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Au revoir 2020, Welcome 2021

December 27, 2020

What a year! Whoever would've thought we will witness the most unusual and scary year, without even SEEING the enemy. Our parents had seen World Wars, their parents, perhaps the Spanish Flu; we living in North India faced the Partition and lost everything overnight (and still half my father's family survived and served India after independence, as Army doctors and COs) and my mother's side of the Kumbakonam-Kanchi family escaped (to Madanapalle) from Madras to avoid the possible bombing by the Japanese in WW2. I, growing up in Delhi, witnessed wars with Pakistan and China, but this 2020 INVISIBLE attack on the entire world was something evil, almost diabolical. Biological warfare has begun. All them American films on bio wars (there was a real bio attack in a Japan metro too, some years ago) now seem prophetic. The strangest part of the pandemic has been until now that all the scientists and medicos just mumbled inanities on TV, since none really knew what they were dealing with in the first place. One Delhi doctor, heading a prestigious national institution began every discourse with: So, we know this but we don't know that...As if, we already didn't know this and that. Now mutant ninja is here, from UK. 70% faster in transmission they say. Born in the USA (I learnt on KBC) but now the PM of UK, Boris - that man with a seemingly perpetual bad hair day - is slated to be the Chief Guest at our Republic Day, come Jan 26. Will he still come or comb India? More on this and that, later.

TNT to me means This and That, not the courier co. In the dance world (who in the world even bothered with it! Or was concerned, except for us, as participatory elements), a few valiant souls kept the spirits up. This portal for one! It functioned as always, seamlessly and quietly like a Rolls Royce engine, prrrr. Congrats to Anita and Lalitha. We had awarded the portal through the attenDance annual award long ago. Without them and this portal, we may not have got some relevant information or news of even who died where, when, how. Or who lived and how. This column is also a recap of the year that was, so reading some points you may get a sense of deja vu. That these have been made before but do re-read and register some.

Nationally, it was the year of diva, MP Sonal Mansingh, who kept at it, doing one event after the other. She proved to be a one person mission. Finally, it is her time and she has waited and worked long to reach this stage. A strong woman of spunk and substance, she is a veteran of many battles and bouquets. A towering personality, bit like Durga/Kali/Kamakhya she worships, much is expected from her by the art fraternity, especially the dance community.

In the South, it was academician-artiste par excellence Padma Subrahmanyam, who contributed significantly with talks, seminars, events. She is deep, refined and so sharp. Her whole family - father, mother, brothers - were illustrious. Now, nephew, his wife, grand niece and many students do her proud. She is a tall and much respected person in dance academia, besides being a great and complete artiste. Sahitya, Sangeeta, Shastra= Saraswati.

In the East, Didi is the biggest entertainer anyway and in the West - forget the SSR death or suicide, Rhea arrest and the like which dominated TV discourse all summer, till the Bihar elections came up - it was the elegantly understated guru Shama Bhate who provided consistent fare and food for the soul. She is the dark horse of Kathak. She is academic, artistic and accomplished. Her festivals and events, virtual ones too, are different and deep. Content she plans well. These three diyas shone in the dark pandemic days and kept the spirit of dance alive and going.

In modern dance, the loss of Astad was immense. He went as quietly as he came on the scene. Alkazi sahib many will miss. Kapila Vatsyayan cannot be summed up in few words, so I will wait for better times to put her life and times in perspective. Yog Sunder... read this portal for my ObiTribute.

STEM, that little plant of Maya Rao's daughter Madhu Nataraj, has grown into a tree in 25 years. It has carried on contributing to designing dance in its own way. It is not easy to keep a dance company going when there are few shows and no real funds. Fund-rich Attakkalari has tried hard to make an impact in the last decade, like most of our universities teaching dance.

Universities - Most of these showed that not one could put up anything meaningful in the last 9 months of the pandemic. Not one seminar, dance event or book of merit. Shame! What were they doing? Getting salaries for routine junk they dish out anyway. PhDs are mostly copied and substandard. Close them down, before they do more damage. They have failed miserably and collectively. Not one dancer of merit has come out of these universities, nationally. Nalanda Nrityalaya under Mumbai University has created some dancers who have won national and international acclaim. Private universities charge lots but have no real standing or faculty or content. Sad. With all their funding and fancy salaries, what's their contribution and output? Baroda tried to some extent and Pune. Rest? Rusting.

Culture Ministry needed someone dynamic, so first time in the history of independent India, it brought in a retired previous Secretary, Raghvendra Singh. He has a proven track record in Bengal, Berlin and now in the boardrooms of culture. He wears 3 others hats as CEO of new cultural spaces and museums; upcoming Museum on PMs and DG National Museum. He is quiet waters that run deep and handles many crisis, efficiently. His JS, Nirupama Kotru is the longest serving cultural bureaucrat in the ministry in recent years and the only continuity who works with Úlan and effectiveness. That Singh was brought back even in retirement is a first ever and it shows how much is riding on him.

Vishnu Kanojia
Vishnu Kanojia

Sad were indeed the losses of 2020. The obituary list just grew and grew; some because of Covid (see this portal itself). Those who succumbed to it were enough as big losses. Others whom Lucifer claimed this year were Iqbal Chand of Delhi music gharana, composer Nandu of Pune. IGNCA cultural archives' conservationist Vishnu Kanojia (he also helped restore old masks and artifacts in MKDC). Did any govt agency help dancers in times of Covid? Was any stipend paid to dancers in distress? How did non-metro dancers survive? Did anyone tabulate this? Did any MP raise this issue in Parliament (regular MP you voted for in your constituency, not nominated dancers like Sonal Mansingh, who did)?

Alarmel Valli
Alarmel Valli

As the year ends, what stays with us? Any memorable event? Yes, a few: Alarmel Valli, the benchmark of Bharatanatyam in her generation, dancing at the NCPA. It was a first -rate recording and presentation. Valli brings warmth to even a virtual, digital platform. Then, the Neemrana Heritage non-hotel hotels proved to be the only mai-bap or earning avenue to many needy dancers, giving them opportunity (and reasonable payment plus perks) to perform live stage shows, October onwards, for 6 months. Aman Nath, its founder and Chairman, himself learnt Kathak and Bharatanatyam at school, so has an affinity for dance. Neemrana Fort being an open-air venue lends itself to all occasions, including performances with all Covid protocols in place, today. Neemrana in fact gave some employment to artistes in difficult times. And then the most watched virtual event - a multi dimensional epic focus on the epics - was put together by Sonal Mansingh. It was unique as she took up different aspects and episodes and with different talents -poets, puppets, productions - brought out salient stories, some not too known. Like importance of Jambhavant. Or, Hanuman in near eastern Ramayana traditions. Ahalya, the real philosophical import. Sonal Mansingh was supported by many agencies like the ICCR, IGNCA and the Culture Ministry.

Gunjan Festival

After above 3 notables, add some regional flavours: Meera Das's well mounted festival in Odisha called Gunjan, now in its 24th year which was virtual this year, with crisp camera work and well conducted shows. Sujata Mohapatra is a first rate Odissi star of today, truly from the soil; Bangalore's Kala Nadam's 20th annual line-up was impressive and Kutty Kahani by Ananda Shankar Jayant of Hyderabad. Her students and budding child artistes got a chance to tell stories as only innocent children can, with big wide eyes full of innocence and enthusiasm. Well presented with comic cameos and illustrations by Gunjan Ashtaputre, a fine graphic artist. So 6 events we can think of as professional and meaningful, add 3 extra, any of your choice to be democratic and generous and inclusive; so, 9 in all. In 9 months, 9 memorable ones only in a country of a billion plus. Wow has a new meaning.

So much junk and drivel got put on the internet, that now it is a put off. Everyone has a YouTube channel. A show starts and immediately those emoticons on side start too - hearts, thumbs up and comments: "Ma'am, you are o-sum!" and "Sir, you shine like the sun." Hilarious. "Ma'am, are you singing so nicely?" This when star dancer Alarmel Valli was dancing at NCPA! Kalakshetra went on valiantly too keeping active and now showing its festival of bygone productions in December. NSD got a new chairman, actor Paresh Rawal, who is also an MP from Ahmedabad.

The only active pan-Indian govt. cultural institution that came up with regular activity on the internet - one almost every week - was the IGNCA of Delhi: Books, seminars, music meets, exhibitions, some dance and lots of historical stuff. Dean Dr. Gaur is a busy bee and the big boss of whole IGNCA, Dr. Joshi kept the pace of events and activities going, even in the worst of the pandemic. Hats off to him for providing leadership through IGNCA, which today is the only national, multi-dimensional cultural institution. It's a shining star of Culture Ministry.

Few dance related books were out in 2020. Sruti, primarily the south Indian performing arts magazine, resumed production, showing consistency, after a short break due to the pandemic. S. Janaki and Sukanya Shankar ran it smoothly in these difficult times. Books or Sruti type magazine subscriptions are best gifts dancers (and others) can give each other, at functions too, where wasteful trophies are given. What use are these mostly ugly mementoes? Each costs thousands too, not cheap. Books are averagely priced at Rs.500. Just like one family sized pizza. By gifting books, more books will also get written. Dancers complain of paucity of reading materials, especially students. In Kathak they are still referring to books written 40 years ago! Bad books at that and poorly produced. A good art book these days costs Rs.10 lakhs in production, if it is to be worthy and appealing. Which publisher will put that kind of money and then pay the author, designer and photographer? Especially if dancers or others don't buy. Everyone is reading books, some say. Facebook! By buying and gifting books dancers will also be supporting dance publications. Anyone literate and reading this in 2021 please pledge to buy books and in your functions, don't waste monies on shining, cheap shawls or dead flowers. No use the next day. Buy book instead and gift. They stay on shelf for long.


Five new books on dance in 2020 proved to be a feast. Generally there's one a year so 5 in a pandemic year was a feast. One was Amit Sarwal's on Australian pioneer dancer Louise Lightfoot who discovered Anand Shivaram. Second book was on Russian born painter Magda Nachman by Lina Bernstein reviewed earlier in this portal. 3rd came my way last month, titled Devadasi, which is a fictionalized story of British India in Madras. A well-crafted but difficult to wade through tale, as the prose was intelligent but jumpy. The nom de plume Maya Goray was too facetious to be believable but the canvass is poetic and construction, a landscape peopled by the past. Do buy this, just Rs. 399, published by Vitasta. Others released in 2020, I've already featured in the past except one on Adavus done by Gayatri Kesavan. Mohan Khokar's book also titled Adavus had been done for BharatiyaVidya Bhavan in mid 1980s. Sold out totally long ago, so a new book on the basic dance units of Bharatanatyam is welcome. I've yet to procure a copy of this version and see it, only then can I talk about it.

It is a cold December now, Xmas time, so it is gifting time too! Best reading time this year, as the pandemic has forced people home. Kindle an interest in the written word, eh? 'A Warm December' is a Sidney Poitier film of the 1970s vintage, where this actor beautifully depicted how he dealt with personal pandemic of ill health. 2020 taught us that at global level.

What's the take home? Are arts relevant in the darkest of hours? Do artistes matter? Does dance matter? The title of this column itself gets a new meaning as the year ends. Hope 2021 brings hope.

Ashish Mohan Khokar
Dance historian and critic of repute, author of 25 books, 4000 articles in mainstream media in last 40 years; editor of attenDance for last 20 years; creator of 85 modules for UGC e-pathshala, Ashish Mohan Khokar is also an ace arts administrator, museum designer, archivist, mentor and danceologist. Currently helping the IGNCA, Delhi organise MKDC and create India's first dance archives and museum in Delhi. Detailed bio on

I always read Ashish Khokar-ji's column "Dance Matters" on Narthaki without fail. It is like a guide to us. For instance, I have started beginners' course in Sanskrit from Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan after reading one of his columns about it. Learning this language is now like setting upon a journey. We students of dance can't thank him enough. His columns point us in the right direction in an ever-confusing world. May he continue to guide us.
- Nisha Chandwani, Mumbai (Jan 6, 2021)

I was recently introduced to Narthaki, after retiring from medicine and being able to spend all my energy on dance, the love of my heart. Your article hits the nail on the head and reflects the sentiments of all people all over the world. We don't know for sure, yet I am certain science will prevail and bring the dragon to its knees. Look forward to reading more of your writing.
- Rajam Ramamurthy MD, Arathi School of Indian Dance, San Antonio, TX  (Jan 2, 2021)

Wonderful read Ashishji, appreciate your dedication to the field of Art and also the humble knowledge you share about dancers, their achievements of the period.
- Prashanth Gopal Shastry (Dec 31, 2020)

I read your column dated 27th Dec'20 which had mentioned my late father's (Vishnu Kanojia) work and efforts. I cannot express in words our happiness after reading that short homage to him in the column. There is no other better way to honour my father. Apart from being an artist, he loved dance too and had learnt Kathak from Shovana Narayan. We were surprised to see his photo with the mask from the famous Mohan Khokar Dance Collection on which he had worked for the last 2 years. Reading his work being admired by his colleagues, shows us that goodwill always stays with the person. He always followed his passion whether it was for dance or painting. I am thankful to your team for giving Late Vishnu Kanojia a  beautiful spot in your column.
- Shilaka kanojia (Dec 28, 2020)

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