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Of Ministry, Maharaj, Milena, mutants and more

January 30, 2022

Just when we thought that the Chinese torture (Covid and its mutant ninjas) was behind us, collective foolishness caught up with us. Post Diwali-Dusshera gathering effects. Add weddings. Dance shows in halls, visits to malls; New Year parties and holiday makers - all above proved to be a sure recipe for disaster. Whatever sanity was left, left with oncoming elections. Did any party distribute free masks? Why not give it to each attendee? At least on TV, there'd be pretence of proper protocol, which all govts exhort public to follow.

In all this, many cancelled shows at the only platforms giving dancers some earnings like the Neemrana group in North or some sabhas of South, made things worse. Only green light was the Republic Day, where over 500 dancers got a chance to dance. As one of the main judges in South zone that sent over 100 dancers from 5 southern states to dance in Delhi (with a caveat that northern winter was a force most of them had not reckoned with), we set many dancing feet to celebrate the Republic Day. They would enjoy the pomp and show of such a massive parade. And not get lost in the streets or alleys of old Delhi.

Seeing the Republic Day in person in Delhi, on among the coldest days of the year, often wet too, was highlight of our childhood winters in Delhi. Anyone could go and sit on wooden benches, no security, a welcome janta atmosphere. I'm talking of the 70s. Fast forward to 2020s and we have a virtual world. And mounting security drills in last few decades so demanding, that most don't want to go sit and attend. So seeing on TV in comfort of a cosy home in Bangalore, one saw the royal purple coloured covering where central vista work is going on. Despite and in spite of so many setbacks, this govt put its best foot forward and rolled out a grand and dignified ceremony. Over and out in 2 hours. 10 to 12 noon.

Some aspects though looked pretty archaic. Those tableaux for one, which are now truly passe. Camel contingent for second. And girls on mobikes, third. What are they trying to prove? That was the Soviet era culture model, showing military might and cultural jhaankis (read, tableaux on tractors!). Those days we could see Assam rolling by with predictable Bihu dancers in mock movement or Punjab with farm or tubewell and a sardar dancing! At 75 of age, we need to do a modern updated version. Digital and world level. Not this patchy Adams show of the 1970s. Once Central Vista is ready then maybe one can unveil a new version. I have ideas I'm sending to the PM directly, since he is my MP two terms (Baroda), now our PM twice! A third term seems assured, as TINA factor too. I'm sending to him as he listens and loves new tech driven ideas. Dekho, achhe din ayenge!

In the Republic Day parade the best tableaux out of the 20 odd ones, were three: Air Force was number one; Culture ministry's on Sri Aurobindo number two and one on water, number 3. All three were well-mounted and professional looking. The Air Force one (under Commodore Sharma) showed woman fighter pilot. We learnt there are very few worldwide. Sri Aurobindo's 150 years was done by IGNCA for the Culture Ministry (Dr Joshi and Dr Gaur of IGNCA handled the project under guidance of Sect. Culture) and a cute water works by the Jal Board. Big blue droplets of water was a relief. Rest of the tableaux were totally forgettable and of no real artistic merit.

Artistic merit some 500 dancers had, who got lucky at the Republic Day parade, chosen by a national level competition called Vande Bharatam. For most coming to Delhi in cold January must be a big challenge that too in Omicron times. What dancers suffer for an opportunity?! Even if the opportunity means walking on road / Rajpath in Mohiniattam or Manipuri costume with black sports shoes! Not easy for Indian classical or folk forms to be danced in shoes but then reality is walking miles of parade in Delhi's single digit January winter and DANCING! Add daily rehearsals. Choreography looked jumbled up and on TV, it gave the impression of being hodge-podge and the same oversized peacock mannequin looked silly. I'm sure the commissioned choreographic team had a tough task doing anything in 5 minute dancing while walking! Stagecraft was commissioned to host zonal level selections, so many finalists got a chance to dance in Delhi in front of VVIP audiences, whole Cabinet and country watching.

Pt Birju Maharaj
Pt Birju Maharaj

The Maharaja of Kathak passed away on 17th Jan. Please read my obiTribute already published in India Today.

Nalini & Kamalini Asthana
Nalini & Kamalini Asthana

A guru who died unsung, was equal to Birju and good competition those days in 1960s was the late guru Krishna Kumar. He was a handsome looking Kathak artiste of the 60s and got short-changed in politics of Delhi. Lucknow vs. Benaras gharana fights. Finally his ace disciple Pt. Jitendra Maharaj's main disciples have got the Padma award this year. Nalini-Kamalini have worked hard over four decades to establish the Benaras school. Known as Delhi Sisters, they are very knowledgeable and kind to other artistes. Always helpful and inclusive. As chair of Kathak Kendra, the elder sister Kamalini also did well. The month ended with sad news of Milena Salvini dying in Paris. Once the artist/e goes, art remains.

Milena's life teaches us that. An Italian born on 23 April 1933, she migrated to France as a 4 year old and after lots of hardships learnt art. That too Indian! In 1960s India was as far as moon for most average foreigners. She came and stayed with us for a year in 1967 and became the first foreign student of my mother, Guru M.K. Saroja. Earlier she had learnt Kathakali too but those days very few women could do fully and survive as a single woman in communist Kerala, which was not entirely God's own! From that stay with us, she met many important star dance personalities like Ram Gopal and he exhorted her to start a centre for Indian dance and music in Paris. She did and invited Ram with his “grand-daughter” (my mother M.K. Saroja) to inaugurate. From 1970s, every year, guru Saroja went to perform in Europe courtesy Ram then Milena and teach. If Saroja-ma has more students abroad, it is for this contributory reason. It is held, M.K. Saroja helped internationalise Bharatanatyam teaching since 1970s thanks to Ram and Milena. Today over 100 students (and their students) flourish there, in 5 countries of Europe, France being number one followed by Germany, Switzerland, Italy, UK and Holland. Milena met Jaspal too in that stay with the Khokars (Yog Sunder and Mohan Khokar had brought him from Simla and got him a job at ITDC flagship Hotel Ashoka) and he helped her all her life with artistic support, including mounting a festival in Reunion islands. I can go on and on with stories and histories! For more on Milena, see my obiTribute.

February is time to think anew.
Then the ides of March are upon us.

Ashish Mohan Khokar
Khokar is a senior, seasoned dance commentator with 40 years solid work in art field as a pioneer arts administrator, archivist, critic, curator, author, academician and more. Detailed bio on

Life doesn't wait for anyone... soul comes and goes but their hard work, their love, their passion towards art stays forever... We have been losing many artists in this pandemic time but still we are bound to keep walking, keep going.
I pray to every soul that they all rest in peace and wish everyone to stand and keep spreading their art works.
- Sukanya Nayancy (Nancy Sahu) (Feb 2, 2022)

It is a sad time indeed losing so many stalwarts from the Art fraternity. I had met Milena when I had gone to Paris with my student Gayatri. We performed at the Mandapa. The minute we walked in, it felt like home, what with the sound of Indian classical dance emanating from there. We also had the opportunity to meet Vidya, a French national, student of M.K. Saroja, who teaches Bharatanatyam over there. It was while we were there that we came to understand that Saroja ji was one of the first artistes to have visited France. Miss you, Milena . May your soul rest in peace.
   - Anon (Feb 2, 2022)

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