INTERVIEW Dance historian Sunil Kothari on putting together his volume on Sattriya ANJANA RAJAN

Well known writers, even in this age of audio-visual technology, are often better recognised by their widely read words than by face. Sunil Kothari, though, is an exception. Among the community of dancers, dance audiences and writers, his is an easily recognised visage. With a younger author, one might have attributed this familiarity to a skill at manipulating the public relations industry. But with this septuagenarian dance historian and critic, the reason is much simpler. Over the decades, a boundless energy has propelled him to just about every dance event of significance, be it across the country or the world. Presenting a paper in Kolkata, introducing a group in Chennai, interviewing great dancers in Orissa, collecting material for his books that number over a dozen — besides editing memorable editions of Marg dedicated to various art forms — lecturing at institutions in the U.S. — a casual observation of his trajectory would make one believe the laws of time and space willingly dissolved before him.

Kothari’s career has straddled a century, right from the early days of India’s classical dance renaissance when Bharatanatyam was first prised out of its cultural isolation in the thatched cottages of devadasis and nattuvanars of South India, to the present, an era in which professionals of the dance form jet across the globe performing for eager audiences. If Bharatanatyam is no longer new on the cultural firmament, Sattriya, the umbrella term for the Vaishnavite dances associated with the monasteries (sattras) of Assam, is lesser known, and given formal recognition as a ‘classical’ dance of India by the Sangeet Natak Akademi only in 2000. Stands to reason then, that the latest book edited by this dance scholar who has been there, done that (Marg’s “Bharata Natyam”, which he edited, was first published in 1979 and has seen two editions and five prints), is “Sattriya: Classical Dance of Assam”. The book, with photographs by Avinash Pasricha, is due to be released this Sunday in New Delhi by Sangeet Natak Akademi Vice Chair Shanta Serbjeet Singh.

Besides marking stages of Kothari’s own journey of discovery, these books are also landmarks of documentation in a field not overflowing with written documentation. With his penchant for being present when history was being made — “and I became a part of that history” — he has developed a familiarity with personalities and events and a roster of personal memories. As a young man then studying for his Chartered Accountancy, he attended the All India Dance Seminar in Delhi in 1958. Aptly he describes it as “a stock taking of Indian dance and our dance history”. Many are familiar with the story of how Priyambada Mohanty performed Odissi there and first brought the attention of scholars, artistes and critics to this now famous dance art. But it was here too that Sattriya was performed for the first time in the Capital, notes Kothari.

Author Mulk Raj Anand, founding editor of Marg and among Kothari’s mentors, told him to go to Assam to look up Sattriya. However, reputed scholar Dr. Maheswar Neog advised him not to rush, as researching the dance of the monks was not a matter of simply arriving with a notebook and camera. So it was that gradually, with trips to the area, seeing other dance forms of the Northeast region, his friendship with Sattriya exponent Guru Ghanakanta Bora and others, he added over the years to his understanding. On his first visit to Majuli, he even took pictures, “but Mulk Raj said they are not good enough,” he recounts, remembering the precision training he received thanks to this close association.

Kothari says he began to follow Assamese too. His researches — starting with a PhD thesis, “Dance drama traditions of Kuchipudi, Bhagavatata Mela Nataka and Kuravanji with special reference to Rasa Theory as expounded in Bharata’s Natyasastra” and a post-doctoral thesis, “Dance Sculptures of Medieval Temples of North Gujarat with special reference to Sangitopnisatsroddhara” — have been bolstered by training in Kathak and Bharatanatyam. This practical training would have been a help in deciphering the Sattriya movements too, but it took time for him to understand some nuances. For example, he says, “I didn’t know that in ‘Ramavijaya’ (one of the traditional presentations of Ankiya Bhaona) Ravana never appears!” (The dance drama depicts Ram’s victory in the sense of winning Janaki and calming the angry Parasurama.)

His process of assimilation continued with dancer Indira P.P. Bora, who performed Sattriya on many stages. Kothari would give lectures with her. He also wrote articles in art journals. Many expressed interest, “but it was not getting recognised as a classical dance form,” he recalls. With the support of late Bhupen Hazarika, who was SNA Chairman between December 1998 and December 2003, this goal was achieved, he says. Then Kothari began pressing Marg to schedule the book on Sattriya. It has taken over a decade, partly due to administrative matters like Marg’s insistence on receiving all permissions from contributors.

And then there was Kothari’s own meticulousness. The original photo chosen for the cover did not meet with his idea of a representational image and he stood firm till it was changed. The book, with a large number of archival photographs besides Avinash Pasricha’s specially commissioned images, seems to have been worth the work, with essays on the Sattriya dances, music and masks, illustrated descriptions of dance steps, summaries of dance dramas, discussions on the history and contemporary expansion of the repertoire.

“The romance of a book is a very different ballgame,” says Kothari. “Mulk Raj taught me patience is the most important thing.”