Bookmark Ashish Khokar brings Mohan Khokar's last book, “The Dance Orissi”, to the light of day. ANJANA RAJAN

R esearch is a time-consuming activity, involving charting an unknown path rife with unforeseen complications. Presenting that research is another time-consuming task. But in an age when an 18-minute train ride without the availability of a mobile network is considered an impediment to communication, it can be painful to wait for research to be completed. However, the publisher of “The Dance Orissi” (Abhinav Publications) did just that, and so it is that the book on the history and development of the dance form popularly known as Odissi has come out after over 20 years of work. It is also the last book by the late Mohan Khokar, dance scholar and collector. The manuscript of the book, rich with rare photographs of monuments and dancers, had taken Khokar 10 years to complete when he succumbed to cancer in 1999. It was left to his son Ashish to decipher the handwriting, compile and caption the huge photographic collection and prepare it for publication. It took him another decade, during which he also brought it up to date with later developments in Odissi. The book has been recently launched.

On how much he had to add to the book, Ashish says, “He had finished all but the last chapter and some portions in between were not connected.” He points out that many groups have come up, such as Nrityagram, Srjan and Rudraksha, which did not exist in his father's lifetime. “So all that info has been included and pictures added as this book will now be an update of the form as it stands today in 2011.” Calling his father a perfectionist, he says even the draft he left, indecipherable as it was, was “the nth draft.”

Was melding writing styles a concern? “Basically I had to fine tooth comb all the pages, as all present tense had to be changed to past tense....then I had to see if some stories held well,” says Ashish. “His style of writing has been my inspiration. He believed in not overawing the reader by using big words or Sanskrit few understood. His style was not dry. Of course, I've absorbed that from childhood and have followed in his footsteps and I find many compliment us as our books are easily accessible. We don't have to impress the reader, just inform.”

Recalling his experiences as a schoolboy accompanying his father while taking photographs for the book, Ashish, calling himself his “umbrella-holding fellow, free labour!” comments, “That's how he taught. I saw a master at work, and those days there were no luxuries. We arrived in, say, Guruvayoor, dark and raining, frogs and scorpions jumping on our legs, and yet I had to stand still till he got the right photo of Krishnattam!”

The senior Khokar seems to have been anyway interested in documenting dance, but some of the photographs in this book seem to be specially arranged photo shoots. “Yes, that he was, and all his books focus on all aspects of dance — its provenance, architecture, costume, music and make-up. In this book, the problem was one of immensity of material: he had taken over 2000 photos of monuments, and not once but in three visits over 10 years to see and show deterioration! My work with INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) also helped.”

Those were pre-digital days, and with the beauty of old photographs comes their vulnerability. Were the old photographs difficult to reproduce in this large, glossy format? “No and yes,” says Ashish. “Slide colours were fading but the publisher Shakti Malik is as much a maverick as Mohanji and I, so he did all to make this book of lasting value and beauty. He spared no expense. I salute him. For me, captioning over 400 photos was uphill because from a lot of over 5000 photos, I had to shortlist 500! And then caption them.”

Dancers like Aloka and Ambika Panikar helped with captions of hand and body positions, he acknowledges. “Also gurus in Orissa like Kumkum Mohanty, Ratikant Mohapatra and Gajendra Panda. While Kelu Babu was alive he helped with his abhinaya captions and so did Mayadhar Raut,” he adds, lamenting the void left by scholars who are no more. “So none could help me as well as Mohanji would have.”

Translation woes

As for the difference in spelling the name of the form, he remarks, “It's a case of lost in translation, truly so! Orissi was spelt so by all first-generation writers from the mid-'50s onwards — like Charles Fabri, scholars of Orissa like Mayadhar Mansingh, father of Lalit Mansingh, and even dancers like Sanjukta Panigrahi and Indrani (Rehman). Posters, pamphlets, books, articles in the Mohan Khokar Collection prove this manifold. The change or corruption to Odissi happened in the '70s owing to regionalism perhaps. Now, in 2011, some want to call Odissi as Odishi. Next what? As a historian, I stick to facts. History will remember us if we are honest and true to our muse. Fiction is like fashion, always transitory.”