Discovering dance in Bombay’s libraries: Dance critic Sunil Kothari on reading in a bygone era

Posing with Martha Graham’s modern dance student Uttara Asha Coorlawala at Sydenham College.

“Strange as it may sound, the annual report of Standard Oil Company once carried an article on Kathakali, describing the colour schemes representing the qualities of various characters from the Mahabharata and Ramayana according to their Sattvika, Rajasika and Tamasika traits. No other dance forms used such elaborate colours for their makeup, costumes, ornaments and crowns. This was how I came to learn about Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Manipuri and Kathakali.

My memories of Bharatanatyam at the time were limited to having seen Vyjayanthimala in the films Bahar and Ladki. I still recall the lightening quality of her graceful dancing! My painter friend Bhupen Khakhar and I used to go see those films at Capitol Cinema opposite Bori Bundar station.

Interviewing Vyjayanthimala at Madhya Pradesh’s Khajuraho Dance Festival, 1989.

It was an evening in September in 1957 when I discovered Marg’s special issue on Bharatnatyam. I came across a young, handsome man reading it at the Petit Library in Fort. Seeing me hovering, he gently asked me if I was interested in reading it. On the magazine cover were the 108 Karanas that are carved on Chidambaram’s Gopuram gates, with the shlokas of Natyashastra in the Grantha script. I told the man, “If you have browsed it enough, I would like to!” He found this interesting. When he told me that he was Pradumna Tanna, I extended my hand and said that I had read his poems and seen his paintings in Kumar, a Gujarati monthly published from Ahmedabad. When he found that I’d studied Kathak at Deodhar’s classes near Opera House and was interested in learning about other dance forms, he showed me his sketches of the celebrated dancer Balasaraswati in the Marg issue. There were not many books on dance in Gujarati that I knew of during that period, and I certainly hadn’t read any about Bharatnatyam. Intrigued, I wanted to read that issue from cover to cover.

Later, Pradumna took me to Marg’s Bank Street office in Fort and introduced me to its founder, writer Dr. Mulk Raj Anand. He told Mulk about my interest in dance and how much I appreciated the Bharatnatyam issue. Pleased, Mulk invited me to one of his lectures at Bharada High School near Bori Bundar. During the lecture, he spoke about Georgette Bonner’s interest in Indian dance, but referred to her as George. I had been reading her article on Kathakali around that time, and told him during the Q and A session that her name was not George but Georgette Bonner, sister of Swiss sculptress Alice Bonner. Mulk said that he stood corrected, and invited me to lunch at his home the next day. When I told Pradumna about the incident and my audacity, he assured me that Mulk was a very warm-hearted person and that I needn’t worry.

With Dr. Mulk Raj Anand.

Entering Mulk’s ground floor apartment at 25 Cuffe Parade, I was ushered into a different world. In the impressive drawing room were stacks of books on art, painting, sculpture and philosophy, a bed on which Mulk would recline, a large oil painting by Ceylonese painter George Kyte, and a sculpture of Buddha’s head. I remember Mulk introducing me to his wife Shirin Vajifdar as a young dance scholar! We were joined for lunch by poets and writers, and pleasant discussions spanned poetry and a recent exhibition at Jehangir Art Gallery.

Around this time, Bhupen and I had signed articles for chartered accountancy. Neither was his heart in accountancy – he had joined painting classes at Grant road – nor was mine. The articles period was for five years, and we decided to go to office as articled clerks after attending morning classes at Siddharth College, thereby simultaneously getting a Bachelors in Arts. We soon realised that this was madness. We decided to focus on our Bachelors degrees – this way Bhupen could attend painting classes and I could study dance – and enjoy college for three more years, after which we would responsibly get a BCom degree and join a CA firm.

With Chandralekha, Balasaraswati and others.

During this period, I went to Mr. Marshall – the Parsi chief librarian of Bombay University – with a letter from Mulk requesting permission for me to visit the Rajabai Tower library. The library with its high ceilings, stained glass windows on either side, and very British architecture was on the first floor. There was a large table with chairs on all four sides. The atmosphere was conducive for reading in pin-drop silence. When the librarians found out that I was studying and writing on dance, they gave me all the facilities I needed. And that was when I started dedicatedly devouring books on dance.

Mr. Marshall was, I remember, particularly kind. He even gave me a special access card to browse through the racks where books on dance were kept. There were more than eighty books on Indian classical and folk dances, two dance encyclopaedia, books on Balinese and Ceylonese dance traditions, and on opera, puppetry, theatre, and ballet. There were even pictorial books on archived dance posters! I began to bring all this knowledge into my dance writing and curation later. I remember reading American dance critic and poet Edwin Denby’s quip about how dance criticism should be of such an order that even when the readers haven’t attended the show, they get the sense that an artistic event had taken place the previous evening. I liked this approach, and asked Mr. Marshall if there were books by American and British critics in the library of Bombay University. He guided me to the United States Information Service (USIS) at Churchgate, and to the British Council Library.

Governor Sadiq Ali releasing Dr. Kothari’s book on Bharatnatyam, published by Marg, at the NCPA, 1979.

At USIS and British Council, I found books by John Martin, Walter Terry, Arnold Haskell and Cyril Beaumont that completely opened my eyes. I read about how John Martin had helped establish the Modern Dance movement in America. Arnold Haskell wrote about his travels and firsthand experience working with ballet. I began to understand the significance of copious references at the end of books, because every time I finished one book I would be introduced to several more. I recall reading in awe about dance marathons happening in America – you must remember that there were very few early writings on dance, and all this was a fresh discovery! I used to dream that an opportunity would take me to New York and London and I’d meet the critics whose writings had helped me understand forms like modern dance, classical ballet, and given me a glimpse into the lives of legendary dancers like Martha Graham and Anna Pavlova.

Interviewing the Russian ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev in Washington, 1975.

My interest in classical dance forms increased significantly after my reading sprees, and I went to Mulk one evening and told him that I would like to seek Mohan Khokar’s advice and join Baroda’s Maharaja Sayaji Rao University to study dance, instead of pursuing CA.

Mohan Khokar had studied Uday Shankar’s style of dance from his disciples in Lahore, been the first male dancer from the North to join Chennai’s Kalakshetra to study Bharatnatyam, and went on to settle in Baroda as a Bharatnatyam lecturer. He was the one who proposed that Mulk edit four major Marg issues on classical dances, beginning with Bharatnatyam.

Professor and dance historian Mohan Khokar.

I wrote to Mohan explaining my dilemma. We used to correspond regularly – I used to translate his long articles on Kuchipudi and Bhagavata Mela Natak to Gujarati for Kumar magazine – and he would constantly tell me to read books and attend performances. I remember the date when Mohan asked me to visit Baroda and stay at his home. After visiting Baroda and meeting with Mohan, I was to go to Ahmedabad and meet the dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai. Mulk sent letters to both Mohan and Mrinalini, introducing me. It was 15th December, 1957. 52 Alkapuri was a spacious bungalow; the rooms had
cupboards full of books on dance, photographs, magazines and newspaper clippings. In the coming days, Mohan showed me his collection of books and photographs. He knew that I had read most of the books at Bombay University’s library. We spoke at length about various books on dance, about critics like Arnold Haskell and Walter Terry, and about dancers like the Jhaveri sisters, Shirin Vajifdar, Rukmini Devi and Shanta Rao.

When I asked him about my joining his University’s dance department, Mohan advised me to first complete my chartered accountancy and then decide if I wanted to seriously opt for the career of a dancer. He was frank, and said that neither he nor I were endowed with the personalities of performing dancers. Moreover, with Bharatnatyam gaining popularity among female dancers, the scope for male dancers was less. Though I was very disappointed, his advice made some sense. He suggested that I attend dance performances, write on dance, and do research. Mumbai was becoming a centre for professional dance presentations, and there were increasing opportunities to watch dance and write reviews. Since there were very few young persons who were interested in conducting research and academic studies on the subject, if I were to follow his advice, it would satisfy my desire and love for dance while recognising the limitations the life of a performer would bring to me.

With NCPA trustee Dr. Jamshedjee Bhabha and Kathak exponent Kumudini Lakhia.

I picked up so many things from each person I spoke to on my journey. Mohan fastidiously kept copies of his correspondences, and recommended that I do the same with typed letters. He also told me to learn photography to document events, and not depend on dancers to send over their photographs for my articles. I learned how important detailed chronicling was to be able to write informed, historically accurate articles. The sense of preserving – whether it be performance brochures, rare photographs or articles – was instilled in me by him, and it has held me in good stead all these years.

On 19th December, I called on Mrinalini Sarabhai’s Chidambaram residence. In the midst of Nathdwara pichhawai, rubbings of Angkorvat temple, and streaming gold sunlight, Mrinalini – in a yellow Benarasi saree and a bindi on her forehead – invited me to Tagore Hall for her dance-drama performance of Ramayana. It was one of the most strikingly exquisite arrangements I had ever beheld. As I began to watch more and develop my critique, I travelled with the Jhaveri sisters and Ram Gopal, went to the North East and beyond searching for dance, and did things I would never have dreamt of if Mulk hadn’t rescued me from a sure shot future behind a desk on the 22nd floor of a Nariman Point glass building!

With Bharatnatyam dancer Ram Gopal (extreme right).
Arranging performances of Protima Bedi and Mallika Sarabhai for Sydenham College.
Then President of India Dr. R. Venkatraman releasing Dr. Kothari’s Kathak book at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Bhupen went home to Baroda to tell his parents about his change of heart, and his decision to pursue painting. We didn’t want to disappoint our families, but fortunately were part of a very strong artistic group where each individual was encouraged to find their voice. I find that once you get rid of your emotional baggage and are on your way to financial independence, you have a choice to make. It can be an unpleasant position to be in, but if you are willing to stick out your neck… you will find poetry in unexpected places.

Dance is not a popular art form. The readership for dance criticism is limited. But I must pass this on – these stories, this sense of astounding discovery, these relationships formed with artists who became lifelong mentors and friends – and convey that dance is not only created by glamour and publicity, but by poetry…”

Conceived with and edited by Tanvi Shah.

Photos courtesy Sunil Kothari’s archives.

Partake in Sunil Kothari’s singular brand of curiosity at 5.30 pm on Dec 16 (Fri), when he conducts his Mumbai Local talk ‘My Journey through Dance: Anecdotes, Dance Criticism’  at Fort’s Kitab Khana. Over the years, his travels have spanned myriad dance forms as well as the length and breadth of the country. And at every step, he has asked questions and offered insights that have pushed the boundaries of both the performers – spanning Rukmini Devi Arundale, Yamini Krishnamurti, the Jhaveri sisters, Sanjukta Panigrahi, Chandralekha and many more – and their art forms. His session promises anecdotes, stories and insights on what it means to hold a mirror up to performers finding their own voices, and how dance can be connected with and relevant to how we perceive and seek to reimagine our cultural and social contexts.
This session is part of Junoon‘s Mumbai Local series, and is free and open for all.

To read more creative collaborative pieces, click here.


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