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A pat on the back Ashish Khokar at a book release event, flanked by Guru Maya Rao (left) and writer Shashi Deshpande.
A pat on the back Ashish Khokar at a book release event, flanked by Guru Maya Rao (left) and writer Shashi Deshpande.

Ashish Khokar on being a cultural commentator.

The Khokar name is a familiar one in the dance field. There was Mohan Khokar the dance scholar, at one time Secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Known as an exemplary writer and scholar — and probably the first Punjabi boy who dared to learn Bharatanatyam — whose vast collection of photographs of the dances of India is now known as the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection, he married celebrated Bharatanatyam dancer M.K. Saroja. Today, it is the turn of their son Ashish Mohan Khokar — writer, arts commentator and editor of the dance annual Attendance. Ashish has in abundance, and in common with others in the classical dance field, passion. This passion translates into hard work, high emotions and sometimes hardened stances. Ashish’s contention that he has seen dance for 40 years, longer than critics older than him, because his is a family that has “seen and made dance history” can’t be disputed. Gentlemanly and soft-spoken, he can be a glowering opponent too. Excerpts from an interview with Anjana Rajan on his experiences as a dance observer for over four decades.

On the role of a critic

The role of a critic is basically to help further an art form. A qualified critic can make the art and artist/e reach further. By commenting, they can help assess, a bit like a jeweller, who can help tell one what carat a particular stone or gold is! This is how “value” will be set. Of late, one or two casual critics, who are either wives of retired bureaucrats or came to dance (or art writing) by sheer positioning and chance (and not sustained exposure or training), have taken to dance writing and done damage to both the art and the artiste by making ego statements and being arrogant. A critic needs to be compassionate to the art form; credible, by being an example of honesty and integrity in public conduct (and not do side business like compering, organising shows, etc.) and have class, so dancers take them seriously!

Above all a critic must take a stand and have courage. That’s why lists or having the courage to make lists is important when one assesses annual or periodic trends and talents. …only those with conviction and courage can take a stand. Ordinary critics like to play safe and please all….

On the role of a cultural commentator

As discourse on society and cultural patterns, it helps to take note of developments in a given field, from time to time. However, trying to talk down to readers or impress with Sanskrit words no one understands or detailing items few saw, serves little purpose. Things will take their own course anyway; a cultural commentator is writing history as it happens.

On the easy and difficult parts of his journey

The most difficult part is jealousy of one or two senior critics and their insecurities. I can’t hide my talent and be more polite than I already am just because they are maha-insecure of their own worth and put me and my work down because they can’t do even one-tenth of it. My 35 books, landmark television dance series, archives, columns, outreach on the Internet have made one or two critics (older than me in age but not necessarily in experience or exposure) jealous. Dancers in India, sometimes their egos are larger than their talents. In India, many do not differentiate between the professional and the personal.

The easy part is being honest! I don’t care how I am perceived because I am serving dance, not the dancer. I am in it for the muse.

More avenues for dance and employment opportunities

Dance (and other arts) should be an integral part of our school education. This would also provide employment to many who can’t perform but can teach and help make art more accessible and popular. It would ensure generations of appreciative dance rasikas if not dancers.

On the elitist image of classical dance

Classical arts, in any culture, were never meant for the masses, by definition. For the masses we had the gladiators in Roman times; circus and magicians in medieval times and cricket and football in modern times! Add TV, now.

Is the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Yuva Puraskar a constructive step?

Akademi and constructive? The Akademi is catering to a few lobbyists and favourites. Even its many festivals have stopped and all one sees is promotion of a few and certainly its dancing Secretary! How can a bureaucrat further his career and get awards and shows? This is against service rules in Government. Or its agencies. The Akademi cannot have a head who dances or sings professionally because naturally organisers will pander to or include such heads to curry favour. But has any current, active Delhi critic taken up this matter? No. Because then they would not be on panels of selection (from where power stems); angle for an award or go on trips.

Bismillah Khan title for such an award is a misnomer because what’s the legendary ustad of shehnai got to do with dance? The title is wrong; it should have been called junior SNA Award or Yuva Kalakaar Samman and not named after any one particular artiste, no matter how great. The age limit should be extended to include talents in dance up to 40. A dancer needs more time to arrive nationally.

The dance scene

While there are many dancers, standards are on the decline and critics are failing in their duty in some way. If critics were credible and did their job sincerely, standards would not decline so. The dance scene today needs all the support. …there are other voices that are saying something [too]. And nationally, not limited to one city. …in a country so vast, there are only five dance journals. It is time we all did more to help artistes reach greater art and heights….


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