History & Culture

Holding on to the thread

Ashish Mohan Khokar  

Dance is in his blood. His parents, Mohan Khokar and M.K. Saroja, were both luminaries in the dance field. His father was a dancer, Kalakshetra’s first North Indian male student, a celebrated art historian, an avid collector of dance memorabilia and a learned art critic, who, along with Charles Fabri helped project Orissi. Meet Ashish Mohan Khokar, well-known art historian, biographer, art critic, scholar and author of more than 40 books on varied subjects. He edits and publishes a year book on dance, ‘Attendance,’ which is in its eighteenth year of publication. Recently in Chennai to deliver a lecture at Kalakshetra as part of its festival in homage to founder Rukmini Devi Arundale, Ashish was happy to rewind, share his thoughts regarding present trends and so on. Pride and despair alternated as he talked of the past and the current state of affairs.

Ashish Mohan Khokar has trained in many styles such as Kathak, Orissi (he insists on calling the form by its original name), western ballet, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi and has a finger in many pies, but his most important role is that of custodian to The Mohan Khokar Dance Collection consisting of rare and valuable archival material — about 70 trunks of memorabilia including books, costume, posters, newspaper clippings, paintings, masks, etc, over two lakh photographs, DVDs, etc, dating 1872 onwards. The collection includes material on classical, folk and contemporary dance.

In 2011, in collaboration with the ICCR, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Government of India, Ashish curated a travelling exhibition of a sample of the collection titled, ‘A Century of Indian Dance 1901-2000’ that travelled to Delhi, Baroda and Bangalore, ten cities in the U.S. and Paris and Milan in Europe. Natural then to ask, ‘Why not Chennai?’ The reply is spontaneous, ‘Sponsor me, we can bring it to Chennai!’

Dance history is fascinating, but down South, our sense of history is restricted to sadir, Bharatanatyam, the Thanjavur Quartet and their descendants, Ashish expands. He does not fail to stress that the great nattuvanars came to propagate the art and not in search of money or fame. Perhaps less immediate, if not more fascinating, is the collection that has a pan-India vision and a global perspective.

Listening to Ashish’s anecdotes is a delightful experience. In his talk at Kalakshetra, he traced the evolution of dance in the twentieth century. The viewers were treated to rare pictures of devadasis and posters of ticketed dance programmes of well-known temple dancers that advertised the kinds of dances that would be presented or the beauty of the dance; one even mentions that the dancer would have three costume changes!

A conversation on dance would be incomplete without the mention of celebrated American dancers, Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Dennis, who laid the foundation for Modern Dance and initiated illustrious students such as Martha Graham. Ashish speaks glowingly of how Ruth was drawn to the idea of expressing Hindu philosophy through the ‘Oriental’ dances that she performed. On a visit to India in 1926, Ted wanted a prop for his ‘Cosmic Dance of Shiva.’ He ordered from a foundry in Mahabalipuram, a 400-kg metal circle of fire with two arms and the flying hair, so he could stand inside the circle and pose as Nataraja! As a concept it is fantastic, but Ashish also points out the logistic challenges they must have faced to get to Mahabalipuram and later to transport such a heavy prop by sea.

The twentieth century was indeed a very eventful one for Indian dance, according to Ashish. Pioneers such as Uday Shankar, Ram Gopal and Kathakali Guru Gopinath and Anand Shivaram partnered international dancers and brought visibility to Indian dance abroad in the 1930s. ‘Oriental’ became the flavour of the day. Calling them the grandfathers of dance, Ashish draws attention to the detailing in their costumes in the 1940s and 50s. “Art for them was a state of being, not just for the stage, so they saw their art holistically. They would wear chunky metal jewellery to add authenticity.”

In India however, the colonial rule and the lack of patronage had destroyed the dignity of the art and the artists. There was a cultural renaissance with the likes of Vallathol, E. Krishna Iyer, Rukmini Devi and others in the 1930s reviving art forms and creating new platforms for their propagation. This too has been documented.

Ashish has followed in his father’s footsteps and is passionate about dance history. The duo has documented almost 150 years of the art form. “My father once said to me: The Universe gave me this role; now the Universe has found you!”

Ashish wants to find a place for the collection in a national museum. “The material will serve as reference points to scholars, dancers, critics. We are dance historians to the nation, but does the nation care?”

He is also concerned about gen-next. “Our identity comes from the classical arts. If we don’t involve our young generation, what will be left of Indianness? We are facing cultural illiteracy, not in Madras Presidency yet, but in the rest of India…”

Ashish signs off with a sigh, “We created the problem. We have made dance a decorative art, we have to undo it and make it mainstream by restoring it to the curriculum as ‘Heritage.’”


‘Attendance’ is a theme-based journal with in-depth articles by scholars along with a round-up of the year’s significant cultural events in the dance world in India and outside. Ashish declares that ‘Attendance’ is the only one of its kind in India! He gives awards to five up-and-coming natya artists every year.


From the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Mohan Khokar helped gurus from Koodiyattam, Chhau and Ottan Thullal to protect their art forms from extinction. Ashish’s mother was a well-known Bharatanatyam child prodigy, dancer and guru, who trained under the eminent nattuvanar Kattumannarkoil Muthukumara Pillai.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 12:10:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/ashish-mohan-khokar-inherited-his-fathers-dance-memorabilia/article8365638.ece

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