DANCE Veteran classical dancer Sonal Mansingh goes down memory lane
She has been a presence in the Capital for well over four decades. The veteran classical dancer, known for her mastery over Bharatanatya, Odissi and Chhau, tends to carve out her own path. Having thought things through in her own mind, she doesn’t, in her public persona at least, have time for petty fears like what society may think of her. She has been settled in New Delhi since 1967, she relates, but her first visit to the city that became her home and headquarters was back in 1954. She came with her mother and siblings and was put up at Birla House, which, continuing its association with Mahatma Gandhi, was where freedom fighters used to stay. She was then known as Sonal Pakvasa, granddaughter of well known nationalist Mangaldas M. Pakvasa.
Her grandfather was also national president of Bharat Scouts and Guides, and Sonal too was part of the movement — “first a Bulbul, then a Guide” — so she was back to take part in the All India Scouts and Guides Jamboree in December of 1959, freezing in tents in a city that was not as built up as it is today.
But it was in 1964 that she first came to dance in Delhi. Then based in Bangalore, she came with her musicians to perform Bharatanatya at the opening of a festival in Sapru House, then the Capital’s big cultural establishment. “I opened the festival and after me it was Damayanti Joshi. Kya nazakat, aur kya Kathak (What delicacy, what Kathak),” she recalls. “The next day was Bharati Gupta, Birju Maharajji’s disciple, and Indrani Rehman. And on the third day Roshan Kumari’s Kathak, and next Vilayat Khan (sitar).”
She remembers iconic photojournalist Kishor Parekh took pictures, and “the next day (critic) Charles Fabri splashed me all over The Statesman .” Exciting times for a young girl of 20, but “who knows where all those have gone,” she muses on the lack of clippings.
She stayed on in Delhi to learn padams from celebrated dancer Swarna Saraswathi. She stayed in the house of Morarji Desai. Desai was Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in Indira Gandhi’s government, but to the young Sonal, he was a “Kaka” or uncle, having been inducted into politics by her grandfather. One day, as per Gujarati custom, she looked into his room to tell him she was leaving for her dance class. “He was at his charkha. He said, look, I don’t approve of this. In our families, dancing in public is not considered good.” Sonal, being “very hot tempered,” asked him why he made speeches in public to the contrary. “He got very angry and had a call put through to my grandfather to complain,” she laughs. But her grandfather, 13 years Desai’s senior, asked him in turn what had provoked the rebuke, apart from informing him that the family was proud of Sonal’s dance endeavours.
Marriage at a young age led to an introduction to Odissi — then barely known outside of Orissa — through her illustrious father-in-law Mayadhar Mansingh, who took her to Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. The marriage may not have lasted, but the relationship to Odissi remained life long. The road accident in the mid-70s that broke her spine but not her spirit is now long past.
Hearing these tales and looking at her career graph, it is clear that her grit and tireless effort in combination with the fond guidance of the builders of a new nation — who gave importance to India’s cultural identity — helped Sonal Mansingh to establish herself in her chosen field. But she gives it a humorous take. “You know I’ve been really done in by these well meaning people,” she laughs. In this case she is referring to how Vasant Sathe kept insisting she must start teaching when she was still in her heyday. With his and others’ support, including late scholar Jiwan Pani and her long time friend Veena Shroff, she registered the Centre for Indian Classical Dances on April 30, 1977. However, she had started teaching in ’76, “worn out” by the perseverance of her first student, Swati.
“She stood outside my door for three to four months. I said, don’t bug me yaar, I don’t teach. It really started bugging me so much that I took to leaving from the back door.” Finally, says the guru, she set what she thought were impossible conditions to take on the disciple. “I said you’ll have to come any day, any time I ask you. And I don’t want to hear about your pain. Poor thing, I believe she took to walking like a duck in college because of the pain from the aramandi. Then slowly, her friends started coming too.”
The career that has taken her across the world performing Odissi and Bharatanatyam has now taken a new turn. She now performs ‘kathas’ — combining storytelling, recitation, singing and dance, along with an orchestra whose leader is her veteran accompanist, vocalist Bankim Sethi.
What started as an informal presentation for friends has now become a public performance. If at Vrindavan she performed “Krishna Rang Rachee”, the topic was “Devi” during the Navaratri season. And so the story continues….