Heart-to-heart with revered Indian dance pundits Dr Sunil Kothari and Leela Venkataraman
It was a sweltering afternoon in Dhaka, but Dr Sunil Kothari and Leela Venkataraman, two of the most celebrated Indian dance pundits appeared unflustered by the heat. They were on a visit to Bangladesh on the occasion of the 100th birth anniversary of late Manipuri dance guru Bipin Singh. Sitting in front of Dhaka University’s Natmandal, the scholar duo took some time out of their busy schedule to talk to about art, love, freedom and the resemblance between Bangladeshi and Indian cultures. But most importantly, to talk about what brought them here: the ancient art of dance.
“We have witnessed some of the most amazing Manipuri dance performances over the last few days and the people are absolutely amazing,” Dr Kothari told Weekend Tribune. “The trip was too short to explore this beautiful country and the culture,” he added.
“We’ve visited a Manipuri community living in the Ghoramara village of Kamalganj. These people took refuge in Bangladesh following political turmoil in the eighteenth century and it is surprising to see how they are still so proudly upholding their heritage even after almost two centuries,” Leela Venkataraman adds. “You don’t always see the quality of the traditional Manipuri performances they possess.”
On his way to becoming a prominent dance historian, scholar and critic, Dr Kothari broke many barriers and fought many societal dogmas. For men, sport is often constructed as a masculinizing experience. Dancing, however, is traditionally viewed as an “effeminate and suspect activity for a male body.” But this stigma could not stop Dr Kothari from pursuing his passion. The youngest of ten siblings, Kothari’s love for dance began when he started learning Kathak as a ten-year-old in Deodhar’s Classes at Opera House in the 1940s.
“The youngest child is frequently considered to be the spoilt one in the family and there I was wanting to be a dancer,” he added sotto voce. “I really loved dancing. At the time when I, along with my mother, was wondering as to what I really want to do with my life, we came in contact with Mulk Raj Anand, a great novelist.”
The writer saw the potential in the later-to-be Padma Shri winning scholar and advised him not to be just a ‘banyan shopkeeper,’ referring to his CA degree. Dr Kothari clarifies that Anand’s assertion was not meant to belittle the degree or the profession, but to imply that being a chartered accountant may not quench his spiritual thirst.
“I obeyed my parents and I completed my CA too,” he said, adding that he is privileged enough to be brought up in an enabling environment and a supportive atmosphere which helped nurture his artistic flair.
Sunil Kothari had began working as a CA, but soon after, he was gradually drawn back into the swirls of classical dance. Kothari won the Padma Shri award in 2001, the fourth highest civilian award by the Indian government. He also received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1995, among many other awards.
Growing up in a family where dance was part of the upbringing of children, Leela Venkataraman, on the other hand, took her first dance lessons at home under the mentorship of her grandfather.
“He (Leela’s grandfather) used to say that there are two harmonies: one is the harmony of movement and the other is the harmony of notes. All these harmonies should be taught to young children as it helps to develop a feeling for harmony in children, which is very important to their personality,” said Leela, now a scholar and critic of much significant authority.
Starting at an early age as an art appraiser, her mastery and competence earned her the position of an eminent scholar, historian and commentator on the Indian dance. A brilliant orator, she has been involved in dance critiquing for thirty years, writing for several journals and newspapers including The Hindu, where she has been working since 1985. She has also served on the Board of Kalakshetraat Adyar Chennai for a full term of five years.
“I didn't plan it or anything. It just happened. I must say that the journey has been quite enjoyable. If you like to watch and listen to music, I don’t think anything else can give you the tranquility and happiness and this is something you need in the turbulent world,” she says of her journey.
“Dance is for girls and queers!” is still a predominant notion in the highly gender stratified societies in the Indian subcontinent. For the men out there in the dancing realm, there are certain genres that have traditionally been considered more masculine and suitables for males. While males continue to be the minority in more ‘feminine’ forms such as ballet or classical dance, they are predominant in genres such as street dance that allow them to conform to a more traditionally masculinized identity. Leela Venkataraman believes that the division is only superfluous and inimical to one’s exploration of the self.
“There are two sides in every human being: one is the aggressive side and the other is the softer side. The first side perceives the world as a highly competitive place where one beat everyone else to and be ahead of others. Undeniably, this aggressive side is acknowledged as an essential trait for survival. Nevertheless, amid the celebration of this toughness in ourselves, we often overlook our softer side, the side that inspires us to be sensitive, to look at colours and harmony, to listen to music and above all, to see the beauty in the world.”
Leela says that by overtly focusing on the more aggressive (or masculine) side in children, we are actually driving the world toward a higher cumulative aggression. “High enough to create chaos at the drop of a hat,” she says.
Both of these qualities, says Leela, are the finest sensibilities that we have in ourselves and are quintessential to develop in a human being regardless of their gender. “And unless both are developed equally, you cannot call a man or woman complete.”
“When a man is dancing it’s just a harmony of movements that is there. You cannot call him feminine for doing that. It’s actually beyond these stereotypes,” she added.
In the age of neoliberalist economy aided by a consumerist culture, the arts are not free from the influence of the market. In India, one of the most visible cultural changes associated with this economic liberalization has been a Bollywood dance craze that swept through middle class India and successfully infiltrated the South Asian dance culture. While dance was always a part of Hindi films, before the 1990s only classical dance had existed at large as a live phenomenon. The vibrance of the classical dance forms are fading under the light of contemporary dance forms.
But both Sunil Kothari and Leela Venkataraman are optimistic about the the fuftre of this traditional art form. They think that classical dance will always survive among its aficionados and connoisseurs, as it always did.
“It will never die out,” says Dr Kothari, reinstating his strong belief in the sustenance and endurance of the classical dance.
He added, “There will always be a factino that will never give up on classical dance. The foundation is that much strong.”
“I don’t think contemporary dance is a threat to the classical forms because they can easily co-exist and they are doing so and there’s nothing wrong with contemporary Bollywood dance. I like the disco as well.”
Leela says,“It’s about the jouissance that we get from dancing. It’s about the rhythm and harmony in the steps and these are something we need to be a better human, to be harmonious.”