Eminent dance scholar and critic Sunil Kothari, 87, passed away on Sunday morning in a private hospital in Delhi because of COVID-19 related complications. A Sangeet Natak Akademi fellow, Kothari blazed a new trail in documenting Indian classical dance forms.
Born in Kheda district of Gujarat, Kothari qualified as a Chartered Accountant and taught in Mumbai’s Sydenham College for a brief while before turning to dance studies. He completed his Ph.D. on the dance drama traditions of South India, and Natyashastra in 1977 from M.S. University, Baroda. He was awarded a D.Litt. by the Rabindra Bharti University for his research on dance sculptures in the medieval temples of north Gujarat.
Born with a photographic memory and an insatiable quest for knowledge, Kothari travelled to nooks and corners of the country to document both celebrated and lesser-known performers. Age didn’t stop him and he remained the quintessential Sunil bhai to a generation of exponents, always accessible, always encouraging.
Unlike many other critics, he never approached performances from an ivory tower. Instead, he was always keen to take a twirl with a dancer, try out a dance movement in a workshop, and punctuate an academic paper presentation with a brief demonstration himself. The fact that he spent hours training and learning Bharatanatyam from T.P. Kuppaiah Pillai, and Kathak from Pandit Badriprasad, gave him the confidence that many of his contemporaries lacked.
In the league of archivists and scholars like T.K. Govind Vidyarthi and Mohan Khokhar, Kothari researched and recorded the journey of Indian dance forms — how they took shape, blossomed, and survived the Colonial rule. With 20 odd books to his credit, as a dance historian, Kothari focused on anecdotal accounts.
The Padma Shri wrote extensively on Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Manipuri dance forms. He would meet the gurus, visit the monasteries, spend hours in temples, studying mudras and rhythmic patterns before putting pen to paper. His scholarly work, Sattriya: Classical Dance of Assam , helped in creating a better understanding of the dance form in the national and global circuit. His other notable contributions include New Directions in Indian Dance and Kuchipudi Indian Classical Dance Art . Also unforgettable are his lucid pieces, knitting past and present trends in dance forms, in leading newspapers, including The Hindu .
Kothari was instrumental in establishing the School of Arts and Aesthetics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and mentored many art scholars. Somebody who believed in nurturing relationships, Kothari was a globetrotter and seldom missed an event. “While documenting any art form, he inspired students to follow a ‘people-first’ approach to understand the artiste and their passion for the art first, emphasising that it will lead to a deeper understanding of their art form,” said arts writer Shrinkhla Sahai, a student of Kothari at JNU.
Veteran Kathak exponent Geetanjali Lal, a neighbour of Kothari in the Asian Games Village, said, “He devoted his entire life to dance. Even when he was on oxygen, he was sending messages to friends and artistes, promising to meet online. He was writing his memoirs.” The relationship between the dancer and a critic is often tenuous, but Ms. Lal said Kothari was different. “When we would see Sunil bhai in the audience, we were comfortable. He was always encouraging young and senior dancers. When he would come home, he would interact with me on the rhythmic patterns of Kathak and help my son Abhimanyu with Sanskrit translations, discuss the sanchari bhava , the raga , the tala ...always inquisitive to learn from the practitioners.”
He would often tell this journalist that he loved to spend the winter months in Chennai. “I can’t stand the harsh winter of Delhi and I can’t afford to miss the Margazhi,” he would say.
Ms. Lal said this winter was really harsh for him as he had been worried when the government asked artistes and scholars to vacate flats that were allotted to them last month. “Both of us figured in the list. He was anxious. He visited the Nirman Bhawan as well. What to do...?” she said.