish-ji made both the history of Indian dance and the program by the dancers very interesting and enjoyable with his impeccable oration… Sarita Venkatraman

San Antonio, TX
The dance connoisseurs in San Antonio were astonished with the treasure that they had the privilege to see and even more importantly the depth and breadth of knowledge of Ashish Khokar as he led the audience through the exhibit. Then the performance took our breath away. The power in the male dancers’ movement and the control of poses are expected. What touched our heart were the abhinaya pieces. Muralimohan's portrayal of Guha, Lingaraj's unforgettable expressions as Duriyodhana were riveting. So were the perfect lines of Bharatanatyam by Sheshadri and the powerful turns of Tushar as he sliced the air. It was refreshing to see the devotion of the young men to the art form… Rajam Ramamurthy

Detroit, MI

AIM for Seva was appreciated for bringing the event to Detroit.
This exquisite exhibition was very informative and educational, specially for the students and practitioners of these Indian classical dance forms. Screening of the documentary ‘A Century of Indian Classical Dance’ brought out more information and showed the development of the art forms over the century. Purusha was a spectacular show representing the rich cultural heritage of India and its beautiful classical dance forms, featuring great male classical dancers, who are known at the international level for their technique and abhinaya in the chosen style. Vibrant Kathak by Muralimohan Kalva and Tushar, Lingaraj Pradhan’s authentic Odissi numbers, Seshadri Iyengar’s elegant Jatiswaram and Purandara Dasa’s padam in Bharatanatyam style was very well presented.

This is the first time I've seen such passionate display of dance and history... S Raman
It has been an eye opener for us all...Bhuvana Umamaheswaran
Thank you for creating an opportunity for all and for discourse… Sonali Mishra
What a wonderful treat!... Chitra Narayan
Enjoyed the show, exhibition was a bonus!.... Geetha Nair
Absolutely riveting and sublime.... Chitra Raman
Most touching performance and exhibition I've seen in my entire life... Ramos Amov

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