Keshav Kothari had the rare combination of administrative acumen and a feel for aesthetics.
When Keshav Kothari left this world on the evening of October 16 this year, it was as unobtrusively as he had lived. In an age when bureaucrats are forever plotting and planning post-retirement jobs for themselves, here was a man who just slipped into dignified anonymity after having served the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi as Secretary for six years from 1984 to 1990. A rare combination of administrative acumen and deep feel for aesthetics in any field, anything Keshav Kothari visualised was with a pan-Indian vision, even while his special Kathak connection came in for more notice. Involved with Kathak from the `60s when the Kendra was part of the Bharatiya Kala Kendra, it was as Director of the fully funded constituent unit of the Sangeet Natak Akademi that Keshav Kothari made himself really felt in Kathak. His quintessential flair for presentational aesthetics, perhaps for the first time gave Kathak dancers full awareness of how to treat the dance in performance space. When he launched the Bindadin Mahotsav, the first of its kind uniting the entire Kathak world under one umbrella of the Kendra's patronage, the magnificence of presentational artistry took one's breath away. A lamp here, a statue there, a little arch or a couple of steps on stage changed the entire feel of a plain `tatkar.' One still recollects the delight of seeing a young Prerana Shrimali and Veronique Azan dance a duet with the simultaneous beauty of Lucknow and Jaipur gharanas - each a foil for the other.
As secretary SNA, Keshav Kothari pioneered landmark events. The very popular Lok Utsav for folk traditions, begun in 1984, stunned viewers with its colour and pageantry. He also mounted the Tagore Festival. In 1989 was the Nehru Shatabdi Centenary Festival. He was the architect of the International Dance Festival and the International Puppet Festival (1990). His unerring artistic eye regarded even the slightest hiss in a mike during a music concert as a blot. Subtly magnified sound for any part of the audience had to be like listening in the intimacy of your room. No compere's introduction went over a minute. "After deciding the event, get off his back and he will give you the best," Narayana Menon, Chairman SNA once remarked during a private conversation. A man of few words, Kothari kept his feelings largely unvoiced, unless provoked by a friend. He knew the strength and weaknesses of every artiste and SNA functionary. Conversing in his Mayur Vihar flat much after retirement, he mentioned how SNA officials had to be strong not to be steamrolled by art titans, though some amount of pressure was unavoidable. "At one time powerful Chennai art promoters engineered SNA awards and the Music Akademi awards being conferred on the same set of artistes! The Constitution prepared to locate and document art forms, is now outdated. With zonal councils and other cultural bodies, a fresh look at SNA's functions is needed". When asked to articulate his views, he laughed wryly "Who wants to hear my advice? Once your time is over, just stay away." Keshav Kothari faced criticism about making programme presentation override scholastic activity. His support for a fine dancer like the late Pandit Durga Lal evoked comments like, "You scratch him and the Rajasthani in him comes out", from the Lucknow lobby. Dancers left out of the India festivals called his choice of artistes prejudiced and after retirement, papers avidly sensationalised dancers' criticism. Silently smoking or chewing supari, Kothari refused to defend himself. For him the best should be presented no matter how often. Quality cannot be made into Sunday school charity and giving a chance to everybody.