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Enviable magnanimity
- V. Kaladharan

January 11, 2021

Hailing from Kerala, the southwest tip of the Indian sub-continent, my involvement in and understanding of the highly evolved traditional arts is mostly restricted to my homeland. Here the art critics have always been few and far between in comparison to scholars and literary critics. The cultural think-tanks in Kerala, with few exceptions, have invariably been language teachers who, as a tribe, are inherently hostile to the aesthetic quintessence of traditional performing arts. Hence I was not shocked when K. Sachitanandan, poet, scholar and former Secretary of the Sahitya Academy, New Delhi, called Kathakali, a 'frozen discourse' in the context of dissecting the art of Bertolt Brecht.

It is common wisdom that those who are destined to comment on the Indian performing arts shall inevitably watch live performances time and again even if they are not well-conversant with the craft and content of an art form concerned. The recently deceased Dr. Sunil Kothari was one who travelled the length and breadth of the country defying his age to watch avidly the recitals of the elder and younger generation of dancers. I saw him last at the Madras Music Academy during the dance festival after which we, although briefly, communicated through FB till he was diagnosed with Covid.

I first met Sunilji way back in 1982 (or 1983?). I was in charge of the Kerala Kalamandalam Kathakali Troupe that travelled to Calcutta at the invitation of Shyamanand Jalan for presenting lecture-demonstrations and Kathakali recitals for the Padatik Theatre Festival. Sunilji was at the railway station to receive the troupe. I was more than surprised watching him prostrating, right at the platform, before the stalwarts of Kathakali including Kalamandalam Gopi, the living legend. His respect towards and concern for our artistes moved me a lot. Frankly I never expected such a gesture from a north Indian towards the south Indians. I saw him in 1986 again at Calcutta when I accompanied Gopi who was to receive the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. Following the function, Chithra Visweswaran gave a scintillating recital which Sunilji praised unreservedly during an informal conversation he had with his friends soon after.

At least in the latter years of his life, Sunilji revelled in mandana vimarshana (constructive criticism). He might have found from his experience that khandana vimarshana (destructive criticism) does not yield much result. He was keen to infuse a positive spirit in the minds of each and every dancer, young and the middle-aged, by highlighting their strengths and ignoring their weaknesses. I have often pondered about the contradictions between us. While he was generous to the core, I am prejudiced. When it comes to appreciating art forms cutting across language and geography, he had been broad-minded. I am admittedly parochial. While he patiently sat and watched full length Kathakali recitals, I tend to become impatient looking at a Kathak recital after half an hour. Sunilji was a liberated soul who nurtured a catholicity of tastes while I am prisoner of a certain sensibility.

Two years ago, Sangeet Natak Akademi conducted a national Mohiniyattam festival in its campus in New Delhi under the stewardship of the noted dancer-scholar, Deepthi Omchery. During a pre-performance session, I raised a doubt on the relevance of 'shyness' which the Mohiniyattam dancers express unashamedly in a post-truth society. Sunilji along with Leela Venkataraman refuted me fiercely by citing the logic behind it. Sunilji later told me in a lighter tone. "In this context you sound a bit like Sadanand; true Malayalees". He had immeasurable admiration towards the avant garde dancer-choreographer Chandralekha. He quite often waxed eloquent on her creativity and intellect which of course, were indisputable. Once I casually intervened and told Sunilji, "I am a wee bit apprehensive of dancers from your home State. Since they don't have a classical dance heritage, they, probably out of resentment, are coming up with provocative ideas and items targeting indirectly and perhaps unwittingly my two most favourite dancers, Alarmel Valli and Malavika Sarukkai". Sunilji was lost in thought for a moment and then started laughing. He sensed my veiled criticism but summarily dismissed my views. But he was tolerant of heresy and appreciated humour and sarcasm whole-heartedly.

Pt Ravi Shankar, Manek Dalal & Sunil Kothari in London, 1973
(Photo courtesy: Sunil Kothari's archives)

Sunilji was probably the only dance historian and writer closely associated with almost all the luminaries in south Indian dance forms for over half a century. Astounding was his social network. He had exchanged pleasantries with poet laureate, Vallathol Narayana Menon, the founder of Kerala Kalamandalam and Guru Kunju Kurup, the unparalleled thespian, when the Kathakali Troupe visited Mumbai in 1957 for recording by the Films Division. To my limited knowledge, he had maintained an indefinable intimacy towards Kathakali and Bharatanatyam. From him I came to know about numerous unsung heroes and heroines in Indian performing arts. Although my acquaintance with Sunilji stretches to a little less than forty years, we didn't have very many chances to see each other and talk for hours on end. Yet I was somehow drawn towards his wit and wisdom. Sunilji's idiosyncrasies exuded a singular charm which I sorely miss.

Former Deputy Registrar of Kerala Kalamandalam, V Kaladharan is also an art critic. He has published several articles at the academic level. 'From Meditative Learning to Impersonal Pedagogy' was published in an anthology 'Qui Parley' initiated and released by scholars and writers from the University of California, Berkeley. His articles on Indian performing arts and literature regularly appear in magazines and journals, and in the Friday Page of The Hindu.

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