Dr Sunil Kothari - Interview

Dr. Sunil Kothari, dance historian, scholar, author, is a renowned dance critic, having written for The Times of India group of publications for more than 40 years. He is a regular contributor to Dance Magazine, New York. Dr. Kothari is a globetrotter, attending several national, international dance conferences and dance festivals. He has to his credit more than 14 definitive works on Indian classical dance forms. Kothari was a Fulbright Professor and has taught at the Dance Department, New York University; has lectured at several Universities in USA, UK, France, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.


Dr Sunil Kothari

He has been Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific (2000-2008) and is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. A regular contributor to www.narthaki.com, Dr Kothari is honored by the President of India with the civil honor of Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi award. 

In your many travels, what performance of Ramayana made the most impact on you?
I have seen several performances in different countries and in particular in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia. I have also attended International Ramayana Festival in Bali three years ago which featured excerpts of Ramayana from Bali, Singapore and India. 

I have enjoyed Cambodian Ramayana the most for its lyrical beauty and aharya, the accompanying music and the training of the dancers. When I first visited New York in 1971, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) I had seen for the first time Cambodian dances and excerpts of Ramayana. As is my practice, I take permission to go back stage, when they are preparing for the performances. The costumes are dazzling and in many cases, the costumes are sewed to fit the bodies of the characters when they are put on them. Visually they are stunning and with their crowns and headgears, they resemble the sculptures of the apsaras we see on the walls of the Angkorvat temples. 

Another memorable impact I remember is of watching the Ramayana which takes place for four nights at the specially constructed theatre in Java at Jogjakarta. Though it is a political will to cater to the needs of the tourists who flock in large number, the presentation is fantastic.

I will quote one incident. When Jatayu bird is attacked by Ravana and his wings are chopped off, the bird falls on the floor. They have a well conceived image of Jatayu bird, regal and resplendent. The Jatayu bird is not alone when he passes away and Rama arrives and does the final rites. Several Jatayu birds surround the main bird and they fly together, suggesting Jatayu’s moksha and his rising towards heaven. It is wonderful sight.

One more event is that of Hanuman setting fire to Lanka. The backdrop at the open air theatre has several settings of the palaces and with the latest state-of- art technology, they are all ablaze and burnt down. The impact is unforgettable.

What aspect of Ramayana themes do you think can still be explored? 
Ramayana offers challenges to contemporary dancers. Let me contextualize it for the aspect of Ramayana theme. For example, Mallika Sarabhai has interpreted in her choreography of ‘Sita’s daughters’ the injustice meted out to Sita. Odissi exponent Sharmila Biswas has in her choreography of Ramayana excerpt dealing with Shurpanakha, interpreted her as a woman who need not be ridiculed. Using three characters representing Shurpanakha, the subaltern with dark skin, the one transformed into a beautiful maiden when approaching Rama and Lakshmana and when being mutilated by Lakshmana, as a towering demoness with larger than life size puppet, questioning the spectators why should she be humiliated? These are markers of looking at the Ramayana themes. 

Depending upon a dancer’s imagination, consciousness about women’s status in the society in present times and to project it to drive the point home, one could select the theme of injustice done to Sita as Rama banishes her to the forest, in particular when she is pregnant. From Sita’s point of view also, Ramayana theme can be choreographed. If I am not mistaken and remember correctly, Prof C V Chandrasekhar in his version of Ramayana has attempted to dwell upon this aspect. I also recall Menaka Thakkar in Toronto has choreographed Sitayana and looked at it from the point of view of Sita.

For example, treatment of women characters is succinctly depicted by the convener of this conference Ananda Shankar Jayant in her contemporary work 'What about me?' Taking characters from mythology she has put across the injustice done to role model women. Another brilliant example is her choreography of Thyagaraja Ramayana. In terms of choreography she brings the message home of the eternal values reflected in Ramayana through the compositions of Thyagaraja

The role of the Ramayana in the formation of the culture and society of South Asia.
The role of Ramayana in formation of culture and society of South Asia is a vast subject and cannot be summarized in brief. What is amazing is that in Malaysia, where the majority of the population is Muslim, they perform the story of Ramayana. In a way it brings harmony between people of different religion. In Thailand, the King carries on the name of Rama and is venerated on account of the Ramayana’s popularity. The impact of Hindu culture on the society is seen in their dramatic presentations and indicates the influence Ramayana wields over the people and society. The values inherent in the story of Ramayana are often invoked by the elder generation. Since the tradition is still alive and the performances of Ramayana take place regularly, it suggests that the society respects the values reflected in Ramayana.

Do you think folk versions of the Ramayana are being given equal importance? 
Not exactly. The exponents of classical dance forms have not attempted to draw inspiration from the folk versions of the Ramayana. The enactment of the Ramalila, in the North and the month long celebration of Ramalila in Varanasi are two examples which show the concurrency of the performances in present times. For exponents of classical dances, the texts of Kamba Ramayana and Valmiki’s Ramayana and also Tulasidasa’s Ramacharitamanasa have inspired them to present them in classical forms. Also as a solo dance and also as dance-dramas. What we see and have cherished for the past thirty years is the superb Ramayana dance-drama series choreographed by Rukmini Devi. She has used not only Valmiki’s text but also drawn from other versions. I am not aware if she has drawn from folk versions of the Ramayana. Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam’s Ramaya Tubhyam Namaha indeed is a landmark as a solo dance-drama. Dancers have used Tulasidasa’s chaupais for solo enactment as well as the Sanskrit prayer Shri Ramachandrakripalu bhajamana for dance in Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kathak. Sri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra has been staging Ramalila annually in Delhi. The popularity of Ramalila has not diminished.

In the various conferences that you have attended, what strikes you most? 
If you are referring to the various Natya Kala Conferences that I have attended over the past thirty years, what has struck me the most is various conveners have attempted to bring to the fore, various aspects of performing arts and classical dance forms. Last year for instance, Bharati Shivaji as a convener placed emphasis on the musical traditions employed in various dance forms which evoked a better understanding of the music used and the dance form using the music. Bringing within the fold of the conference topics of interest, classical, neo- classical, well established forms, lesser known forms like the Chhau dances and Sattriya dances make practicing dancers aware of the variety of classical dance forms. 

Mohini Attam and forms like Vilasini Natyam when presented with analytical approach, help dance aficionados to learn more about these forms. Kuttiyattam and Nangiarkoothu forms also offer different insights. The platform offered by Natya Kala Conference has provided opportunities to dance loving public to relish a variety of classical dance forms. To strike a personal note, I have enjoyed both participating and attending various sessions year after year and have learnt a lot. It is indeed true that often when there is poor attendance, one feels sorry and one is filled with a feeling of pessimism. But of late various institutions, in particular Kalakshetra have been sending young students to attend it regularly. That is a healthy sign and many schools should follow the example of Kalakshetra, as the knowledge is being offered on a silver platter, as it were.

What do you think conferences like NKC will serve after it’s all over and done with? 
As a regular attendee, I have benefited a lot and I value the conferences like NKC. In the present scenario it is important to make educators aware of its importance, when popular entertainment has taken over the classical arts like dance and music. The Bollywood dance and the accompanying music have posed many challenges. And it is through such concentrated efforts and strategies only that such onslaughts of Bollywood would be resisted. The thematic conference like the one convened by Ananda Shankar Jayant would add to the readings and re-visiting of the Ramayana, its different interpretations and comparative studies of various Ramayana traditions. As the saying goes, ‘Yavat sthasyanti girayah…. Ramasya katha lokeshu pracharsyati,’ till there will be on earth mountains, and the rivers would flow, the story of Ramayana will remain and spread among the world. 

The publication of the souvenirs is another important fall-out, because it contains interesting researched articles and papers and provides excellent documentation. It also shows in what direction research is progressing. How trends are changing in scholarship and also when demonstrations are presented, the salient features of the dance forms are seen clearly. Only when demonstrations turn into a performance, the purpose is lost. But dancers are aware now that the demonstrations have to have a bearing upon the topic. As a scholar seeking knowledge, I am a firm believer and appreciate the value and the raison d’tre of such conferences.

Your comments on the Chennai December season. 
Over the years there has been a proliferation of events. Both of music and dance. The Indian Diaspora is also making it a point to visit Chennai to savour the music and dance. The sponsorship coming from corporate sector, banks, private individuals, and also Indian Diaspora has generally helped in mounting several events and programs. The music industry in terms of sales of CDs is reaping dividends. 

But also when there is a surfeit of performances, it becomes counter productive. Because of too many programs of dance and music, the choice is at times difficult. And as is seen during last few years, at many dance programs the attendance is so poor that one feels sorry for the performer who has no audience except a few friends and relatives. This has been voiced again and again by several concerned people. But in a democracy none cares. The media is also playing truant. Sruti magazine conducts the opinion poll and also writes about the mad mad mad season of Madras giving statistics. Last year I was shocked to find only two performances of Kuchipudi, one or two of Odissi and the rest was Bharatanatyam and Bharatanatyam and more Bharatanatyam. One gets tired of it. There is also no quality control and whatever media /reviews appear thanks to the initiative taken by The Hindu in form of tabloids, yet the solution does not seem to be within sight. I gather from regular visitors and local friends that the young generation of musicians is doing very well and there is interest amongst the young generation for classical Carnatic music. Also what Anita Ratnam started as The Other Festival has come to stay providing a platform for contemporary, experimental and innovative dance and music, Ranvir Shah has extended it with poetry and literary festival.

This is indeed a good sign but the flip side is also to be taken into account when so many dancers continue to perform to near empty halls. What is this madness ultimately leading the exponents to? One wonders. One is forced to be choosy and selective and forego many performances. The December season invariably gives an opportunity to meet local friends and friends from abroad and catch up with them. Of course one looks forward to attending the Chennai season to savour best of dance and music. And one has to perforce exercise discrimination.

Contact:
e-mail: sunilkothari1933@gmail.com