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Yog Sunder with his daughter, dancer-choreographer Papiha Desai.
Yog Sunder with his daughter, dancer-choreographer Papiha Desai.

Veteran choreographer Yog Sunder on his long innings in dance.

As the son of Darbar Gopaldas Desai, a prince who abdicated to join Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom movement, veteran choreographer Yog Sunder belongs to the generation for whom art was an offering at the altar of a proud reviving nation.

No wonder he named his organisation the Indian Revival Group. As the Group’s 60th year celebrations continue, it has notched up one more landmark. Yog Sunder, settled in the Capital for nearly four decades, received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his contribution to Indian dance this week.

Excerpts from an interview:

Santiniketan and beyond

I went to Santiniketan in 1939 to learn painting under Nand Lal Bose. But as a boy of 10 I had seen Uday Shankar perform. He looked like a god! At Santiniketan, Guru Kelu Nair told me if I was serious about learning Kathakali, I should go to Kerala. I found so much there I never went back to Santiniketan. I studied Kathakali under Guru Kunju Nair. I wanted to learn Mohiniattam, and ultimately I found an old woman Kochumaru Amma. I also learnt a bit of Krishnattam. The artistes did not leave the temple premises. Secretly I got a guru and he came to my place and taught me.

Hard training

It was rigorous, my God! We would sleep at 11 p.m., get up at 3 o’clock. We had about 18 hours of practice and six hours rest — four hours to sleep and two hours’ rest in the afternoon, but you couldn’t sleep. It is very dangerous.

Early career

India had just got independence. There was a spirit of revival. Dance was not given the required honour, but then it started getting respect and people were encouraged to learn dance. So in that spirit I started. When I started my group I had no money. I didn’t dare ask my parents. I borrowed Rs.500 from a friend. Then I hired a theatre for Rs.50, got tickets printed for Rs.10 and started making money. That was my initial investment. The Indian Progressive Ballet Group was a sort of dead group, started by some former members of Uday Shankar’s troupe. I took the responsibility to revive it. This was 1946. We hired Kalika theatre in Calcutta — it’s a cinema hall now. Its capacity was 3000. We had a crowd of 5000. We sold tickets for standing too! Ultimately I started the Indian Revival Group. My first production was “Birth of Freedom”.

On reviving fading traditions

We had lost a lot of forms, both folk and classical. So I started to research. Folk in villages is done for our own enjoyment, but on stage it is done for others’ enjoyment. So some aspects needed to be added, like rhythmic embellishments and so on.

I was perhaps the first person to introduce choreography in folk dances. My purpose was to make dance an educational pursuit and for enlightenment.

Art to the masses

I followed Mahatma Gandhi’s three instructions on art: He said don’t go for publicity, that every activity should be self-supporting, and art should be taken to the masses. So I took dance to the people. We performed for workers, jawans, and the like. We were performing not just folk but classical also. I presented “Mahabharata” at the Kumbh Mela in 1950. Tickets were two annas and four annas. Serious art can be for the masses. It should be done in a way that people are drawn to it.

(Indian Revival Group presents “The Man Divine” this Saturday, Meghdoot theatre, 7.30 p.m.)

ANJANA RAJAN


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