Sukanya Rahman looks back on a career steeped in the arts

It would be interesting to speculate upon what Indian dance history would be today had there been no dancer like Indrani Rahman and no daughter like Sukanya to carry on her mother’s as well as her grandmother Ragini Devi’s dance tradition. In all likelihood it would be shallower if Sukanya Rahman, a dancer and visual artist trained under the most celebrated gurus and institutions, had not penned her memoirs in her book “Dancing in the Family” — which was launched by none other than the maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar back in 2001. Dividing her time between an island in Maine, the Yucatan in Mexico and India, the unassuming, soft spoken Kolkata-born 66-year-old artist concentrates only on painting now. In this interview she shares a magnificent portion of her story.

Excerpts:

Talk about your dance journey

My very first lessons were with my grandmother Ragini Devi in Bangalore when my mother left me there — I think in 1952 — when she went to the Miss India contest. Grandmother taught me the basics of Bharatanatyam and thereafter I was sent to my mother’s Odissi and Kuchipudi gurus. My mother did not teach me herself until much later after I had all my basic training. Then she started to teach me her own repertoire, handing me down all her items. I started performing solos and toured Europe. My husband Frank Wick was managing her. We toured together as a company and when she began to teach in Juilliard then we started doing mother-daughter performances all over the U.S. with my husband doing the lights, the sound, the bookings and everything. So it was all in the family. It had its ups and downs of course, but we had wonderful programmes. One of the highlights at that time of touring was at the New York season (there was always one). We had announced our season when my grandmother just arrived from Bombay.

She was living in the “actor’s fund home “in New Jersey when the very distinguished critic Walter Terry called us up and said, “What is this, Indrani and Sukanya are dancing and why isn’t Ragini?” So when my mother asked Ragini, she was very afraid and said “Oh! I am so old, I’ll look ugly on stage”. We talked her into performing a little ashtapadi from the Gita Govinda which she could do seated on the stage. My mother sang for her and I played the tanpura. So just three of us.

The New York audience gave her a standing ovation and when the curtain came down my grandmother turned to us and said “Do you want me to do that again?” She was very excited!

Did she perform after that?

No. She was 86 or 85 then. She was always lying about her age so we weren’t quite sure!

Why did you stop dancing?

My first love was really painting. You know my father Habib Rahman was an architect so I had that part in me — the designing and architecture — but I was studying dancing all the time. Even when I was little, my mother used to put me on stage as a “sutradhar”. I kept dancing and touring for 25 years, 59 performances a year and that was hectic with small children. Actually that’s how, for a while, we were raising our family just on dance. Which is quite a feat!

I did it and I loved it but always wanted to get back to my artwork. So I never quite knew when to stop and I knew I didn’t want to fade on stage.

I stopped after my son felicitated me on stage after my performance in his college in the U.S. I thought I can’t have a better reward than this.

How did your formal art training begin?

Soon after school I was at the College of Art in Delhi. When Gandhiji died, Pandit Nehru asked my father to design the Gandhi Ghat and he also designed one of the tallest buildings in India, the New Secretariat in Calcutta. So it caught the eye of Panditji and he was brought to Delhi as a senior architect and then chief architect. In 1952 we moved to Delhi. Soon my mother and our family got involved in a sort of the renaissance of the arts. Every evening we had artists, musicians, dancers and painters in our house and it was then a very creative time for India. Nehru was sending my mother abroad on numerous cultural delegations. I was on a French Government scholarship for three years in the Ecole Nationale Des Beaux Arts, Paris learning painting from the very basics. Only most recently I have taken to painting full-time as my work is selling well.

What were you doing in between?

I was still doing dance workshops, lecturing, teaching in an organisation called Young Arts in Miami and in Juilliard in the U.S.

Pandit Ravi Shankar was close to your family…

He was always an old family friend and he and my mother were colleagues, been on the same performances and we were touring together. My husband was my mother’s manager and Ravi asked him to become his manager also. So it was like a family. It was Ravi Shankar, Allah Rakha and Kamala Chakravarty. He went to the Woodstock festival with them in a helicopter as there was rain and mud and all the roads were jammed and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was with them because he was coming to bless the festival. So when my book was being launched in 2001, the people at Harper Collins were pestering me to ask Ravi Shankar to inaugurate it. I had heard he was not keeping well and said I can’t ask him. But they kept on bugging me and I finally picked up the phone and very gingerly asked him. “Oh my God,” he said, “I am in the middle of reading your book right now. I love it. Of course I’ll come”. So he came. At first I thought a musician launching a book? But when he started speaking I realised he was first a dancer in Uday Shankar’s troupe in his early days and there are wonderful pictures of him in costumes. He went into the early history of going back to our home in Calcutta with Uday Shankar, meeting my mother and grandmother Ragini Devi, and turned up absolutely the most perfect person to talk about the book. I think he was very generous to me and to all artists, had an open heart, fun-loving and anyone could approach him.