Interview: Sonal Mansingh

February 10, 2014

Interview: Sonal Mansingh

Interview: Sonal Mansingh

In our silver jubilee year we have been revisiting some of the personalities featured in the first issue of Sruti magazine. We decided to catch up with SONAL MANSINGH during her visit to Chennai. One of the foremost classical dance exponents of India, she has received the honorific of Padma Vibhushan, as well as other prestigious awards like the Kalidas Samman, and the central Sangeet Natak Akademi award. Some excerpts from S. JANAKI’s recent conversation with her.

Yours has been such a long journey in dance. 

I have had so many journeys, at so many levels. There are several dimensions to the ‘yatra’, but I believe that whatever you are doing, you must “be there” every moment.

Youth has a different high – a short-lived hi! Then one passes through middle age, menopause, with its physical challenges. There comes a time of reckoning for the dancer – should she continue to perform, or teach, or hang up her ghungroos? You have to question yourself, give yourself a grinding. Ponder whether you can successfully translate your thoughts through your body – Bala and Margot Fonteyn, did it. This can be very painful. Comments can be bitter medicine. But if you don’t allow yourself to be pierced, you lose out.

I have travelled a long way – words have begun to unfold many meanings. It is exciting to explore their textual

fragrance. To explain and share all this is difficult, but I am able to experience and understand the things I did earlier much better and deeper.

Did you always want to be a dancer?

I belonged to a family which was very patriotic and steeped in Indian culture. Studying in a Gujarati medium school helped. My mother was very artistic. My grandfather Mangaldas Pakvasa was a freedom fighter who believed in the equality of women. He served four terms as Governor. Although I grew up in Raj Bhavans, I lived a very normal life – travelling by bus, attending dance classes, taking part in extra-curricular activities, participating in Scouts and Guides. You know I ran away to learn dance – seriously!

After I graduated we had a family council. Everyone asked me, Sonal, what do you want to do now? Pursue your scholarship to study in Germany? I said no. Marriage? No. Want to become a lawyer like your grandfather? Certainly not. I will speak for no bumpkin! A career in the IFS ? No. Then what? “I want to dance”, I said. They admonished me “No naach”! Do something else.”

So I quietly withdrew my scholarship money, stuffed a few belongings into my school bag and small holdall, took a bus to VT station, went to Pune, and boarded a train for Bangalore. There I took a rickshaw to Seshadripuram where the famous Bharatanatyam duo U.S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi lived. I reached their house to find a lock hanging on the door. I sat on the steps and that is where my guruji-s found me when they returned from a movie show. I told them I had run away from home because I wanted to dance! My family was angry but I was willing to face the consequences. When you follow intuition you are right. If you meddle with intelligence you go wrong !

I lived in Guruji’s house, and danced with them. Oh they were wonderful guru-s! My first programme fetched me Rs. 200. I danced at the Congress session and the Congress leader Nijalingappa declared that from then on the famous Mangaldas Pakvasa would be known as Sonal’s grandfather!

Then followed wonderful years of growing up, marriages, but dance was always centrestage. I went on to learn Odissi from guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. I also learnt Koochipoodi, Chhau and classical music.

How did you get over the terrible accident in Germany which almost put an end to your dancing career?

It was in 1974, I was on a tour of Bayreuth. I was one of four young people invited to the international festival where I had to teach dance to some mainstream dancers from different countries. It was ‘vine time’ and my husband and I were driving down the countryside in a Volkswagon. Suddenly a deer ran across the road and we braked. The car turned three somersaults and I was thrown out 15 feet away on the highway and I passed out. My ribs and collar bones were crushed. I was in terrible pain and I thought the three worlds were spinning! The doctors had two options – to operate and fix steel rods inside my body or put me in a plaster cast. It was only providence that made me chose the plaster cast even in that condition; for had I chosen the other option it would probably have put an end to my dancing.

But the plaster cast was like Roman torture. It weighed four kilos and was like a rucksack to keep my ribs in place extending from my neck to the hips. I was like a “contraption” and I was in a state of absolute shock. What was worse, I overheard the doctor telling my husband in German “She may be able to walk after two years, but don’t tell her”. You can imagine what I must have gone through – when dance meant everything to me! If I could not dance, I did not want to live.

You must have felt shattered.

Yes. A few things did pep me up, though. I got a telegram from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi saying “Keep up your spirits – we are with you.” Those were the days when heads of state were genuinely involved in the arts.

After a month or so, a ray of hope came in the form of a French Canadian chiropractor Dr. Pierre Gravel, who had seen my dance. After numerous checkups and xrays he declared with twinkling eyes, “God! Sonal, I’m afraid you WILL be able to dance again!” He had a daunting task. There was breakage in my spine, many of the discs had also moved and he had to realign them. He put a table of a particular height under my folded knees, gradually increasing the duration. The pain was excruciating. He realigned my ribs, my collar bones. It was five and a half months before he took off the plaster cast.

It was indeed a second birth as I came out of the cast! So far I had borne everything with fortitude. But now the shock of it all came back to me. I was now free! I broke down and howled with relief and joy! And my husband and the doctor gave me a very huge dose of the world’s best brandy to celebrate! My success story belongs to the doctor – my angel with kind blue green eyes.

The process of recovery helped me understand my body. After a week the doctor wanted me to start dancing. “Start from the very beginning – the way you first learnt to dance,” he said. I took the initial steps and fell down. “Is this me!” I wondered. I relived the entire experience of learning to dance. Initially it was only for two minutes with a stop watch! The duration was gradually increased. It was an incredible experience. I fully understand Markandeya now! 

Your story reads like a novel. How did you cope?

Ha ha, it’s the strong will of the Indian woman – sakti!

Your views on dance and spirituality? Are you a sakti upasaka?

Dance gives us the understanding of spirituality. At 65, I get charged while dancing. Nritya is sakti – it’s like a dynamo. It energises the person and the environment. Dance is spirituality made visible. You cannot hold it, dance makes you experience it, even if for a moment. That is why we have the great concepts of ‘Nata-raja’ and the great vidya of dance which combines the essence of the aural, the visual, the satvika. What is spirituality? Is it the outer demeanour? The word was not bandied around like confetti as it is now. Dance and music recitals are like Gangasnaan. Dance gives you the ability to flow, take a dip, flow along. The rasika also experiences it and goes away with these lingering memories.

It is disturbing that we have started labelling things – spiritual, religious, erotic, etcetera. ‘Kama’ is the root of life. Kameswari puts the seed of ‘kama’ and nourishes it so that you become full of rasa. That is fulfilment of the quest. “Kama” gives you the ability to have desires, ambition, energy. Without kama, there is no srishti. It is misinterpreted as only sexual desire. Anyway, I see no wrong in that too. It is the beeja, ‘sambhoga bhakti’.

We should not have a narrow view of things. In 60 years we have narrowed down the parameters – from the ocean to a pond. Open your mind and look beyond! I love life, I love everything – it is the reflection of this great sakti.

The Kameswari award must therefore be very special? Are you the first dancer to be so honoured?

Yes, I was the first recipient of the Kameswari title which was conferred on me on 14th January at the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, Assam this year. I made an attempt last year to re-start the ancient tradition of offering dance and music in the temple. Last year I was the only dancer to perform, but I am happy that this year some local dancers also participated. Kamakhya is adi-sakti. Nothing happens in the brahmanda without Her. After receiving this title which is so special, I couldn’t care about other things!

Care to share some of your memorable moments?

There have been many memorable events – dancing for the Dalai Lama at Dharamshala on Vaisakha poornima was one. One day I got a call from the office of the then President of India R. Venkataraman asking for my biodata. I wondered why? He had a look at it and then said – “No Padma award?” I want to rectify this.” I was given the Padma Bhushan straightaway without a Padma Shri! Such moments are exhilarating, reiterating that I am on the right track. And now of course the Kameswari award! What do you think of contemporary dance? Contemporary dance is fine. Let a thousand flowers bloom, but let us not forget that the lotus is the king among flowers, and we are the lotus. Very often presenting something contemporary has come to mean a mayajaal of words and verbal diarrhoea! Rasa is described as juice !! The ability to read metaphors is getting lost, words are becoming important, not their import. Metaphors are where the message is. They are contemporary. The point of time where you are is “contemporary”. When you are performing as a classical dancer aren’t you re-creating it, reliving it, and reorganising it?

I can’t dance to Jack and Jill. To me Siva and Parvati are pan-Indian, possess immense transcendental power – they create resonances, images. The dance makes these understandable at every age as it is a visual medium. The body has its own place, but the satva or fragrance is the abhinaya. A lot of exhibitionism has crept into the art. Being natural is considered passé. Funny, because being natural is allowing yourself to flow in this creativity, this is where art begins.

On blurring of boundaries between dance forms?

Well, abhinaya is communication. The essence is the same. Is it necessary to have boundaries? The artist’s own understanding is the determining factor. Even the hasta-s are not too different. Thinking about it in a mechanical or only technical way makes it “yantravat’. It then cannot touch the right chord. To achieve ‘rasanishpatti’ one must go beyond looking good and perfect. Only then should the word abhinaya be used. What is the moment of transformation through art? Is it happening or not happening? That is important. In 1987 I presented a programme juxtaposing Bharatanatyam and Odissi. There is so much exposure now. So many hast  mudra-s are now used in Kathak. They perform Krishna nee begane baro. Bharatanatyam is performed to Hindi lyrics… so many changes over the years! The harmonium is part of many dance orchestras. Even the keyboard is sometimes part of my orchestra – I included it because it was difficult to carry tanpura-s and sitar-s as we travelled from place to place. We must ensure they don’t make weird sounds! The dancer has to find his or her own path.

It is very disturbing to see classical dances being replaced by cheap stuff on stage – all this hip shaking numbers even in formal functions. I sincerely hope everyone will realize the true worth of our classical arts. Personally, as a dancer, there has not been a single day of regret. I just want to die dancing!

Sonal on her new additions to the Odissi repertoire

There are some unusual items drawn from Oriya art traditions. The great scholar the late Jiwan Pani unravelled them and I presented them in my dance. The Oriya system of music is different from Carnatic and Hindustani music. Jiwan Pani studied the ancient treatises, we listened to people singing raga-s like Prathama Manjari. In 1983 there was a pathbreaking seminar.

Even popular raga-s like Sree and Vasanta were so different. The Vasanta raga sung by the pundits of the Jagannatha temple was so different from what the Hindustani vocalist Sumati Mutatkar sang! It is then that I started using compositions tuned in these Odissi raga-s like Prathama Manjari, Varadi, Madhukri; am now setting some of the Geeta Govinda verses to tune. I have presented the Buddhist Chariya geet and Paala in my recitals. Items like Soonya Mahari and Sukuntala have received critical acclaim. I have written, composed and presented three navarasa items – on Siva, Krishna, and Prakriti.

Her take on arts administration in India

Is there one? Everyone talks about it, but there is little on the ground. The dancer or her family have to look after everything.

She is her own impresario, publicity manager, peon, and linking all the nitty gritty takes away so much of the dancer’s time. Arts funding is not well organised. We have kneejerk reactions for events – lots of money is spent by the government, but it should all be better planned and made accessible. 

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